National Post

Page URL:

Saturday, October 02, 1999

Marriages paved way to prosperity
The story of Nadia Hama, the woman who dropped her baby off a B.C. bridge, is part fairy tale, part pulp fiction
Mark Hume in Vancouver and Stewart Bell
National Post; with files from Campbell Clark in Montreal

Nadia Hama and her now-estranged husband number five, Kjeld Werbes, after their Las Vegas nuptials.

Nadia Hama was born into the grim reality of a refugee camp, but through a quick succession of marriages she rose to a life of wealth and comfort in Canada.

All that came crashing down around her last week when she did something unthinkable. Standing next to the safety fence that separates tourists from a staggering drop on the Capilano Suspension Bridge, she somehow let go of her 17-month-old baby --and watched as it fell to a rocky ledge 47 metres below.

Witnesses recall her five-year-old son, Jovan, shouting, "My sister, my sister." They remember Ms. Hama "going berserk" -- and then the stone-cold expression on her face when she learned her daughter, Kaya, who has Down's syndrome, had miraculously survived.

Tracing the trajectory of Ms. Hama's life from the depths of poverty to the dizzying heights of that bridge, one is struck by the emotional turmoil in her life. There have been five failed marriages in 15 years. Love, it seems, has a short shelf life where she is concerned.

The strikingly attractive woman with a fierce gaze, a fiery temper and an exotic taste for belly dancing had nothing when she was born to Izzeddin Hama and Najieh Shaban, well-educated Palestinians who were then living in a refugee camp near Damascus. A year later her sister, Rima, was born.

By 1982, Nadia Hama was living in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, sharing an apartment with her mother, sister and two brothers. Her father had died. One night in a bar, she met Michel Julien, a freelance interpreter from Quebec on holiday. She was 20 -- and he fell for her.

"They seemed to be a close-knit family," said Mr. Julien. "Her brothers were supporting ... the sisters and the mother." He said they were a middle-class family, not poor, but not wealthy either. "If she had money, I never saw any of it."

He returned to Canada to sort out her immigration, but they kept in touch with letters and phone calls. They were married in Ottawa in 1985. None of her family came over for the wedding. "Probably, they disagreed with her marrying a Christian," Mr. Julien said.

The relationship quickly soured. "Sometimes we were supposed to go out and she would cancel and go out on her own and tell me she was with a girlfriend, but she didn't have that many girlfriends so I got suspicious," he said.

They were separated after six months. Mr. Julien said she had met another man while working at the Arab League, a diplomatic mission in Ottawa. "I figured afterward mostly what she wanted to do was to get her papers to get into the country," said Mr. Julien.

He said his wife could be "hysterical" at times, but he saw past it in the early days of their short marriage. "What else can I say? She was a good belly dancer. She was a beautiful woman, you know, and I really loved her."

In the uncontested divorce, he accused her of adultery.

Ali Besbes, her friend at the Arab League, was shocked when he learned Ms. Hama was under investigation by the RCMP. "She is not that kind of person. When she was with us, she was a very nice person from a high family." Mr. Besbes said she worked for the league as a secretary.

"You could trust her and she did a really good job."

He said she was married to a doctor from the Middle East who was studying in Vermont, but did not recall his name.

That was husband number two -- or three. Mr. Besbes said there was another former husband somewhere, a Lebanese-Canadian doctor, but he did not know the details.

By 1987, Ms. Hama was living in Vancouver, working as a clerk at Video Gallery, on West Broadway. The business, which has since closed, was owned by Majid Behjati -- who, in 1988, became husband number four.

A year later, Ms. Hama was re-united in Vancouver with her sister, Rima, who married Hamid Behjati. (The relationship between the Behjatis is not clear.) The sisters both had a penchant for short marriages. Rima and Hamid split within a few years -- and Nadia Hama soon had a new man in her life: Kjeld Werbes.

By 1990, Nadia Hama had separated from Majid, getting, in the process, the family home on Vancouver's West Side, which she sold for $341,000.

The divorce was difficult. She got a restraining order to stop him "from contacting or harassing" her; he got a court order to make her return property removed from the premises.

Majid Behjati, a businessman, who now lives in a $640,000 home in Vancouver, did not answer phone calls, and when approached by a reporter, jumped in his car and sped away.

While Nadia's marriage was breaking up, Rima gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Sasha, on Christmas Eve, 1989. Three months later, Sasha became seriously ill with lead poisoning. Nadia doggedly pursued a lawsuit on behalf of her niece, winning a $60,000 judgment against a store that sold the Behjatis an Iranian tea urn that leached lead when used to prepare baby formula.

Nadia Hama's divorce from Majid was final in 1991 and she was living in a West Vancouver apartment, working as a hair stylist. She became involved with Mr. Werbes, a wealthy securities lawyer who was married, with one child.

Mr. Werbes, whose current worth is about $2.5-million, had what he described as a "social relationship" with her. But it was a passionate and complicated one.

