On the rainy afternoon of Aug. 5, 2015, Dahlia Yehia stepped off a public bus in the center of Pokhara, Nepal, a resort town nestled on a lake at the foot of the western Himalayas. Pokhara is a popular starting point for treks to some of the planet’s highest peaks, including Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Machapuchare, revered as sacred in the Hindu faith. During mountaineering season — roughly October to April — tourists crowd Pokhara’s Lakeside Road, a mile-long strip of businesses offering guided pony tours, paragliding courses, and sightseeing flights.
Yehia, a slender 25-year-old Egyptian-American with dark, soulful eyes and a shy demeanor, couldn’t afford those kinds of outings. She was backpacking on a shoestring budget and hoping to relax for a few days before deciding on her next destination. She wasn’t carrying much: her bag, a few articles of clothing, some novels, a diary that doubled as a sketchbook, and an iPhone 5. She hadn’t bought a local SIM card, so Yehia had to rely on Wi-Fi to use her phone. Connectivity in the Himalayas was spotty, however, and she hadn’t contacted her friends or family for several days.
One of her first stops in Pokhara was an Internet café, where, through the message app Voxer, she sent a short note to Robert Klugerman, a close friend back in the United States whom Yehia had met in college. “Hey I’m back to civilization,” she wrote.
Klugerman heard from Yehia again a day later. She had found a place to stay and was hanging out in the Lakeside area. She had discovered a German bakery that made cinnamon rolls, an exotic treat in Nepal. “[I]t’s rainy season [and] there are no tourists so it’s really beautiful here and peaceful,” she wrote. “I think I will rest for a week or so.”
Illustration by Oksana Barak based on a photo courtesy of Find Dhalia.
Later that same day, Yehia texted Klugerman that a mysterious rash she’d had once before on her trip had returned. She sent a close-up photo of the red patch on her skin, along with a message: “Guess what’s back. Sigh.”
Then, Dahlia Yehia vanished without a trace.
The harrowing story of what happened — or didn’t happen — to Yehia has humble origins thousands of miles from the Himalayas. Yehia was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town of about 75,000 people midway between Chicago and Detroit. Her father, who worked in health care services, and mother, a doctor, were originally from Egypt. Friends say the couple expected Yehia would stay close to home and one day marry within their Islamic faith. (Both parents declined to be interviewed.)
Despite her cloistered childhood, Yehia was determined to go her own way. At Portage Central High School, she excelled at painting and drawing. She also became passionate about humanitarian issues. During her senior year, a representative from a charity called 4 OneWorld spoke about child soldiers in Uganda to one of her classes. Yehia was so moved, teacher Jason Frink recalls, that she created an art portfolio depicting child fighters, including a charcoal sketch of a hollow-eyed boy clutching a Kalashnikov rifle. 4 OneWorld used the image in promotional materials. “You felt like you were looking into the eyes of that child,” Frink says.
After high school, Yehia enrolled at Kalamazoo College and majored in art. She spent a semester abroad in Ecuador, where she explored the Galapagos Islands, hiked in the Andean foothills, and ruminated with friends about the future. “We liked to talk about how we would change the world,” says Katie Weeks, who roomed with Yehia all four years of college. “She wanted to continue to do her art and use it to make a difference.”
Yehia left Kalamazoo for good in early 2012, the year after she graduated. She found a job as an art instructor in Phoenix and drove 1,900 miles solo to get there. “[T]he longest I’d ever driven at one time was 6 hours, [and] I didn’t know anybody where I was going,” she wrote on a personal blog at the time. Yehia lived in her car and hung out in coffee shops before finding two roommates on Craigslist, but she didn’t stay in Phoenix long. At the end of the school year, she moved on. Teaching jobs followed at charter schools in Boston and in Austin, Texas. “She was a nomadic person,” Klugerman explains.
