FARGO — Federal hate crime laws hadn’t been on the books long when the Fargo-Moorhead community faced a possible race-related crime, a major case that spurred public demonstrations and donations.
It came on a Monday, early in the evening of Oct. 23, 1995, outside a Middle Eastern restaurant in a strip mall along 25th Street and 32nd Avenue South.
A woman, who appeared to have been bound and gagged, rushed out of the burning family business. She would tell police she’d been attacked by unknown assailants and that they’d carved a crude cross into her abdomen.
There had been several complaints of vandalism, threats and racist taunts — one involving juvenile boys — in the weeks leading up to the crime.
Word of the heinous acts spread quickly. The community galvanized against hate and in support of the family the next day, marching in the streets and donating money to help the restaurant rebuild.
If juveniles were involved in the attempted murder, they would automatically face adult charges under a new North Dakota law. Federal charges that carried tougher sentences for hate crimes were also in the mix.
But those possible scenarios never materialized. Instead, a shocking twist came 10 days after the fire.
The 38-year-old woman who’d rushed out of the restaurant that night was arrested by Fargo police, after they determined she likely had faked the attack.
The disbelief was palpable the next day.
The Forum headline of the story detailing the hoax read “Fargo fooled: Attack faked, Zhaleh Sarabakhsh arrested, jailed in Kabob House fire.”
A dream realized
Kabob House was at 3051 25th St. S.W. in the strip mall that today has a Family Fare grocery store as its anchor. The restaurant had opened 10 months prior, a longtime dream realized for Mort Sarabakhsh and his wife Stephanie.
Mort’s sister, Zhaleh, was also an important part of the business, developing flavors of the dishes from their native Iran and doing much of the cooking. Both had been in the U.S. for 20 years and were American citizens.
Mort was the director of North Dakota State University’s hotel, motel and restaurant management program at the time, so he didn’t have as much day-to-day involvement in the restaurant as his wife and sister.
They had built a core of faithful customers. Some who’d never tried Middle Eastern food patronized Kabob House out of curiosity and kept coming back.
On Sept. 27, 1995, Stephanie Sarabakhsh was leaving the restaurant at about 9:30 p.m. when she saw three boys in their mid-teens on bicycles and commented that they were out late.
They whirled around her car, taunting and harassing her.
The next day, the family found a swastika carved into the restaurant door and a letter filled with hateful comments and threats. The envelope also had a small doll with a rope around its neck.
Then in early October, the family received another envelope containing plastic ears and fingers and a note claiming their body parts would be in it next time. The letter writer also threatened to burn the restaurant.
Police were notified of all the incidents and were investigating.
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'Bad and evil never win'
A worker visiting a construction site next to Kabob House the evening of Oct. 23, 1995, spotted the flames at about 8:45. He asked mall neighbors to call 911 and returned to find Zhalah Sarabakhsh lying on the sidewalk.
She told police she had sent other employees home and stayed to clear the table of the last couple in the restaurant; she said the attackers came in through the rear door shortly after the couple left.
The gasoline-fueled fire was started in at least two places.
Zhaleh was taken to a hospital to be checked for injuries and released the next day. She told police she remembered nothing about the attack.
The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office were called in to assist Fargo police with the case.
Police Lt. Marv Huckle said the community wouldn’t tolerate these acts. “We have no control over thoughts, but when it turns to deeds, it's about as serious an incident as you can have," Huckle said at the time.
Mort Sarabakhsh was confident there would be justice in the case.
“Bad and evil never win. Those people will pay for it someday," he said at the time.
The Forum requested an interview with Mort Sarabakhsh for this story, which he politely declined, saying he wasn’t ready to revisit the events.
Marchers condemn the hate
More than 700 people gathered to march the day after the fire to condemn the attack and support the Sarabakhsh family. They carried signs through the cold October wind with messages, including “Ignorance is Brutal” and “Love Thy Neighbor.”
The crowds traversed the sidewalks from Centennial Elementary to Discovery Middle School and eventually, the burned out Kabob House.
A few days later, the crime claimed national attention on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. Mort and Stephanie Sarabakhsh talked about the incident with then-host Charles Gibson, who said the hate crime had brought out the best in the community.
This year, the community came together in similar fashion to support the Moorhead Fargo Islamic Center at 2215 12th Ave. S. in Moorhead. In late April, nearly 400 people showed up to clean up the mosque after someone spray-painted phrases such as “Death to Islam” and women “can’t vote.”
Benjamin Stewart Enderle, 22, of Moorhead pleaded guilty to felony harassment for vandalizing the mosque and was sentenced to community service that benefits a minority group. He told the court the vandalism was the “stupidest thing” he’d ever done.
Otoo Haarun, president of the mosque, said the vandalism had caused fear and paranoia among members, but that they had forgiven Enderle.
How the hoax came to light
Early on in the Kabob House hate crime investigation, things didn’t add up.
Zhaleh Sarabakhsh claimed she had been choked with a rope, yet there were no marks on her neck, police said. It also appeared she had taped her own ankles and mouth, then her wrists.
Investigators also determined she bought the gloves, tape and gas containers found at the scene, and the fake fingers and ears sent with an earlier threat.
On Nov. 2, 1995, police announced the incident was a hoax and arrested Zhaleh Sarabakhsh on charges of arson, endangering by fire and filing a false report. She was immediately taken to the State Hospital in Jamestown, N.D., for a psychiatric evaluation.
Mort Sarabakhsh was devastated by the news.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I can't pick up my head at all."
Police determined Zhaleh acted alone in planning and carrying out the hoax, and that Mort and his wife had no knowledge of it beforehand.
Months later, then-East Central District Judge Ralph Erickson found Zhaleh Sarabakhsh not guilty because she didn’t understand the harmful nature of her actions and therefore, lacked criminal responsibility. She was to undergo two years of treatment at the State Hospital.
Zhaleh was released from there after 10 months and moved to California, according to the last news story about her in The Forum.
Mort and Stephanie never reopened Kabob House, saying they needed time to heal.
Though the community likely felt hurt and betrayed by the hoax, John Helgeland, then-NDSU director of religion and history, put it in perspective.
"We still have enough racism to go around,” he said at the time.