Eight days after the World Trade Center crumbled from the New York skyline, a team of federal agents paid a visit to a small taxi-driving school in Manhattan. With smoke still billowing from the ruins of Ground Zero, the officers were searching for one specific student: a Canadian citizen named Shakir Baloch.
The FBI was anxious to know how the Toronto man, originally from Pakistan, entered the United States. They peppered him with pointed questions. Is your visa valid? Are you a devout Muslim? Do you recognize any of the men who hijacked those airplanes? Still suspicious after a four-hour interrogation, the agents escorted Baloch to a detention centre downtown. He spent that night—and the next seven months—behind bars. “I call it my death valley,” he says now, sitting in a crowded Scarborough coffee shop. “They were threatening to arrest my family and revoke my Canadian citizenship. I was very afraid.”
One person understood exactly what Baloch was going through: Akhil Sachdeva, another Canadian arrested by American authorities in those chilling days after 9/11. Like Baloch, he was living illegally in the U.S. when the towers fell, and quickly found himself swept up in a massive anti-terror dragnet.
They met for the first time in April 2002. Baloch, eventually cleared of any terrorist ties, had just been transferred to New Jersey’s Passaic County Jail, the last stop before his deportation to Canada. Sachdeva—a Hindu originally from India—had been locked away for three months already. “He was a smiling face,” Baloch recalls. “And we were both from Canada.” They played poker together, reminisced about life in Toronto, and promised to meet on the other side as soon as they were free. Two weeks later, when Baloch was told he was finally going home, he made sure to give Sachdeva his phone number.
Back in Ontario, their friendship blossomed. Along with Tim Hortons coffees and the odd trip to the casino, both men joined a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging that hundreds of innocent foreigners were wrongfully imprisoned because of their race or religion, and nothing more. The case is pending, but the U.S. Supreme Court heard a similar complaint in December, and the judgment, expected later this year, will have major implications for Baloch and Sachdeva. The men who became such close friends under such frightening circumstances will soon find out if they have the legal right to sue senior White House officials.
One thing, however, is already certain. Whenever that ruling is released, Baloch and Sachdeva will not be flipping through it together. Even if it’s favourable, there won’t be any celebratory toasts or triumphant phone calls. In fact, Baloch has no idea how to reach his old pal anymore. Like so many others who were duped before him, he recently discovered—at a cost of $64,000—who Sachdeva really is: a conniving, sweet-talking fraudster accused of bilking friends and associates out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to feed his high-stakes gambling habit.
According to court records and police files, Akhil Sachdeva—a man once portrayed as the quintessential victim in both the New York Times and the Toronto Star—has left behind his own trail of victims since returning to Canada in 2002. Blessed with an innocent grin and the gift of gab, the 36-year-old convicted fraudster has passed himself off as everything from a high-rolling investor to a gravely ill cancer patient—anything to get inside someone’s wallet. In Baloch’s case, Sachdeva conned his friend into buying a travel agency that wasn’t his and wasn’t for sale. Baloch wrote him two cheques and waited for the paperwork. It never arrived. “I trusted him blindly,” he says. “I thought we had such a horrible time together that he wouldn’t think for a second to cheat me.”
It’s little consolation, but Baloch, now 47, got off relatively easy. Bankruptcy records reveal that Sachdeva owes a staggering amount of money to financial institutions, credit card companies, and at least three other people who, like Baloch, believed he was an honest man. One ex-girlfriend, Radha Bakshi, claims in court documents that he cheated her out of a whopping $915,000, which he promptly squandered at the blackjack table. “It’s outrageous,” says her lawyer, Conor O’Hare. “He is such a con artist. There is no remorse, no compassion, no empathy. And he’s made himself out to be the victim? Poor him.”
Today, Sachdeva is nowhere to be found. His cellphone is turned off, he isn’t returning e-mails, and his lawyer, Bruce A. Simpson, declined to comment when contacted by Maclean’s. As recently as October, Sachdeva claimed he was living with an acquaintance in London, Ont. But when reached last week, the woman, who asked that her name not be published, said he hasn’t lived there in more than a year. She also had no idea her former tenant filed for bankruptcy. “Honestly, I’m on the verge of crying,” she said. “He owes me money.” How much, exactly? “I don’t want to talk about that. But it’s quite a bit.”
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