Work left Yehia unsatisfied. Many students had absent or drug-addicted parents, and she didn’t know how to assist them. “The kids would come and ask her for help, but there was little she could do,” Weeks says. “She bleeds for other people. She feels this kind of stuff really deep.” Yehia also complained that she wasn’t given a classroom some days and had to scrounge through garbage bins for art supplies.
In May 2015, after three years of teaching, Yehia announced she was taking a break. She had applied for master’s programs, other teaching jobs, and spots at art communes in the United States, but “she would keep traveling until she decided to stop or got accepted somewhere,” Klugerman says.
Yehia planned to explore Southeast Asia for a few months, using the small savings she had accumulated while teaching. She had already visited South America and spent some time in Egypt. Asia, though, was tabula rasa. After a brief visit to Michigan, Yehia boarded a flight to Thailand. She explored Bangkok, which she found hot and oppressive, and Chiang Mai, which she liked much more. At her next stop, Yehia decided that she wanted to put her idle hands to use by volunteering. So she set her sights on Nepal, then reeling from catastrophe.
On April 25, 2015, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, had ripped through the Kathmandu Valley and hundreds of remote villages. The quake and its aftershocks toppled more than 500,000 buildings, including ancient temples; 2.8 million people were left homeless and about 9,000 died. In the weeks that followed, while Chinese, Indian, and U.S. military helicopters flew rescue missions, ad hoc relief groups — financed by donors on Facebook, GoFundMe, and other websites — delivered food, medicine, and supplies to affected communities.
A stampede of Western visitors also poured into Nepal, drawn by earthquake recovery updates and the country’s Shangri-La mystique. Many of these well-intentioned volunteers were recently out of college and lacked experience in disaster relief, according to locals. NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, a Nepalese photographer who helped found the aid group Yellow House, describes one young man who refused to wear shoes. “He was going to these extremely rough places with landslides, and he insisted on wearing only flip-flops,” Kakshapati explains. “He said, ‘But the locals wear them.’ He probably slowed everybody else down.” In an article for Slate not long after the quake, humanitarian-aid veteran Jessica Alexander advised, “Don’t go to Nepal. You will cause more problems than you solve.”
Yehia, however, purchased a roughly $300 one-way plane ticket from Bangkok to Kathmandu, landing in mid-July. Peter Fröhlich, an Austrian backpacker also hoping to volunteer, met Yehia at a guesthouse near Kathmandu’s touristy Thamel district, where a bed could be had for $2 a night. Together, they contacted Lokendra Badu, a 31-year-old Nepali who they had learned through the travelers’ grapevine was running a relief effort. At the end of July, Badu sent them and another volunteer, a young woman from Hong Kong, to Muchchok, his home village in Nepal’s hard-hit Gorkha district.
The three volunteers, accompanied by a local guide, loaded boxes of school stationery and solar-powered lights into empty seats and onto the roof of a public bus. After exiting Kathmandu, the aging vehicle switch-backed through the Himalayan foothills. The road wound through a landscape of lush, terraced rice paddies before giving way to a rough dirt track that ended at a massive rockslide. On foot, the group carried their supplies up a steep path to Muchchok. Yehia, laden with a heavy pack, and the volunteer from Hong Kong fell behind, staggering into the village nearly two hours after the others. “Dahlia was so skinny and not strong,” Badu says.
The foreigners helped plant rice, taught school for a day, and distributed the solar lamps to children. “[We told them], ‘Now you don’t have an excuse for not doing your homework after dark,’” Yehia said in an iPhone audio message she recorded and later sent to Klugerman. “The kids probably hate us now, but it’s cool.”
Yet the romance of the trip quickly faded; the work was arduous, and the scene devastating. “You get there and it’s totally fucked up,” Fröhlich says, adding that the foreigners felt “like spectators at a disaster.” He and Yehia departed after just four days. They walked back down the footpath to the main road and boarded a bus to a nearby junction, where Fröhlich would head east to Kathmandu, Yehia in the opposite direction to Pokhara.
