Young widow at center of Houston ‘honor killings’ speaks out to raise awareness
Nesreen Irsan finally had a night without nightmares.
The 30-year-old widow at the center of Houston’s two “honor killings” six years ago was able to sleep peacefully Tuesday night, the day her Jordanian father was sentenced to death row.
It was the first time since running away from home and converting to Christianity in 2011 that she did not have nightmares about being hunted by her father and other family members, an ordeal she detailed exclusively for the Chronicle this week.
“I grew up with this murderer and he boasted about it. I was terrified of him,” she said from an undisclosed location. “You don’t have anywhere to run. You’re a prisoner. You’re a prisoner in your own life.”
Despite getting restful sleep, she will likely never stop looking over her shoulder or carrying a gun. Nesreen continues to fear the friends and family members that her father, Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan, enlisted to help stalk her for leaving Islam. She is taking appropriate precautions, including not talking about what part of the country she lives in or using social media.
Still, to help deal with the grief, sadness and guilt she has about what happened, she spoke out to raise awareness about honor violence in America.
“I think the story needs to be told. There are things that are going on that people need to know about,” she said, . “Even today, people are still terrified of him, even though he’s on death row. There are people who still believe in what he was doing.”
On Tuesday, Irsan, 60, sat at the defense table in a Harris County courtroom and bowed his head slightly as he was sentenced to death for a pair of 2012 “honor killings” that were part of an extensive plot to ultimately take the lives of five people, including Nesreen, then 24. The devout Muslim patriarch was able to kill her husband, 28-year-old Coty Beavers, and close friend, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, a 30-year-old medical researcher and Iranian activist who championed women’s rights.
As she works to put her life back together, there have been bright spots including reconnecting with her mother who left her father 22 years ago and an older sister. But it’s a bittersweet reunion after everything that has happened.
“I will carry this guilt forever,” she said. “I think the Lord will take the bad things and heal you and I think that good will come out of this and I pray for that.”
Nesemah, her older sister, also expressed deep relief by the death sentence given her father and wants to spend her time helping people understand that honor killings are real.
“The world is a safer place knowing that a man who was capable of anything and everything will no longer hurt anyone else,” Nesemah said in a statement. “Living through this ordeal has made me stronger and I would like to help others who are currently in this type of situation.”
For Nesreen, it’s tough to have friendships or relationships.
“I want to make friends, but I’m afraid because I don’t want something to happen to them,” she said. “Even when I make friends, they’re scared to be my friend. They’re scared to hang out with me.”
She said it has also been hard to find gainful employment in the medical field because of her connection to a murderous father.
Andy Kahan, Director of Victim Services and Advocacy at CrimeStoppers of Houston, said it was common for family and friends of murder victims to blame themselves or feel guilt.
“Sometimes the ‘survivor’s guilt’ becomes overwhelming and can sometimes even become obsessive,” he said.
Kahan said he’d never heard of a victim losing out on job opportunities because of their connection to a high-profile defendant. “You can only hope that time will heal and she’ll be able to resume her life without being tainted or being seen in the same light as her father,” he said.
The United Nations released a report in 2000 estimating about 5,000 honor killings around the world every year, but women’s right’s groups say the number is closer to 20,000. A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 estimated that there are 23 to 27 honor killings each year in the U.S. every year.
And in the last 10 years, there have been well-publicized honor killings in Arizona, New York and north Texas.
“Unfortunately, honor killings are happening in the United States. We hope that law enforcement agencies are paying attention and are taking the necessary steps to train and educate their personnel about the culture, so that senseless killings can be prevented one day,” said Anna Emmons, one of the special prosecutors who put Irsan on death row along with Marie Primm and Jon Stephenson.
During her father’s capital murder trial, Nesreen was called twice to testify about the daily beatings and threats on the lives of his children if they left his rural Montgomery County compound or violated any of his rules. Two of his sons disputed this account and testified in support of their father, as did several of his family from Jordan.
But Nesreen said she took the threats seriously because her father had previously shown what he was capable of doing.
In 1999, Irsan fatally shot a different son-in-law in his living room after his oldest daughter married without his approval. Irsan testifed that he killed in self-defense but other witnesses said it was planned. They said the father of 12 planted a handgun on the dead man to convince authorities he was in fear for his life.
Nesreen was 12 years old when her father convinced police and Child Protective Services that it was self-defense.
“He manipulated the police, he manipulated CPS,” she said. “Law enforcement didn’t understand the culture, so they didn’t understand what was going on.”
She ran into the same difficulties a decade later when she ran away from home to marry Beavers.
Her father called the police and falsely claimed she was on drugs and asked that she be returned to his rural Montgomer County homestead where he raised a dozen children he had with two wives.
“I said, ‘No that’s not true. I’m just leaving. I’m scared. They’re going to kill me.’” she said. “I don’t think think the officer understood what grave danger I knew I was in, but I knew because I lived in that house all those years.”
Testimony during Irsan’s trial showed that she and Beavers filed a protective order and no-contact order that Irsan regularly violated. A police officer told Nesreen there was little that could be done about him constantly driving by the Beavers’ house where she was staying.
“I don’t think he understood what lengths these people will go through for their honor,” she said. “It’s very scary. I was in love with Coty and I didn’t want anything to happen to anybody but nobody was helping us, as far as law enforcement. We had a protective order and it wasn’t doing anything.”
In January 2012, Ali Irsan, his wife and oldest son followed Bagherzadeh from the Beavers home to her parents Galleria area townhouse, testimony showed. Nesreen’s brother, Nasim, allegedly fired the shot that killed the activist as Irsan and his wife encouraged him. Nasim Irsan remains in the Harris County jail awaiting trial on a charge of capital murder.
Nesreen told police she believed her father was responsible, and he was questioned. There was not enough evidence to arrest and he went free.
Six months later, Nesreen and Coty, who were deep in the throes of first love, were married at the courthouse and rented an apartment in northwest Harris County, far from Irsan’s compound in Montgomery county.
“You try to be optimistic and say they haven’t been around for awhile and that’s when they swoop in and wreak havoc and start murdering people,” she said. “Then you feel guilty because in your mind, had you not run away none of these people would have been killed.”
On November 12, 2012, Nesreen’s husband walked her from their apartment to the car so she could go to her job at MD Anderson.
At the same time he escorted his wife, intruders crept into their apartment and hid in a bedroom.
Testimony showed that Irsan wanted to kill them both but when Beavers returned alone to the apartment, Nesreen’s father unloaded a .22 revolver, hitting Beavers with at least five bullets. Beavers fell dead just inches from the assault rifle he kept for home protection.
Nesreen and other members of the Beavers family immediately went on the run, refusing to spend two nights in the same place for months. That caution and fear about being tracked continues to this day, she said.
“These people are not like normal people, it’s not normal.” she said. “It’s not jealousy, it’s an anger thing about honor. You’re hurting their honor and for them, honor is what they live for. It’s a very strong thing for them to believe in.”
Nesreen said she hopes her plight sheds light on honor violence, especially in raising awareness among law enforcement about what runaways may be going through.
“Honor killings in America are real,” she said. “When an American from this type of culture screams ‘I’m afraid’ or ‘My family will kill me,’ it is imperative that authorities take the threat seriously and be proactive instead of reactive. Police cannot wait for something bad to happen before they get involved.”
She hopes for a future where authorities will help victims with relocating to another part of the country or even create a “re-identity package” to change what family members know about their victims.
“They have your social security number, mother’s maiden name, everywhere you’ve ever lived and every detail about you, they know it, because you grew up there,” she said. “We need to help other girls.”