13,000 Pounds at 118 Miles Per Hour
New York magazine|January 17 - 30, 2022
The wreck of a limo near Albany was the deadliest U.S. Transportation disaster in a decade. And the man behind it was one of the most notorious confidential informants in FBI history.
By Ben Ryder Howe. Photo-Ilustration by Mark Harris

ON SEPTEMBER 4, 2018, Nauman Hussain, a 28-year-old professional paintball player, was working at his family’s business when a state inspector arrived for a routine visit. Nauman’s father owned Prestige Limousine, a small company touting “modern, classy vehicles” for “exquisite wedding, prom, event, and special occasion” transportation in the Albany area, and Nauman operated it day to day, sometimes answering to his father’s name. The inspector examined Prestige’s vehicles and placed an orange-and-white sticker roughly the size of a license plate on the windshield of its workhorse, a Ford Excursion. “OUT-OF-SERVICE,” it read. “This motor vehicle has been declared UNSERVICEABLE.”

The Excursion was a beast, a 10,000 pound SUV that had been chopped in half and welded back together with 12 extra feet of carriage in the middle, effectively turning it into a bus. It was a party vehicle, or a party gag, the kind of limo that made you wince and check the leather seats for stains. State inspectors knew Prestige’s Excursion well. They regarded it as an insult to their profession and “violated” it whenever they could.

The Hussains always managed to get it back on the road. Six months earlier, the limo had failed inspection for a long list of deficiencies, including corroded and compromised brakes. Someone had crudely disabled one of the lines with a vise grip. The Excursion’s regular driver, a 53-year-old named Scott Lisinicchia, knew the vehicle had problems and preferred to operate Prestige’s other limousines. But on Saturday, October 6, a little after 9 a.m., Lisinicchia got a call. Nauman Hussain wanted him to take the Excursion out on a job. The windshield sticker was gone.

At 1 p.m., Lisinicchia pulled the limo up to a home in the town of Amsterdam. Axel Steenburg, a 29-year-old bodybuilder who worked at a semiconductor plant, was organizing a 30th-birthday celebration for his wife, Amy, and a big crew. Seventeen of them, including Amy’s three sisters, Axel’s brother, and several other young couples, were going day-drinking at Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, some 50 miles away. The Steenburgs had figured that hiring a sober driver seemed like the safe thing to do.

As the celebrants piled into the Excursion, they found sickly neon-colored lights, padded benches, and floorboards that had rusted through. One of the partygoers texted a friend who had planned to attend but backed out.

the limo sounds like it’s going to explode

yes haha it’s a junker literally

the motor is making everyone deaf

Lisinicchia took an odd path to the brewery. Avoiding a direct route along the highway, he embarked on a meandering course along small rural roads. It might have seemed like an easier drive for the lumbering Excursion, now carrying some 3,500 pounds of people, but the route’s steep hills and frequent stops had the opposite effect, further stressing what remained of the brakes. In back, the passengers could smell something burning.

By 1:45 p.m., the Excursion was south of Amsterdam in the rolling Schoharie Valley, an hour from the brewery and heading in the opposite direction. Lisinicchia drove hesitantly, as if he were trying to figure something out. On Route 30, at the top of a hill, he shifted to the breakdown lane.

A Jeep came up from behind. Its driver, Holly Wood, a worker for the county government, noticed the limo had its back-up lights on yet was inching forward. “That’s weird,” she said to her daughter, who was sitting shotgun. Wood turned down the radio, lowered the window, and heard the bleat of the limo’s back-up alert. Through tinted windows, she could see the passengers’ silhouettes. Lisinicchia was pointing toward something in the distance. Wood passed the limo and drove on.

Behind her, the Excursion kept rolling and began to pick up speed, accelerating down a winding road that plunged almost 600 feet in less than two miles. There was nowhere to pull off. Lisinicchia was pumping the useless brake pedal so hard it deformed in the shape of his loafer.