Before they parted, Yehia borrowed a stranger’s cell phone to call someone she hoped to stay with — a man she had met online. Yehia arranged to meet him later that afternoon, Fröhlich remembers hearing.
“All I know,” Fröhlich says, “is that he was ‘the Couchsurfing guy.’”
In 2000, American Casey Fenton decided to take a low-budget trip to Iceland. He emailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland, looking for a place to crash in Reykjavik, and received some 50 offers of free accommodations. Many people, he realized, would turn over their sofas or spare beds to strangers for the chance to rub shoulders with foreigners. In 2004, Fenton inaugurated Couchsurfing.com, a networking site where economy travelers could connect with willing hosts. Couchsurfing describes itself today as “a global community of 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities.”
Couchsurfing screens users through a voluntary review system. Guests describe whether hosts are hospitable, clean, and so on. By those metrics, Narayan Paudel was a standout in Pokhara. Paudel, now 32, joined the site in 2012 and racked up high marks among the dozen or so guests who reviewed him. He was featured in a Nepali Times article on Couchsurfing in 2014; beneath a photo of him grinning while seated on a bed in his apartment, Paudel said his top concern was making his guests feel comfortable. The newspaper quoted one Couchsurfing reviewer, Sofia Palma from Portugal, who wrote, “Narayan is one of the very few Nepali guys who I can say with 100% sure [sic] that I would trust my life.”
It was no surprise, then, that out of the roughly 600 Couchsurfing hosts in Pokhara, Yehia chose to stay with Paudel. (She had used the service before — in Thailand, for instance.) After arriving in town, she messaged Klugerman to say she’d found a male host, though she didn’t offer specifics. She “never mentioned the name of anyone she met” traveling, Klugerman explains. Yehia said she’d eaten dinner with the man and his girlfriend and that he was “super nice.”
That week, Klugerman was driving from Texas to New York to attend a wedding. He stopped in New Orleans, where he sent Yehia photos of a lamb dish he knew she would covet. “Humph, I’m getting the feeling that New Orleans was nothing special … which is good cuz you saved me a trip,” she replied sardonically. When he got to New York, he sent her pictures from the wedding.
When he didn’t hear back, Klugerman texted Yehia jokingly, “Hey, you still alive?” A few hours later, wondering if the time difference had kept her from replying, he wrote, “Did you wake up yet?”
After 24 hours, Klugerman figured Pokhara had been hit by a power failure and Yehia couldn’t get a message out. Or maybe she had gone to do more volunteer work. But why wouldn’t she have mentioned it?
When several days passed without a word, Klugerman’s puzzlement turned into fear. Perhaps she was sick or injured, or maybe she’d been kidnapped. On Aug. 18 he reached out to Couchsurfing’s support staff, but that proved a dead end. In correspondence shared by Klugerman, an employee identified as “Amelia” confirmed that Yehia hadn’t been active on the website for 12 days. The support team sent messages to other users whom Yehia was supposed to visit, to see if she’d arrived. “I will follow up with you if I hear anything,” Amelia wrote. “[I]f this is something that you are very worried about, you can follow up with the police directly, as they are empowered to take further actions.” (Couchsurfing International declined to comment for this article.)
Klugerman also reached out to Yehia’s parents to see what they knew — only to learn that they hadn’t heard from their daughter either. Around two weeks after Yehia slipped off the radar, her parents informed the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.
Klugerman, Weeks, and other friends began spreading the word that Yehia was missing. Klugerman designed fliers bearing photos of Yehia, made versions in both English and Nepali, and sent them to more than two dozen expat-heavy organizations in Kathmandu, hoping staff would pass the announcements around town and in the nearby hills. Then Klugerman and several friends blasted messages to hundreds of Couchsurfing hosts in Kathmandu and Pokhara, asking if anyone had been in contact with Yehia.
The barrage of queries bore fruit when Paudel messaged Klugerman toward the end of August. He wrote that he had seen Yehia off the morning of Aug. 7, the day after her final contact with Klugerman. She had mentioned the possibility of hitchhiking for a little while before returning to Kathmandu. Paudel had no idea what had happened to Yehia after that.
