It was called the Masjid of Tucson, a mosque where Muslims could worship and study the Koran in the Arizona desert under the idiosyncratic tutelage of Rashad Khalifa, its founder. On Jan. 31, 1990, the mosque, at the intersection of Sixth and North Euclid, near the University of Arizona campus, became the scene of a murder investigation.
Khalifa was found near the kitchen that morning, stabbed to death. It appeared to investigators that whoever had killed him had also tried to set fire to the body in an effort to destroy evidence.
A Ph.D.-educated Egyptian-American, Khalifa had founded his masjid as part of a midlife revelation that he was a messenger of God. In practice and study, Khalifa’s teachings about the Koran were infused with science, modernity and, more than anything, numerology. The number 19, he taught, was “the miracle’s common denominator,” a code that unlocked the Koran, like a secure password.
Much of Islam teaches that the Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of God, but Khalifa added himself to the list, getting his message out through books, videos and a newsletter called Muslim Perspective.
His scholarship was curious to some and blasphemy to others. He began to receive threats against his life. Once he had been killed, conspiracy theories quickly circulated about who might have been responsible. Tucson investigators eventually came to focus on a local person of interest whose trail they soon lost.
It was not until 2006, when grant money from the Justice Department helped jump-start the city’s backlog of cold-case homicide investigations, that new DNA tests of bloodstains from the crime scene led to the arrest of a man named Glen Francis, who was then living in Canada.
As opening arguments in Francis’s murder trial began on Dec. 11 in Pima County Superior Court here, Sam Khalifa, the son of the victim, sat in the mostly empty gallery. He is 49 now and drives a cab here. But at one time, he was the starting shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates…
The Pirates drafted him in the first round in 1982 out of Tucson’s Sahuaro High School. By 1985, with Pittsburgh going through a series of shortstops, Khalifa replaced the injured Johnnie LeMaster in the starting lineup.
In the end, Khalifa played parts of three seasons in Pittsburgh, but by the 1989 season, he found himself being moved around the infield at the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate in Buffalo, plagued by the sense that the organization had given up hope that he would ever be its everyday shortstop.
One night during a trip, Khalifa missed a team bus and simply flew home. Five months later, his father was killed, upending his life further and dashing whatever thoughts he had of spring training with another team…
Over the next two decades, as the murder investigation went cold, Khalifa got a college degree, drove a cab, tried some sales jobs, tried to get over his anger. Then he went back to driving a cab.