One of the most important and controversial characters in the complicated – some would say crumbling – criminal case in New York against erstwhile French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn is an illegal immigrant from Sierra Leone convicted on a drug charge and held in an Arizona detention center. Although police and prosecutors have kept the detainee’s identity secret, Newsweek/The Daily Beast has now identified the man as Amara Tarawally, 35, and yesterday spoke with him at length at the detention center where he is being held.
Calm and composed, of medium build with regular features, Tarawally was dressed in tan prison overalls and orange slippers. Neither he nor the maid had ever heard of Strauss-Kahn until the incident, Tarawally said during the interview. In fact, he said, it was the police who talked about what a powerful man he was. “I know that he [Strauss-Kahn] did what he did” to the maid, said Tarawally. She would never recover from it, he said, “She had no reason to lie.” But through the fog of Tarawally’s many dubious claims and denials emerges the picture of a man used to manipulating women for his own ends, perhaps to include the 32-year-old African immigrant chambermaid who accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault and attempted rape at the Manhattan Sofitel on May 14. Tarawally calls her his fiancée. There is no indication, however, that Tarawally or the maid had hatched a premeditated plot.
Tarawally himself was arrested in July 2010 along with another African, a Mexican, and a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, according to court records. Tarawally had produced almost $40,000 in cash to buy 114 pounds of marijuana from a man who turned out to be a police informant in Chandler, Arizona.
After a plea bargain, in which three felony charges were dropped and Tarawally copped to conspiracy to possess a large amount of cannabis, he served nine months in jail and was put on probation but immediately turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Tarawally is now behind the cinderblock walls and concertina-wire fences of a detention center in the desert town of Eloy, Arizona, awaiting a deportation decision.
It was partly because of the maid’s relationship with Tarawally that her credibility took a massive hit late last month and it looked for a while as if prosecutors might be forced to drop the case against Strauss-Kahn, who until recently led the International Monetary Fund. By the end of June, they had already found out that the maid had lied on her 2004 application for asylum in the United States and on tax forms claimed two children, instead of the one she actually has. They knew that tens of thousands of dollars from mysterious sources had been moved through the maid’s bank accounts. But some investigators saw the phone conversation that she had with Tarawally as the biggest disaster for their case.
The call, which took place on May 15, just a day after the alleged assault, was recorded by the detention center. That’s standard operating procedure. But it was in the dialect of the West African Fulani language and for weeks no translation was available. When, on June 29, prosecutors did get a text of the maid’s conversation with Tarawally, a “well-placed law enforcement official” told The New York Times, “She says words to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.” The next day, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. wrote to Strauss-Kahn’s defense attorneys informing them of some of the problems his office now had with the maid’s credibility. The day after that, Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest on his own recognizance. He’s not free to leave the United States, however, as prosecutors continue investigating.
The maid’s defenders say they believe the conversation was badly translated and taken out of context. Conceivably, a full version could bolster her testimony, if she describes the alleged assault to Tarawally in the same basic way she did to the police. But Kenneth Thompson, her attorney who is preparing a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn while also pushing prosecutors to go ahead with the criminal case, has not been able to get a hold of the transcript or the recording.
“On June 30, 2011, the prosecutors told me that they would allow the victim to listen to the tape, and practically every day since then, I have asked the prosecutors to make good on that promise,” Thompson told Newsweek/The Daily Beast. “But to date, they have refused to allow her to do so. And that is simply wrong.” If Tarawally confirms that the maid was distraught and telling a consistent story, that “is further evidence that Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her in the hotel room, and that Strauss-Kahn’s claim that the sexual encounter was consensual is preposterous,” said Thompson.
But Tarawally’s version of the phone conversation with the maid, as told to Newsweek/The Daily Beast in an interview room at the Eloy Detention Center on Tuesday afternoon, is itself full of contradictions.