Klugerman notified the U.S. Embassy that the last person known to have seen Yehia was her Couchsurfing host. The embassy (which declined to comment for this story) sent officials to a four-story apartment building in Pokhara’s Simpani neighborhood, a jumble of concrete structures hugging a hillside overlooking the Seti River. Paudel was in the street, repairing his motorbike. He ushered the officials into his ground-floor apartment, an 8-by-14-foot room with one window facing the road. Scarcely bigger than a walk-in closet, the apartment had two twin beds set perpendicular to each other. They were so close that two people lying in them would have been able to hear each other breathe.
A paunchy, tall, pleasant-faced man who spoke good English, Paudel said Yehia had stayed with him for three days. He hadn’t seen her much, because he studied in the early morning — he was working toward a degree in sociology — and then taught English and science at a primary school. After the conversation, the consular officers left.
Meanwhile, wondering if Yehia’s iPhone contained clues to her whereabouts, her friends and family reached out to Apple. An emergency-support team explained that it might be possible to track her movements through her phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number, a unique, 15-digit code assigned to all cellular devices. Her family contacted U.S. Embassy officials with this information; the embassy, Klugerman says, obtained the IMEI code and passed it to the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), Nepal’s equivalent of the FBI. According to Nepalese police, the CIB then delivered the number to Nepal Telecom, which maintains a database of the country’s SIM cards.
When a call is made on a mobile phone, the nearest cell tower registers the IMEI and SIM numbers being used. Nepal Telecom’s records showed that someone had inserted a SIM card into Yehia’s phone and tried to make calls from Aug. 18-21 — long after Yehia went missing. The company was able to retrieve the identity of the SIM card’s owner based on information provided at the time of purchase, and it alerted the CIB to what it had found.
The card was registered to Paudel.
In 2011, Gizmodo published an article titled, “How to Couchsurf and Not Get Killed.” The piece, topped by a still from the horror flick Hostel, contained tips for self-preservation: Avoid posting “racy” photos online, feel out a host by meeting at a café ahead of time, and send contact information to someone who will notice if you disappear. “Fortunately, you can now crash on a person’s sofa using an online travel network,” the article noted. “Unfortunately, that person might be a batshit-crazy rapist.”
Despite its jesting tone, the piece was responding to real-life events. Two years prior, Abdelali Nachet, a 34-year-old Moroccan émigré in Leeds, England, had used Couchsurfing to lure a 29-year-old woman to his home. According to prosecutors, Nachet pushed her down on his bed, raped her twice, and forced her to take a bath to eliminate forensic evidence. Then he let her go, apparently believing she wouldn’t talk or that, if she did, he could argue the sex was consensual. Instead, after the victim went to police, Nachet was convicted of rape and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
That assault wasn’t an isolated incident. Dino Maglio, a former police officer in Padua, Italy, who used the nickname “Leonardo” on his Couchsurfing profile, opened his home to more than a dozen female travelers in 2013 and 2014, served them drugged tea or wine, and raped them, according to police. A 20-year-old American victim told journalists at the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, which collected statements from many of Maglio’s accusers, that she had stayed with him because, “I checked his profile. It was long and detailed.… It said he was a police officer. He looked like a nice guy.” Maglio was convicted in April 2015. (Other lodging sites aren’t immune to misuse: In October 2011, for instance, Pablo Cesar Cordoba Riascos, a 34-year-old Airbnb host, raped two women staying at his home in Barcelona, Spain. He’s now serving 11 years behind bars.)
Like most businesses in today’s sharing economy, Couchsurfing takes an enter-at-your-own-risk approach. It offers a verification process — for $20 per year — that confirms a user’s valid phone number or address, indicated by a green check mark on the person’s profile. Yet it also warns members in a disclaimer that it “has no responsibility or liability with respect to … any relations whatsoever between you and any other member.” Couchsurfing encourages users to report “anyone through our services who you feel is acting or has acted inappropriately.” It emphasizes, however, “[W]e are not obligated to take any action.”
