On the morning of 6 November 1989, FBI agents rolled back the covert audio recordings from the family home of espionage suspect Zein Isa in St. Louis, Missouri, to listen to any conversations picked up the night before which may have helped their case against him. What they heard, however, shocked them to the core.
For seven long minutes, agents could do nothing but listen in silence as they heard the youngest daughter of the family, 16-year-old Palestina Isa, be murdered in cold-blood by her own parents. Their audio surveillance was not monitored in real-time, meaning they knew the events they were listening to had taken place hours earlier and it was too late to save this young girl’s life. The FBI aborted their surveillance operation into Zein Isa and handed their tapes over to state prosecutors.
At the time of the murder, Zein Isa was a 59-year-old Palestinian father of four daughters, married to 46-year-old Maria Isa. Maria was Brazilian and the family spoke a mixture of English, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic inside their home. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had become suspicious that Zein Isa was involved with a Palestinian Liberation Organization who may have been planning espionage activities against the United States. As a result, after obtaining Federal court permission, they had placed listening devices inside the Isa home and on their phone lines in order to capture evidence.
Zein and Maria Isa held strong cultural beliefs and had high expectations for their daughters on how they should behave both inside and outside of the home. The family owned a small grocery store and were to work in that store and not gain employment elsewhere. Tina’s older sisters had all left the home by 1989 and started families of their own after being married through arrangement by their father and his family in his hometown in Pakistan.
As Tina progressed through her teens she began gaining more independence from her parents, making her own decisions and starting to become an independent young woman. It is a process that happens in every home across the country with teenage children and usually, it is a supported, encouraged and happy time for both teens and their parents. In the Isa household, however, this process was not satisfactory for Zein and Maria Isa and for them their youngest daughter was becoming too westernized. They laid down strict rules for Tina, forbidding her to attend the outings and activities her friends were and became deeply unhappy when they became aware Tina was dating outside of their faith.
Tina had started a romantic relationship with a local boy, Cliff Walker, an African American teenager the same age as Tina and her parents had an angry reaction to his colour. In October 1989, Maria Isa met with Tina’s school telling them she would be withdrawing her ‘tramp’ of a daughter from the school to stop her from having any form of a relationship with Cliff Walker. She told shocked guidance counsellor Pamela Fournier, that Tina was ‘not obeying family rules’ and she and her husband were not satisfied that Tina was ‘going out with a black boy’.
On the day of her murder, 5 November 1989, Tina had started a new job at a Wendy’s Restaurant near her home, something she had not told her parents about. The recording devices hidden in the home recorded every second of the interactions that evening between Tina and her parents when she returned home.
After greeting her daughter with “Where were you, bitch?” Maria Isa is recorded shouting at her, “This life of yours is unacceptable! Do you understand? Give me the key to my house. If you don’t want to talk with me, then you don’t belong to the family!”
Zein Isa can then be heard telling his daughter:
“Here listen, my dear daughter, do you know that this is the last day. Tonight, you’re going to die? Do you know that you are going to die tonight?”
“Mother, please help me!” Tina screamed out, to which her mother replied “What help?” Are you going to listen? Are you going to listen?” “Yes! Yes! Yes, I am!” the teenager shouted before her screams die out and her father can be heard telling her to die and die quietly.
“Die! Die quickly! Die quickly! Quiet, little one! Die my daughter, die!”
Tina Isa had clearly been subjected to a violent attack from her parents who continued to harm her despite her desperate cries. Her autopsy revealed she had been stabbed multiple times in her chest and neck. Many of these wounds were clustered very close together, suggesting the young girl was not moving when she was stabbed. Tina had a number of defence wounds and hairs from her mother’s arms grasped in her hand.
After they had murdered their daughter, completely unaware the entire incident had been recorded by the FBI, Maria Isa called the police. Zein Isa can be heard telling Maria that Tina had wanted to kill him, taking a knife from Maria to try and do so as a cover explanation for how their daughter lay dead on the floor from stab wounds. While the emergency services were on route to the home, both Tina’s parents called members of the family to tell them the same story they planned to tell police, that Tina had attacked them with a knife and her death was in self-defence.
When police arrived at the scene they discovered Tina Isa lying dead on the floor of the living room covered in blood with two knives also on the floor near her head. Both Zein and Maria Isa blamed their daughter for her own death with their story that she had demanded money from them and had attacked her father with a knife. When the police received the audio recordings from the FBI the following morning, it became all too clear what had really gone on in that household the night before.
Zein and Maria Isa were both charged with the first-degree murder of their daughter. When they went to trial in October 1991, two years after the murder, despite the FBI audio recording they stuck to their cover story both pleading not guilty. Along with the seven minute audio of Tina Isa’s horrendous death, the jury also heard audio recordings of conversations Zein Isa held with his eldest daughter immediately after the murder where he is heard telling her “You understand, five thousand dollars or you die. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen and came straight toward me. By force, me and her mother…and took the knife from her and stabbed her with it and she died.”
The jury found both Zein and Maria Isa guilty of murder on 20 December 1991, sentencing them to death for their daughter’s murder. In 1993 Maria Isa appealed her conviction claiming she did not deserve the same punishment as her husband as she did not actually stab her daughter. In response to her appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri highlighted Tina Isa’s stab wounds were close together in “unusually close proximity”, demonstrating that Tina was “being restrained while the fatal blows were struck”. This restraint, they said, was from Maria Isa who held her daughter down to allow Zein Isa to stab her to death. They noted Maria Isa’s concern over the tape of the murder being played to the jury. “Isa’s real concern is that this tape is too probative.” They said in response.
“She prefers to sanitize the trial, removing from the jury any evidence that will allow the jury to see her for what she is, a woman who restrained and participated in the torture and murder of her own child.”
Under this appeal, Maria Isa did achieve getting her death sentence commuted to a life sentence behind bars with no chance of parole. It was ruled that some parts of the instructions to the jury for sentencing Maria Isa were questionable meaning the jury may have taken into account the actions of Zein Isa when deciding on her sentence.
Zein Isa died behind bars in 1997 after health complications, serving six years of his sentence. Maria Isa spent 13 years in prison before she died on 30 April 2014 of natural causes at 70-years-old. Had their actions on that night in November 1989 not been inadvertently recorded by the FBI, it is difficult to say whether their story of self-defence would have been believed, but there is no doubt the terror they put their daughter through in her last moments would never have been revealed.