At the bottom of the hill, Route 30 terminates in a T-shaped intersection with another state highway. Wood and her daughter sat there waiting to turn. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw the 31-foot Excursion hurtling directly toward them at as much as 118 miles per hour. The sound in her ears was like a jet engine. Wood had enough time to tell her daughter to hold on and then there was a white streak as Lisinicchia swerved past and across the busy junction.

On the far side of the road, in the parking lot of a country store, the Excursion smashed into a stationary Toyota Highlander, launching the 4,000-pound SUV 80 feet. Standing nearby, two members of a family en route to a wedding were crushed. Even after destroying the Highlander, the Excursion was traveling at 80 miles per hour. It ended up in a ditch, impaled upon itself, the engine bay all but flattened. From the outside, the passenger compartment looked uncannily intact. Inside, bluntforce trauma had instantly killed 16 people. Two more died within hours. None of the passengers had been wearing seat belts, and their bodies broke against the walls, the ceiling, and one another. The carnage was so extreme that veteran paramedics attending the crash site developed disabling mental-health issues.

Nauman Hussain was informed about the crash by a call from a New York State trooper. “Is this a prank?” he asked. Four days later, he was arrested at a traffic stop outside Albany and charged with criminally negligent homicide. News photographs from his arraignment show a muscular young man in a black V-neck shadowed by his glowering older brother, Haris. Among the items seized from Nauman’s Infiniti QX56 were a passport application and a shredded piece of paper—the out-of-service sticker that had been glued to the windshield of the Excursion.

Nauman posted bail, went home, and refunded $1,475 to Axel Steenburg’s credit card. A few weeks later, he traveled to Kissimmee, Florida, for the 2018 Paintball World Cup at Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, where his team, the New York Xtreme, registered a disappointing 14th place.

THE SCHOHARIE TRAGEDY was the deadliest transportation disaster in the U.S. in almost a decade, including plane crashes. It was one of the worst single-car wrecks in the history of the automobile, comparable only to accidents involving buses or trucks that caught fire, sank, or fell off cliffs. But the story would likely have faded from awareness, as car crashes invariably do, if not for one factor: Nauman Hussain’s father, Shahed, the owner of Prestige Limousine, was a longtime confidential informant for the FBI and one of the most notorious operatives in the agency’s history. In upstate New York, where a pair of federal terrorism investigations had left Muslim communities seething and in despair, many people gasped when they saw his name connected with the Schoharie crash.

“It’s this feeling that we’re cursed,” says Steve Downs, an Albany lawyer and political activist. “Each time his name comes up, you say, ‘This is it. We finally got to the end.’ But it just keeps coming back—this guy.”

The impact of Hussain’s FBI cases was not confined to the region. They were legal landmarks in the War on Terror, helping establish the legitimacy of secret evidence, warrantless wiretapping, and the government’s practice of inventing terror plots to entrap ordinary Americans with no prior connection to violent Islamic groups. For this, the Hussain family received hundreds of thousands of dollars, which helped them open and operate several businesses around Albany. Prestige and the others racked up safety violations, some of them egregious, yet were never shut down by regulators.

“The FBI enabled Shahed Hussain to feel that he could get away with anything,” says Kathy Manley, an Albany attorney who has represented men still serving multi-decade prison terms because of Hussain’s undercover activities and who sees a connection between his anti-terror work and the 20 dead in Schoharie. “He clearly didn’t care about the limousine being unsafe, and apparently neither did his son.” The larger unanswered question is whether anyone in government had helped the Hussains when their businesses ran into trouble over the years. If they had, it would make the government complicit in an unspeakable catastrophe. Few in power are willing to discuss Shahed and Nauman Hussain. One of the sources who did, when I began to call around last winter, speculated that the family belongs to a class beyond the reach of law enforcement—whose leverage confers something close to impunity.

Shahed Hussain undercover in 2003.