In the United States, the legal heft of this sort of language is still being assessed. Last November, an article in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal described sharing websites as falling into a gray area between “purely passive message boards” and “direct service providers.” Taking advantage of this space, companies have managed to stave off most civil actions. An Illinois court held in 2009 that Craigslist is not legally responsible for users’ conduct, including soliciting sex, because the site is an “interactive computer service” that merely publishes information generated by outsider providers. In 2014, a California family sued Uber for wrongful death after one of the company’s drivers struck and killed their 6-year-old daughter. In court documents, Uber argued that it doesn’t provide a service; it only helps “riders to connect with … a range of independent transportation providers” and so cannot be held liable for drivers’ actions. (Uber settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.)
In some instances, companies have gone so far as to delay help from reaching people in distress. Last year, Jacob Lopez, a 19-year-old American tourist, rented a room in Madrid from an Airbnb host who allegedly held him captive and assaulted him. Lopez managed to text his mother in Massachusetts, and she called Airbnb, which wouldn’t release the host’s address or contact law enforcement. Lopez eventually escaped, after which an Airbnb representative acknowledged to Boston.com that “one incident is too many, and while no industry has a 100 percent safety record, that’s what we strive for.” The company has said it will ensure that its phone operators call police when they suspect a crime is in progress.
Similarly, during Maglio’s trial in 2015, Jennifer Billock, Couchsurfing’s CEO, told the Guardian that her company was “evolving our tools and processes to find and halt abusers of the system.” It isn’t clear what steps were taken, if any, before Yehia stayed with Paudel in Nepal seven months later. Couchsurfing declined to divulge Yehia’s data to family and friends, citing U.S. privacy law and company policy.
A relative (who wished not to be named or interviewed for this article) contacted Billock directly by email on Aug. 31. “The embassy reached out to CS but didn’t get much help,” the relative wrote. “I get the whole privacy thing but there has to be a way around it…. It shouldn’t be this hard when a life is at stake.”
On the morning of Sept. 2, 2015, two CIB agents knocked on Paudel’s door. He let them in and served them tea. They told him they knew about the iPhone. Paudel explained that Yehia had left it charging in a wall socket, and he hadn’t noticed it until she was gone. After a few days of not hearing from her, he had decided to keep it. A local shopkeeper had helped him put in a SIM card, but he hadn’t been able to break the phone’s security code.
Did he have the iPhone now? No, Paudel said, it had dropped through a hole in his pocket one day.
Unsatisfied by his answers, the police arrested Paudel for theft. In an interrogation room at Pokhara’s police headquarters, officers grilled him about possible foul play. Initially, Paudel stuck to his story. “He was not accepting all these things” he was being accused of, recalls Bhishma Humagain, a CIB inspector. “He was saying, ‘I just met Dahlia.… I don’t know where she went.’” The police gave him a polygraph test, which Humagain says Paudel failed. As they pressed him further, Paudel cracked.
“He told me,” Humagain says, “‘I threw her from the bridge.’”
Paudel allegedly told police that he and Yehia had gone walking along the Seti River after dark on Aug. 6. While crossing a suspension footbridge over the river, they had begun chasing each other playfully, and he accidentally had knocked her over the edge of the span. But the police found his story implausible. The bridge had guardrails and fencing, and it would take considerable effort to shove someone over. So the officers kept questioning Paudel. He was lying, they told him, and he had to admit what really happened.
After two days, says Ram Adhikari of the Pokhara police, Paudel confessed that Yehia had never made it out of his apartment — at least not alive.
On her second night staying with him, he had risen from his bed, crept up to Yehia while she slept, raised a hammer, and smashed her forehead twice. He then picked up a heavy wooden bar, used to lock his apartment door from the inside, and hit her three more times. Within a few minutes, Yehia was dead.