That year, he took her to court, seeking the return of $22,000 he had loaned her for a black BMW. He said she "was anxious to purchase the automobile," according to court documents, and he gave her the money for a week, while she took out a bank loan. He had already given her $12,000 for "expenses," but she wanted more.

Mr. Werbes went to court after Nadia told him she was selling the car and "going to Syria for at least one month and maybe longer ... she further informed me that given our relationship, I should have purchased the automobile for her as a gift," the documents show. He got a court order blocking the sale. They worked out their differences -- and the relationship intensified.

Mr. Werbes, who mostly works with oil and gas companies trading on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, had a home in North Vancouver, a condo in Whistler, another in downtown Vancouver, a 30-foot boat, several cars and shares in numerous companies.

He was known by stock traders for his dapper dress and polite manners, but his business was more turbulent than it seemed on the surface. His resource companies were subject to wild market fluctuations and he was falling behind on income tax payments.

His law firm, Sikula Werbes, Sasges, was sued by Jian Tao Lu -- a government employee of the People's Republic of China, who claimed in 1994 that $136,000 held in trust had been negligently released to a VSE company then suspended from trading. Mr. Werbes, a partner in the firm, was also named in the suit, which is ongoing. His company was also named in a case brought by a Swiss bank, Overland Banking, which was seeking to recover $1.2-million Swiss francs ($1,196,000) that had, allegedly, been "wrongfully" loaned by an employee of the bank to Patrick Dean Cole, Mr. Werbes' colleague. The suit is still before the courts.

All of that was minor, perhaps, compared with the marital problems that were facing Mr. Werbes. In 1994, Ms. Hama gave birth to a boy, Jovan, fathered out of wedlock by Mr. Werbes. DNA tests determined he was the father; he had disputed his paternity. Seven months later, Mr. Werbes was divorced from his wife of 20 years, Carrie Louise -- who took the house, stocks, a truck and cash.

In November, 1996, Mr. Werbes, now 53, and Ms. Hama, now 37, were wed in the Treasure Island Chapel at the Mirage casino, Las Vegas. "There are places that harbour hidden pleasures. We just happen to have the map," boasts the Mirage, where Dan Newburn, the minister, marries people on short notice.

"Treasure Island is one of the classier places in Las Vegas," said Mr. Newburn, who has performed about 10,000 marriages. "It's kind of pastel in colour, kind of golds and light pinks and so forth, so it's very pretty."

Although it was her fifth time at the altar, Ms. Hama wore a white dress. He wore black. After the service, they posed for the hotel photographer on the chapel's laurel-patterned carpet, holding hands.

They appeared a happy couple, but Mr. Werbes was a realist. The night before they left for Las Vegas, he signed a pre-nuptial contract and got her to promise to do the same, just in case they did not live happily ever after.

When they got back from Vegas, he asked her in the shower if she had signed. She said she had, and the papers were in the dinette.

"He says that he examined the agreements, confirmed they were signed, and left them there," court records state. But later, when he went looking for the documents, he could not find them.

Fourteen months after the Las Vegas wedding, the relationship was finished. She was left in their $450,000 condo -- six months pregnant with their second child. Soon they were embroiled in a messy divorce. Arguing that his $450,000 annual income had dropped dramatically, "due to the poor showing on the stock market," he fought bitterly in court with her over support payments, a $65,000 Ferrari, and the Whistler condo.

Noted a judge: "She has responsibility for their two children and yet has had to 'fight' every step of the way ... The consequences of not receiving what she was entitled to and the constant appearances in court have been financially and emotionally draining."

While she was battling in court, Ms. Hama was also trying to deal with the shock of giving birth to a daughter seriously affected by Down's syndrome. According to police documents, she "was traumatized by the birth" of a baby with motor skills so seriously underdeveloped that at 17 months she could not "walk, stand, or crawl." Police state Ms. Hama made enquiries, via e-mail, about giving the child up for adoption.

In divorce proceedings, details were negotiated over the father's visiting rights to their son -- but nothing was said about Kaya. It was during this period of stress that the provincial government withdrew a special worker who had been helping to care for Kaya.

The situation got worse. On the afternoon of Sept. 22 this year, after a day spent "running errands," Nadia made her way up the twisting, mountain road to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Holding Jovan's hand, with Kaya on her right shoulder like "a sack of potatoes," according to police, she entered the site where hundreds of people were taking pictures, peering at the tacky tourist displays and walking nervously across the bridge.

Police say there are reasonable grounds for believing Ms. Hama "did attempt to murder ... Kaya."

The issue of child custody remains before the courts -- and there are still many blanks in the puzzle of Nadia Hama's life.

Both she and Mr. Werbes have said they want to tell their story, when the time is right. For now, they refuse to talk publicly.

"You know, I really don't care what people think," she said recently when approached by reporters outside her condo. Music blared from the stereo in her Mercedes. A gold locket, shaped like a heart, gleamed at her throat. She had a determined look on her face, one that seemed to suggest that having survived refugee camps in Syria and five broken marriages, she was intent on surviving this.

Copyright Southam Inc.