In May, a physician much beloved in his Pennsylvania community, a cheerful, gentle and charitable man, was murdered while traveling on a highway. The story is both sad and horrific to most people. To this mystery writer, it’s also troubling.
Dr. Gulam Moonda, age 69, had set out with his wife of 15 years, the former Donna Smouse, age 46, and her mother to visit his nephew, Faroq Moonda, a promising young man whom Dr. Moonda had invited from his native India to come to the US and live in Dr. Moonda’s home. Although the doctor had treated Faroq as a surrogate son (he had no children of his own) the young man insisted on paying his own way through medical school to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. In May, upon finishing his studies, Farroq--and his new wife, who is also a physician--invited Dr. Moonda to their new community in Ohio to look at a house they were thinking of buying. Dr. Moonda gladly agreed to go, pleased, he told a colleague, to see his nephew happy in his new marriage and career.
To visit the younger couple, Dr. Moonda’s wife Donna drove the family car, a gold Jaguar. Mrs. Moonda—a blond, former high school cheerleader (she is often characterized as “bubbly,” in newspapers) began her career as a receptionist in another physician’s office but later became a nurse anesthetist, her education generously funded by Dr. Moonda.
On the trip, Mrs. Moonda reported that her husband asked to stop at a convenience store to buy a bottle of water. During the transaction, she says, the doctor may have inadvertently flashed a large wad of cash. About six miles later--around 6:30pm, still daylight--and just two miles beyond a busy rest area on the Ohio Turnpike, Mrs. Moonda pulled over and asked her husband to take the wheel. As he exited the car to comply, another vehicle pulled up behind the Jaguar. The other driver approached the doctor and demanded his wallet. The doctor obeyed at once. Although he had received the money, the thief shot Dr. Moonda in the face and fled in a dark van. Mrs. Moonda, hysterical, did not have sufficient composure to note the gunman’s appearance or to record his license number. She telephoned police, and state troopers arrived shortly, although too late to help Dr. Moonda.
About half an hour later, Faroq and his wife, who had been traveling the same stretch of highway, came upon the scene of the crime, recognized the Jaguar and stopped. They learned Dr. Moonda had died of his gunshot wound.
The police almost immediately suspected a more complicated story than was told. Why had the thief bothered to shoot Dr. Moonda when the wallet was already turned over? Why had the two witnesses been spared? Why did the convenience store not have video of the doctor buying the bottle of water? As time went on, other questions arose.
Dr. Moonda has been described as a man who enjoyed his wealth, and newspapers often characterize him as a “millionaire doctor.” His home has been described as a “mansion,” although the house would not be considered grand in communities more affluent than the modest one in which he lived and worked. Dr. Moonda gave generously to the mosque where he worshipped, funded a chair in Islamic studies at a nearby college, and gave money to help friends and family in this country and India. His estate is said to be worth about $6 million.
As they investigated the doctor’s death, police soon discovered Mrs. Moonda had recently pleaded no contest to a charge that she—while working as a nurse anesthetist at local hospital—had stolen quantities of the painkiller fentanyl, which she took home for her own use. She admitted, in fact, to being an addict. She was placed on probation and required to attend a two-month rehabilitation program at a clinic an hour’s drive from her home.
While in rehab—just a month before her husband’s death--Mrs. Moonda began a relationship with Damian Bradford, age 23, a self-described cocaine dealer also enrolled in the rehab program.
After Dr. Moonda’s murder, the police tracked down Bradford and found him living near the rehab facility in an apartment with a lease that listed Mrs. Moonda as a cohabitant. In that apartment, police found gifts from Mrs. Moonda to Bradford, along with six cell phones, a number of syringes, vials of injectable testosterone, bloody towels, and a t-shirt and sweat pants spattered in blood.
The police call Bradford “a person of interest” in the murder of Dr. Moonda. He has been arrested and jailed for parole violations and on drug possession charges. Mrs. Moonda remains free. She has hired a respected trial lawyer from Cleveland and no longer speaks to the press. Various DNA tests are underway.
Just last week, on August 1, a hiker found Dr. Moonda’s wallet 7 miles from the scene of his shooting. Police have not disclosed the contents of the wallet, but report that highway workers recently found other personal items a few miles from the crime scene.
One of Dr. Moonda’s colleagues, Dr. Mohammed Rashid, has been quoted as saying of Moonda, “As a human being, he was the best you could find.”
Faroq Moonda and his wife are said to be devastated.
As fiction writers, we can spin a story that’s every bit as horrific as what happened to the Moonda family. I am sitting down this week, in fact, to create an outline for a new mystery I plan to write over the next nine months. As I work, I often find myself thinking about the Moondas.
In the light of their real pain and loss, it seems…what? Ghoulish? Cheap? Mercenary? to create a fictional murder with a villain horrible enough to kill, yet entertaining enough to sell books. And gee, wouldn’t it be nice to come up with a shocking story “good enough” for TV or a movie?
It’s not enough, is it, to simply tell a story from the point of view a clever—perhaps even wise-cracking--detective who solves a murder case? It’s not enough to indulge in armchair psychology to dream up a bad guy capable of killing another human being. Do you conduct careful forensics homework? Get your police procedure correct? Weapons facts right? Of course you do. But that still doesn't feel like enough, does it? It’s not even enough to create characters so convincing that we trigger real emotion in a reader when we bump them off.
It’s not enough until we find some further meaning in the events, the people and their motivations.
In reality, we can hear a story like the Moonda’s and say, “Sad, huh? Let’s hope the bad guys are punished.”
In fiction, however, we must make such a story more meaningful. That’s our writer’s challenge. Yes, we build a world, characters and narrative momentum to thoroughly engage our readers, but there must be something else hidden in our pages. Perhaps in the mystery genre—morality-based fiction to begin with—our task is a little easier than other kinds of books, but we are writing in an era when discerning readers demand something more than a simple resolution in which good guys triumph over evil. It’s up to us to enrich our stories with the kind of significance and closure real life often lacks.
Perhaps that’s part of the definition of a “satisfying read.” If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about and you probably struggle with the challenge, too. Perhaps, as I am doing right now in planning my next book, you search carefully for the metaphor that will best communicate your themes as the events of your story unfold. You must conjure a controlling idea that binds your tale together. You hope your protagonist’s journey will leave your reader thinking about what your story means long after the book is closed. As I am still trying to find a purpose to Dr. Moonda’s death.
If you’re not a writer, maybe you’re still interested enough to learn more about Dr. Gulam Moonda. I think he was an admirable man.
Check out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which provided the photos for this blog. https://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05156/516097.stm