Some questions he jumped at, such as testifying to the maid’s character; some questions, especially those about his own past and his associations with criminals, he refused to answer at all–or answered with flat denials.
Tarawally said he has telephoned the maid more than once since the Strauss-Kahn incident, the last time about two weeks ago. (Detainees are not allowed to receive calls, but they are permitted to make them.) Tarawally claims that the conversation in which the maid said words to the effect of “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing” actually took place after an NYPD detective visited him in Arizona. Tarawally said he told the maid she should tell her lawyer about the detective’s visit and she responded, “I know what I’m doing.” But the conversation about Strauss-Kahn that’s in question was supposed to have been logged the day after the encounter with him in the Sofitel, and before the NYPD even knew Tarawally existed. Investigators have said they uncovered Tarawally’s identity only after lengthy examination of the maid’s several phones and their records. Tarawally did not explain this discrepancy, nor would he say exactly how many times he has talked to the maid since the alleged attack.
Tarawally, whom drug investigators viewed as the money guy in the marijuana transaction, emphatically denies that he deposited money in the maid’s bank accounts. “Absolutely not true,” he said.
Tarawally said he first met the maid, who emigrated from Guinea to New York and applied for asylum in 2004, “six or seven years ago.” He described her as “a good lady, very honest,” and said she had no background scamming people and was not involved in the drug trade or money laundering. Tarawally adamantly denied that the maid was a part-time prostitute, as the New York Post alleged, it appears, on scant evidence, and insisted that she is a devout Muslim, as is he. “I tell her pray, pray, pray.” She has filed a libel suit against the paper.
Whether or not the maid fits that description, it appears Tarawally does like to impress his religious beliefs on devout women, and that he may have more than one fiancée at a time, as well as a wife, at least according to one woman.
Sonja Hill, a cosmetologist in Arizona trying to raise six children on her own, met Tarawally about four years ago when he was selling t-shirts and she wanted to buy some for a Christian charity. “We went to church together and to mosque together,” Hill told Newsweek/The Daily Beast in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. Tarawally and Hill finally moved in together about four months before he was arrested, she said, and she thought they would be married. “When I got involved with him, he knew I didn’t want to be hurt,” she said. “He got me an engagement ring.” Tarawally told Hill he had been married to a Puerto Rican woman and had a child in New York, but that he was getting a divorce. Then he said his wife had not signed the papers. She said he also told her his estranged wife had made mistakes on his immigration applications that prevented him from being in the country legally. Still, after Tarawally’s arrest, Hill sent a handwritten letter to authorities attesting to his character and pleading for his release.
“Amara came into my life when I wanted to give up,” wrote Hill. “I was living in a shelter with no job trying to raise my six children. Amara never once judge [sic] and immediately took the role of my children’s father. … What touch [sic] me the most is his love for God. He is very dedicated to his religious beliefs.”
But when Tarawally asked Hill for $17,000 because, he said, it would help keep him from being deported, “I said, ‘Why would you need so much?’” she remembers. “I guess he was trying to get money from me.” Finally she grew angry. “He wanted me to take a loan out on my car. … I helped and did a lot of stuff for him. I feel like I have been used. He took from my children and me, and I feel burned.”
Hill said she did not know about Tarawally’s relationship with the woman he describes as his fiancé, the maid at the Sofitel, until she was asked about it in the interview Tuesday. “I was so happy with him,” she said. “I am so shocked and I feel stupid.”
Tarawally refused to talk about Sonja Hill. Nor would he name his estranged Puerto Rican wife, the mother of his five-year-old son. But he seemed to harbor some pleasant memories of their days together in New York. He recalled his wife used to call him “CNN” because he learned English from watching his favorite cable news station. He also learned, he said, from watching “Deal or No Deal” and “The Price Is Right.”
Now, said Tarawally, he is just biding his time. “I never thought I would be in detention,” he said, then added, “God is always with us no matter where we are at.”
Additional reporting by Sam Register, Michael Cruz and John Solomon.