We see that you have javascript disabled. Please enable javascript and refresh the page to continue reading local news. If you feel you have received this message in error, please contact the customer support team at 1-833-248-7801.



Two decades ago, two headless bodies were found in a ditch near Rochester

Some aspects to the crime remain unsolved to this day.

A slide from an Olmsted County Sheriff's Office presentation recapping what is known about the victims and suspects shows images of the victims, Mary Zaman and her nephew, Mohammed Tahseen Taef. (Post Bulletin archive)
We are part of The Trust Project.

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A road maintenance worker found the two trash bags in a ditch near Rochester. It was Nov. 26, 1999, the day after Thanksgiving.

They were double-bagged and heavy. Assuming the bags were filled with garbage or deer hides, the worker was arranging for a Bobcat loader to move them.

That's when a child's hand poked out.

The bags contained bodies. One was a woman in her mid-30s, and the other was a boy, believed to be about 4 years old. Both had been decapitated.

The case would baffle Olmsted County authorities for months. And even when law enforcement discovered the identities of the headless corpses and the suspected murderer, they kept the information under wraps in the hope of luring the killer back to the U.S. from his home country.


Even the little that local law enforcement thought they knew at the outset proved, in a couple instances, to be wrong.

It was assumed that the bodies were mother and son. Indeed, they were buried under markers that read "Mother at rest in 2000" and "Son at rest in 2000." It was also thought that they were African-American. Both suppositions turned out to be false.

Early on, leaders in the Black community interpreted the lack of developments and news about the case as a sign that the case wasn't being pursued with sufficient vigor. They held rallies and press conferences that gave the case a national spotlight.

Investigators believed the woman and the boy had been dead for weeks when they were found.

According to media reports, the woman wore a gold ring on her left middle finger and had been physically fit. The fingernails of her left hand were covered in fresh lavender nail polish, but there was none on her right hand. It suggested to investigators that she may have been killed while doing her nails.

The boy's body was discovered clothed in shorts and a T-shirt. There were no signs of trauma from the necks down, suggesting that whatever killed them "happened above their shoulders," according to one Associated Press report.

Detectives were initially stymied in their investigation. Without heads, they couldn't look for dental records.
"If you can't identify the victims, you can't solve the crime," said then-Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt at the time.

There is a rule of thumb that guides detectives in murder investigations. The answer to most homicides can be found in your backyard. That insight led to the first big break.


They began looking at school records. And that's when the name of Asif Ahmed popped up.

The boy's parents had pulled him out of Gage Elementary School a few weeks after he began the first grade in September. When an investigator called the parents' home phone number, it was disconnected.

A call to the work number of the boy's parents rang to the Indian Garden restaurant. The owner told an investigator that Asif's parents used to work there -- the father, Iqbal Ahmed, was a manager, and the mother, Mary Zaman, was a waitress.

They had seemingly left town in a rush. They had cleared out in September without asking for their deposit, leaving behind all their belongings.

Mary had worked the lunch shift the day they reportedly left town, but didn't show up for the dinner shift. Iqbal called in and said he and his wife had fought and she had left for New York. He was leaving to go find her. A restaurant manager said he checked the family's apartment and found it empty.

Based on Iqbal's bank and medical records, investigators were able to piece together the cold, methodical manner in which Iqbal had carried out the murders.

Sometime before the crime, in September, he had bought an ax and 12 extra-heavy-duty contractor's garbage bags. He had also bought tickets from Minneapolis to New York and, later, tickets from New York to Bangladesh. He had bought a ticket for a child, too.

Iqbal was eventually charged with second-degree murder for the killings of his wife and son, but the charge was sealed. Detectives hoped that Iqbal could be lured back from Bangladesh.


But that wasn't the end of the unexpected developments that this case would produce.

In December 2000, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents detained a man, Mohammed Tareq, who had arrived on a flight in New York. Tareq said he was looking for his wife and son. Tareq was Mary's brother-in-law. His wife, Sophia, had lived with her sister Mary in Rochester. Sophia had disappeared the same time that Mary and the boy had.

That same month, an FBI agent based in New Dehli caught up with Iqbal in Bangladesh. He allowed his son to provide a DNA sample. It proved that Asif, the boy who had been pulled out of Gage elementary school, was alive.

Subsequent DNA tests proved that woman in the ditch was his mother, Mary Zaman, and the boy was Taef, the son of Mohammed and Sophia Tareq.

"(Investigators figure) that the motive for Mary's killing may have been jealousy: Iqbal believed that his wife was having an affair," said an AP report. "The boy and Sophia might have simply gotten in the way. But there's no way to know."

In September 2010, the investigators concluded that, 11 years after being charged with murder, Iqbal was dead. He was sentenced in 2005 to life in prison for two unrelated murders. The active investigation into the crime was over.

The body of Sophia Tareq has never been found.

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
What to read next
Built deep within a wooded area on the outskirts of Duluth, the topography of the area was thought to be optimal for housing — and hiding away — patients who had contracted tuberculosis.