The second trial for a man accused of murdering the daughter of a Hall of Fame football player in 1999 got underway in San Mateo County Superior Court today. Mohammed Haroon Ali, 36, is charged with killing his girlfriend Tracey Biletnikoff — the daughter of former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff — on Feb. 15, 1999 at a drug rehab facility in San Mateo.
Ali has admitted to strangling his girlfriend but claimed it was a crime of passion. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001 and sentenced to 64 years in prison. In 2009, an appellate court overturned the conviction stating that prosecutors had improperly dismissed at least one black juror, thus requiring a retrial. In a packed courtroom today, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said in his opening statement that Ali was a liar and a killer who threw Biletnikoff’s body down a ravine “like yesterday’s garbage” after strangling her twice, once with his hands and again with a T-shirt.
Wagstaffe held the black T-shirt before the jury box and showed the jury of nine men and three women the knot that Ali allegedly tied before squeezing it around Biletnikoff’s neck. Biletnikoff — then 20 years old with blond hair and a petite frame — had met Ali at the Project Ninety substance abuse treatment facility, where both went through rehab for drug addictions and worked as counselors.
Two days before the murder, Ali relapsed and went on a binge with friends in San Francisco and San Mateo, drinking alcohol and smoking cocaine rolled in cigarettes, Wagstaffe said. A day later, Ali told Biletnikoff that he had fallen off the wagon, and she insisted he come clean to fellow addicts and administrators at the recovery program, Wagstaffe said. Ali, an immigrant from Fiji, was already on probation for a 1995 conviction for kidnapping a former girlfriend at knifepoint, Wagstaffe said. Afraid that his relapse would result in a dirty drug test and threaten his immigration status, his job at Project Ninety, and send him to jail, Ali panicked and decided to flee, Wagstaffe said.
In an office at Project Ninety’s “Friendship Hall” in San Mateo, Ali tried to get Biletnikoff to give him the keys to her car so he could get out of town, while she insisted that he come clean no matter what the consequences, according to prosecutors. A fight ensued, and with more than 50 people in the building for sobriety meetings, Ali strangled Biletnikoff until she was unconscious, according to prosecutors. Fearing she was still alive, Ali rolled up a T-shirt, tied a knot in it, and strangled Biletnikoff to death, Wagstaffe said.
Defense attorney Peter Goldscheider called Wagstaffe’s opening statement a “one-sided, distorted, inaccurate account of the story.” Goldscheider said that prison psychiatrists diagnosed Ali with bipolar disorder, and that he was unable to understand his actions or control himself when the argument with Biletnikoff became physical. Goldscheider said that two days before the murder, Ali relapsed because he found out that an underage girl he was secretly dating had become pregnant with his child, and had an abortion. During their argument, Ali confessed the affair to Biletnikoff, who “struck out at” him in anger and blocked the office doorway when he tried to leave, Goldscheider said.
In the heat of the argument, Ali tried to pull Biletnikoff out of the doorway and strangled her when she fought him and refused, Goldscheider said. The defense and prosecution agreed on elements of what happened next. Ali dragged Biletnikoff’s body out a door of the office that led to an alley and put her into a van owned by the rehab facility. He then drove to a parking lot at Canada College in Redwood City and dumped the body down a ravine, where it was found a day later, half-dressed. Ali drove to Mexico in Biletnikoff’s car and made it across the border, but was arrested the following day trying to re-enter the U.S.
Goldscheider said that the defendant turned back out of guilt over killing Biletnikoff. “Everywhere he went he saw Tracey’s face,” Goldscheider said. Wagstaffe said the defendant turned back because he ran out of money and didn’t speak Spanish. The first prosecution witnesses took the stand this afternoon.
The trial is scheduled to last several weeks. Ali faces a possible life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder.
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