Police say Paudel admitted that he stuffed her corpse into a large burlap sack used for storing rice, tied it to the back of his motorbike, and rode a few hundred yards to a river overlook. He heaved the body, along with Yehia’s backpack, into what had become a swirling torrent at the height of Nepal’s monsoon season. Paudel also allegedly confessed to wiping down his walls and floor, cramming bloody bedsheets into a bag with the remainder of Yehia’s belongings, and dumping them with the murder weapons in brush along the riverbank. Police suspect that he kept the iPhone, a valuable item in Nepal, and discarded it only when the U.S. Embassy paid him a visit.
The day after the confession, police dogs obtained Yehia’s scent from Paudel’s apartment and followed it down a road to the Seti. In thick vegetation, the canines found a pair of black pants, a rope, and a bedcover that, according to police, Paudel acknowledged he had used to tie Yehia’s body to his motorbike. Farther down the road, they retrieved other items: a water bottle, a baseball cap, a blouse, and linens stained with what appeared to be blood.
As Paudel stood watching next to a police van, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered. Word spread that he had killed a young American woman. “He was ashamed, he bent his head, he covered his head with his jacket,” recalls Adhikari, who was at the scene. “These people were saying, ‘Burn him alive. Throw him into the river.’”
The next morning, as two officers escorted Paudel to a toilet, which required walking across the roof of the police station, he reportedly broke free, hurled himself off the edge of the building, and fell three stories. “He wanted to commit suicide,” Adhikari says. “[At first,] we were thinking, ‘It’s better to let him die here.’ But then we did everything we could [to save him].” The fall shattered Paudel’s left leg and tore a deep gash in his scalp. He was taken unconscious to a Pokhara hospital, where he remained for 40 days.
After his release, according to police, Paudel reiterated his guilt before a judge in a small chamber of Pokhara’s colonial-era courthouse. Surrounded by law enforcement, with only one distant relative present, he described in graphic detail how he had killed Yehia. He was charged with robbery, kidnapping, and murder and sent behind bars to await trial.
It seemed that might punctuate the end of the story. Questions about Yehia’s disappearance, however, were about to get more complicated.
Police hunted for forensic proof of a grisly homicide in Paudel’s apartment. Investigators searched for blood with infrared lights and a chemical spray that reacts with the iron in hemoglobin. Trace amounts were found and sent to the government’s forensic lab in Kathmandu, Humagain says. Police also used a raft and ropes to search the Seti for Yehia’s body.
In late September, they found a badly decomposed corpse. It belonged to a woman “between 25 and 27 years old,” according to Humagain. The body was sent off for analysis; Humagain says an initial “autopsy showed that there was an injury on the skull.”
What Paudel’s motive might have been became a matter of dispute. Adhikari says the suspect was building a house in the village where he grew up and “was burdened with debts.” Paudel had seen Yehia withdraw cash from an ATM and knew she had worked in earthquake relief; maybe he thought she was carrying aid funds, Adhikari conjectures.
Humagain suggests that Paudel may have sexually assaulted Yehia and killed her to cover up the crime. “I asked him this question, and he denied it,” the CIB inspector says. “But denying doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”
After interviewing Paudel, his family, and his neighbors, Humagain characterizes the suspect as “a quarreling man. When he doesn’t like anything, he reacts with anger.” Paudel was married once but got divorced. (Neither Paudel’s ex-wife nor his girlfriend at the time of Yehia’s disappearance could be reached for comment.) Humagain says that almost everyone in Paudel’s life deserted him after his arrest: “When he stayed in the hospital for 40 days alone, neither of his parents ever came there. Not once.”
Family members either couldn’t be reached for comment or declined to speak, except for Baburam Paudel, the distant relative — Narayan Paudel refers to him as an “uncle” — who attended the court hearing. A retired civil servant with a fringe of gray hair, Baburam Paudel says he initially thought his nephew might have killed Yehia because he has “psychological problems” and “a habit of not accepting criticisms.… [H]e would argue back, fight.” Baburam Paudel confirms that his nephew was under financial stress and also had been involved in domestic altercations with his ex-wife. “The police came to the house,” he says. “There was some slapping, some quarrels.”
