The Runaway

updated 08/08/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON JULY 6, NESIME DOKUR WAS worried about her sister Nihal—known as Nina. She hadn't answered her phone in three days, and Nesime knew that Nina's estranged husband, Mohammad, was supposed to pay her sister a visit over the July 4th weekend. Nina had filed for divorce from Mohammad in April, citing him with "acts of extreme cruelty." Mohammad was apparently hoping for a reconciliation.

Nesime left work early on the 6th and rushed to the modest two-bedroom apartment in Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J., which Nina shared with her two children, Lisa, 6, and Sami, 3. "Nothing in the apartment was out of order," she says. "At that point, I figured he kidnapped them, everyone."

Nesime, 48, called police to say she feared her sister had been abducted. But when detectives arrived and searched the premises they quickly found Nina—stuffed under her bed behind a mound of clothes, with a plastic bag over her head. She had been strangled to death several days earlier. The children had vanished.

Immediately, police issued a murder warrant for Mohammad Ismail Abequa. Fearing he had fled to his native Jordan with the children, authorities launched an international manhunt.

If Abequa had expected a sympathetic reception in Jordan, his timing couldn't have been worse. In two weeks, King Hussein was due in Washington to sign a historic peace accord with Israel and, after speaking with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, indicated he would not shield an accused killer. Two days later, Abequa was arrested by Jordanian police after traveling to Iraq. Now in prison near Amman facing murder charges—the U.S. has no extradition treaty with Jordan, and Abequa is likelier to be tried there than here—he could be sentenced to death if convicted. Yet the children remain with Abequa's Jordanian relatives, who have no intention of letting them return to the U.S. But Nesime Dokur is adamant. "They are two innocent children, and we just want them back," she told reporters tearfully during a news conference at the Jordanian embassy in Washington. "He murdered my sister."

Nina and her alleged killer first met eight years ago when Abequa, a newly arrived immigrant, was introduced to Nina Gussal by a mutual friend in Paterson, N.J. Relatives were hardly surprised when the two married several months later. "Nina wanted to have children," says Nesime, a dental hygiene assistant and an Army reservist. "They seemed in love, and we all thought he was charming." Still, Nina's mother, Meryem, was suspicious. "From the beginning," she says, "I thought he married her just to get his green card."

Whatever his motives, Abequa was illmatched culturally with the Westernized Nina, who worked as an insurance claims adjuster. Though born in Turkey, Nina at 6 had moved with her mother, her sister and a brother to Brisbane, Australia. A bright, bubbly child, she learned English quickly and soon became a family leader. "Even though I'm the older sister," says Nesime, "I always looked up to Nina. She was the confident one with the daring spirit. If she didn't know how to swim, it didn't matter. She would jump in the pool and learn."

Eventually, when Nina was 14, the family emigrated to the U.S., settling in Paterson. After high school, Nina spent four years in the Army in Germany as a military photographer, then worked her way through New Jersey's Montclair State College, where she earned a B.A. in geography in 1983.

Mohammad Abequa was not as worldly. Born into a family of eight children, he grew up in Jordan and joined the army there, working as an auto mechanic and rising to the rank of sergeant. Moving to the U.S. in 1985, he began the first of a string of low-paying car-repair jobs. His English remained rudimentary, and he never settled comfortably into marriage with a woman who was, as Nesime says, "determined to be an all-American mom with two gorgeous Sesame Street kids." Adds Nabilah Ramadan, Mohammad's third cousin and Nina's longtime friend: "From the third year of their marriage, he was abusive. She was always harassed, always afraid." And he made no secret of his views on women and marriage. On his last job, as a mechanic at a scrap-metal yard in Nashville, he complained to coworker Percy Bright that husbands could get away with wife beating in Jordan but not in the U.S. "He told me how they did women in Jordan," Bright says. "You know, women would mouth off, and they'd whup 'em. Nothing authorities could do about it. He'd have us laughing about it in the break room."

Before they separated in 1992, Nina had tried to keep up appearances of a normal marriage and seldom complained to friends or relatives. "We all had to put on a nice front if we wanted to see her and the kids," says Nesime. "So we pretended, even though we were afraid of him. Once I dropped my guard and argued with him and he almost hit me. But it was the kids he beat."

Colleen Leadbeater, 27, Nina's close friend and upstairs neighbor at the Parsippany-Troy Hills apartment complex where she was killed, says she also feared Abequa. "I would never let my kids go down there when he was home," says Leadbeater. "I just didn't trust him. He wouldn't speak to you. There was no eye contact." Only days before her death, Nina grimly predicted her own end. "Nina said she could be another Nicole Simpson," says Colleen. "She was very afraid."

Tragically, her apprehension was prophetic. After just two days in custody, Abequa confessed the killing to Jordanian authorities. Later, in a jailhouse interview with two reporters, he blamed his wife's "American" ways for her death. "My kids, I wanted to raise them as Muslim, out of alcohol, out of drugs," he said, then went on to describe how his wife had spurned him when he had come to her home to ask for a reconciliation. "She started calling me bad names," he said. "I lost my temper, I pushed her down. Without thinking, I put my hands around her neck, then she lost her life."

It's unlikely Abequa will be extradited. But according to New Jersey congressman Robert Torricelli, who cornered Hussein at a Washington luncheon last week, "the King told me returning the children would be the right thing to do." Meanwhile, Nesime Dokur waits for Nina's children. "She wanted them to do everything a normal American child would do," says Nesime. "Karate lessons, ballet classes, good schools, everything. That's why I have to get those children back. So I can follow in Nina's footsteps the way she wanted them raised."

RON ARIAS
PETER MEYER in Washington and P.V. VIVEKANAND in Jordan

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