IF HISTORY IS TO BE believed, Shahed Hussain arrived in Albany in 1994 as a political refugee. With his wife, Yasmeen, and two boys, Nauman and Haris, Shahed claimed to have fled sectarian conflict in Pakistan, with a scar he said was proof—a mark on his wrist from being tortured in custody. There were rumors in Albany’s Muslim community, however, that Hussain had come to the U.S. to escape not oppression but a criminal investigation involving a murder.

In the Capital Region, the Hussains seemed to make a seamless transition to upper-middle-class life, settling into mansion-lined Loudonville, where Nauman and Haris attended one of the area’s top elementary schools. Shahed, a nonstop talker with dark hair and an alligator grin, came to own or operate several businesses, including a gas station and a venture to import small consumer goods. A few months after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, he was arrested as part of an identity-fraud ring. According to court documents, the scam originated when Hussain had his driver’s license taken away for failing to maintain one of his cars. After paying a mechanic to falsify repairs, he persuaded a DMV clerk to clean up his record. Soon, he was plying the clerk with cigarettes for illegal IDs, mostly for other Urdu-speaking immigrants.

The charges he faced were serious, with national-security implications: Several of the 9/11 hijackers had used illegal licenses. Hussain was in danger of being deported. But the FBI was desperate to discover potential terrorists in the United States, and the agency offered him a deal to become a confidential informant.

In his new role, Hussain, who claimed to speak five languages, was enthusiastic and effective. His FBI handler later testified that he was “good at being deceptive,” adding, “like an actor—so he was presenting a role, and he was very good at that.” His first targets were members of his own identity-fraud scheme, including a girlfriend he testified against; another case involved infiltrating an Afghan heroin ring. Hussain’s personal life, though, was turning chaotic. He filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2003, and that October, a fire destroyed most of the family’s home. The blaze nearly killed Yasmeen, who was forced to jump out a window. FBI agents showed up at the scene, where their informant was refusing to talk to investigators from the fire department.

From left: Shahed Hussain, his son Nauman, and his brother Malik Riaz.

Hussain was about to take on his most significant assignment yet. Based on evidence recovered in Iraq, the government suspected the imam of an Albany mosque, a Kurdish refugee named Yassin Aref, was a terrorist commander. The FBI asked Hussain to wear a wire and engage Aref on the subject of violence against America. Posing as “Malik,” a wealthy importer of Chinese goods, Hussain began attending meetings at the mosque. The congregation included a Bangladeshi pizzeria owner who was in financial trouble, and Hussain offered him a $50,000 loan. He also showed the man a surface-to-air missile. “But it’s not legal,” the pizzeria owner said. “What is legal in this world?” Hussain replied.

When it came time to transact the loan, the men agreed that a fellow Muslim should serve as witness. Aref said yes to the task. At a fake office in a dreary shopping plaza near Albany International Airport, with the FBI watching through a camera hidden inside a clock, Hussain tried unsuccessfully to get Aref to praise Osama bin Laden and condone suicide bombing. He also made oblique references to a plot involving a missile, but Aref, whose English was limited and who had never seen Hussain’s supposed anti-aircraft weapon, ignored the remarks.

As far as getting the men to participate in or endorse violence, the sting was a bust. But that didn’t matter. Neither Aref nor the pizzeria owner ever reported Hussain or his jihadi bombast to law enforcement. The government deemed that this was itself an indication of wrongdoing. The men had “failed” a “test,” as a prosecutor put it, and in 2004 the Justice Department charged them with a range of crimes, including money laundering in support of terrorism.

Steve Downs, the Albany lawyer, read about Aref and came out of retirement to join his defense. Downs had spent his career with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, investigating corrupt judges and prosecutors. Their crookedness struck him as prosaic. “People were lazy, they were sloppy, they didn’t care,” he says. “There was nothing particularly shocking about it.” Aref’s prosecution, however, struck him as desperate, vicious, and un-American. He regarded it as a criminal act and one of the worst betrayals of public trust he had ever known. “This was the first case I’d seen where the government prosecuted a man they knew was innocent,” he says.

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