Yet he ruled out Paudel’s guilt after visiting him in the hospital. He implored his nephew to tell the truth. “I told him, ‘If you have killed, in 10 or 15 years you can get out of jail and start a good life even after that,’” Baburam Paudel recalls. But instead of admitting to murder, his nephew proclaimed he had been “beaten, threatened, [and] tortured” into confessing.
Abusing suspects has long been standard procedure in Nepal. A 2006 report by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture stated that “[t]orture is systematically practiced by the police, armed police, and Royal Nepalese Army.” More recently, according to Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 annual report on Nepal, “Torture and other ill-treatment by police continued, particularly during pre-trial detention, to extract confessions and intimidate individuals.” Baburam Paudel is convinced that the police, anxious to find a suspect in the disappearance of an American, used and abused his nephew as a scapegoat.
A friend of Paudel’s also believes he is innocent. Casper Mayland, a Danish development consultant who traveled to Nepal in 2011 to conduct anthropology fieldwork, became “close” to Paudel over about six months in Pokhara. They were later in touch remotely up until Paudel’s arrest. “He was goofy, really friendly, a little chubby, full of life and happiness,” Mayland says. Once, Paudel tried to spend an entire month’s salary to throw Mayland a birthday party, but his friend refused the offer. “He’s not a poor guy scraping the bottom of society,” Mayland says. “He wouldn’t steal to get an iPhone.” Mayland suspects that Paudel was tortured.
Reached on Skype in Portugal, Sofia Palma, the young woman who once glowingly reviewed Paudel on Couchsurfing, describes her friend as “kind” and “not an extroverted person; he was calm.” Palma clarifies, however, that she never spent a night in Paudel’s apartment. She reviewed him based only on social interactions they had around Pokhara. “I was 20, naïve. I wrote it out of a sense of adventure,” she says. As to whether Paudel could have committed murder, “It makes no sense, according to the person I met,” Palma says. “But it was five years ago.”
Klugerman initially distrusted the police’s version of events because certain parts of the case didn’t seem to add up. Why did Paudel tell the police two versions of the crime? And was the prospect of stealing cash and an iPhone really enough for him to beat a defenseless woman to death in her sleep?
Yet other details made him suspicious of Paudel. The Couchsurfing host had expressed “little interest” in Yehia’s whereabouts in his initial email to Klugerman. Moreover, it seemed improbable that Yehia would have left her iPhone at the apartment. “In Nepal, the cell phone is your lifeline,” Klugerman says. Then, there were items of Yehia’s that police found in Paudel’s apartment: a copy of Fahrenheit 451 and a blank diary with a picture of a paintbrush on the cover, which Klugerman had helped Yehia pick out before her trip. (According to police, Yehia’s parents, who remained in Michigan, also saw photos of the clothes found by the river and identified them as probably belonging to their daughter.)
Most convincing, though, was Paudel himself. Over dinner one winter night in Kathmandu, where he was spending a few weeks following up on the investigation, Klugerman, a rangy, bearded 29-year-old, told me about visiting Paudel in jail. He was shaken by the suspect’s “insistence that none of what had happened was his fault. Even keeping the iPhone was … ‘normal.’”
“He claimed,” Klugerman added, “that Dahlia had brought this misfortune on him.”
In late February, I visited Paudel myself. The Pokhara prison compound is surrounded by barbed wire and contains white concrete buildings alongside a scruffy field where cows graze. Visitors talk to inmates in a courtyard through rusty, barred windows covered with chicken wire.
Paudel hobbled out of his cellblock on crutches; his leg was still in a cast. Wearing a blue warm-up jacket, black track pants, and sandals, he lowered himself onto a bench and began to talk.
