Man tried for murder of ex-girlfriend's relatives

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of a man charged with the fiery slaughter of his ex-girlfriend's father and sister in what prosecutors say was an ill-conceived plot to win her back.

Iftekhar Murtaza could face the death penalty if convicted of the 2007 attack on his ex-girlfriend's family.

"It is a case about obsession, manipulation and complete and utter disregard for human lives," prosecutor Howard Gundy told the jury at the outset of an opening statement expected to take at least three hours.

Prosecutors contend Murtaza killed Shayona Dhanak's father and sister, assaulted her mother and burned the family's Orange County home after the college freshman broke up with him, citing religious differences between her devout Hindu family and his Muslim faith.

The case led investigators on a hunt for clues from the inferno at the Dhanaks' home to burning bodies in an Irvine park to an Arizona airport where Murtaza planned to take a flight to Bangladesh until he was arrested.

In March 2007, Dhanak broke up with the then-22-year-old Murtaza, claiming her family disapproved of the relationship because of religious differences. Murtaza, who lived in a Los Angeles suburb, thought if he got rid of the family she would reunite with him, according to prosecutors.

Murtaza was accused of enlisting a friend to try to hire a hitman to kill the family. But when Dhanak, who lived in a dorm while attending University of California, Irvine, was going to start dating someone else in May, Murtaza called another friend and offered him $30,000 to help carry out the killings, prosecutors said.

That night, the family's home in the upscale Anaheim Hills neighborhood was torched. Dhanak's mother, Leela, was found stabbed, beaten and unconscious in a neighbor's yard. Five hours later, the bodies of Dhanak's father, Jay, and 20-year-old sister Karishma were found stabbed and burning in a brush fire in a park less than 20 miles away in Irvine, prosecutors said.

Several days later, Murtaza was arrested at an airport in Phoenix with a ticket to Bangladesh.

Several attempts by The Associated Press to interview Murtaza's lawyers were not successful. In a 2007 jail interview, Murtaza told the Orange County Register he couldn't commit such a ruthless crime.

Murtaza is charged with two counts of murder with special circumstances of burglary, kidnapping and financial gain and multiple murders. He is also charged with attempted murder and conspiracy.

Prosecutors said Murtaza was aided in planning the murders by his friend, Vitaliy Krasnoperov, over detailed online chats. Murtaza eventually offered to pay childhood friend Charles Murphy Jr. for his assistance, prosecutors said.

Murphy was convicted of the murders last year in his third trial after one jury deadlocked and another was dismissed in a mistrial. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 25.

Krasnoperov was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.