He loved meeting people through Couchsurfing, Paudel said, and his time with Yehia was “nice.” They had talked each night about her days spent exploring Pokhara. Then, unprompted, Paudel told me, “But we never shared a bed. We had no sort of intercourse.” (Two policemen had been listening from a few yards away. Three more joined them, and the group inched closer to where Paudel and I sat.)
Paudel said he’d been horrified to learn of Yehia’s disappearance: “I was sad.… She was my friend.” When the police first questioned him, they were polite; that changed, he said, once they detained him. “They cuffed my hands behind me, locked my feet, they beat me,” Paudel claimed. “They said, ‘You need to tell the truth. Where is she?’ I said, ‘Dear sir, I am telling you the truth. If you think I am lying, then kill me. I cannot bear this punishment.’ They used electric shocks on my feet, hands, and neck. They kicked me in my penis.”
After a few hours, he wanted the pain to stop. “So I said, ‘I killed her,’” Paudel recalled. “I didn’t think I’d go to prison.” When the police refused to accept his first confession about pushing Yehia from the bridge, he told me that he “changed it into something they would believe.”
Paudel was earnest and articulate, with an answer for every question. The clothes and linens recovered by the river? A frame job by the cops. The possible bloodstains in his apartment? He knew nothing about them. The leap from the roof? The police had pushed him.
Prison is “hell,” Paudel said. If convicted at trial, which was ongoing at press time, “I will be ready to kill myself.” (According to police, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.)
When the police signaled the end of the interview, I stood and shook Paudel’s hand. Then, I asked him directly whether he had killed Yehia. A pained expression flashed across his face.
“Oh, my God. I could not have done that,” Paudel said, looking me in the eye. “She went her way. I went my way. I just hope that she will soon be with her parents and contact me. I just hope that God is protecting her.”
The truth, it seemed, was immersed in the stains from Paudel’s apartment and in the woman’s body recovered from the Seti. Nepalese police initially told me the FBI had the evidence in the United States; they didn’t know why an analysis was taking so long. The FBI, however, wrote in an email that it “cannot comment on an ongoing Nepalese investigation” and “any examination results would be provided by the Nepalese.” It also said the “FBI Laboratory does not identify remains” and “does not conduct blood stain pattern analysis.”
In a follow-up exchange, a Nepalese police representative clarified that the evidence is still in Kathmandu’s forensic lab. (Foreign donors gave some $850,000 two years ago for the government to install a state-of-the-art facility; its employees were trained in India and the United States.) He added that “for DNA verification Mothers [sic] DNA record was provided.” Klugerman confirms that Yehia’s family was asked to provide DNA samples — but only in March, more than six months after the investigation began. As for American involvement, the representative wrote that the Kathmandu lab was “also seeking cooperation from FBI … and response of FBI is excellent.”
Finally, in early May, police got word that the body found in the Seti was not Yehia’s. The news came as a surprise to officers who’d been convinced it was her. Additional results, though, seemed to confirm their suspicions: The blood evidence was a match.
The DNA and his confession could be enough to convict Paudel. If so, Yehia’s fate may place the sharing economy under renewed scrutiny. “The guy’s reviews were beyond glowing,” Klugerman says. “There’s not much more that you can really ask.” In an email sent after Paudel was arrested, Billock, Couchsurfing’s CEO, offered condolences to Klugerman, said her company was “in active communication” with U.S. authorities, and noted that “our engineering team is working … on a memorialized version of [Yehia’s] profile.”
As a matter of emotion, the DNA seems likely to deprive Yehia’s loved ones of closure. Meager bloodstains may be the last vestiges of her existence. With her body still missing, the young woman’s vanishing may remain painfully complete.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue ofFPmagazine under the title “The Vanishing.”
Update, July 6, 2016: In early July, after the publication of this story inthe July/August issue of FPmagazine, a court in Nepal convicted Narayan Paudel of murdering Dahlia Yehia, according to media reports. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Joshua Hammer is the author of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.
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