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From Uptown to Pakistan, 1993 Murder Case Lives on in Court Battle

By Erin Meyer | April 22, 2014 7:01am
 Muhammad U. Cheema (inset) has been accused of killing Manwar Bajwa at this building in the 5100 block of North Sheridan Avenue in Uptown for life insurance money and then fleeing to Pakistan.
Muhammad U. Cheema (inset) has been accused of killing Manwar Bajwa at this building in the 5100 block of North Sheridan Avenue in Uptown for life insurance money and then fleeing to Pakistan.
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Erin Meyer/DNAinfo

COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — The court file reads like a screenplay with a plot that jumps between rural Pakistan and Chicago.

It includes a murder allegedly committed in an attempt to collect a $200,000 life insurance policy and an international manhunt involving the crime-fighting efforts of Interpol.

The Chicago chapter involves the brutal murder of Manwar Ahmad Bajwa in his Uptown home, according to a civil lawsuit stemming from the 1993 slaying.

The alleged killer, accused of cutting Bajwa's throat to collect on a fraudulently obtained insurance policy, fled the country to his native Pakistan and was never brought to justice, according to court papers.

From their home in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, Bajwa's wife and five children have been asserting for two decades that Metropolitan Life Insurance, the New York company that issued the policy, was complicit in the crime for giving the alleged murderer financial incentive to kill, court documents state.

 Muhammad U. Cheema, who has been accused of killing an Uptown resident for life insurance money and then fleeing to Pakistan, as he appeared more than 20 years ago in immigration documents.
Muhammad U. Cheema, who has been accused of killing an Uptown resident for life insurance money and then fleeing to Pakistan, as he appeared more than 20 years ago in immigration documents.
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Court File

Until recently, their efforts, via a probate case attempting to collect on the insurance policy and a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court, have been unsuccessful.

But an attorney representing the family says that a tentative settlement has been reached.

The story starts in the early 1970s in a rural area of Pakistan when Muhammad A. Cheema offered to help Bajwa move to the United States, Cook County prosecutors said.

Unable to obtain a visa, Bajwa immigrated to the U.S. using Cheema's identification. He eventually settled in Uptown as "Muhammad A. Cheema."

Bajwa worked at a Downtown hotel and elsewhere — all the while sending money to his wife and five children back home.

In 1990, Bajwa returned Cheema's favor and agreed to sponsor his son, Muhammad U. Cheema, in his bid to come to the U.S., according to court papers. But for the plan to work, the younger Cheema had to pose as Bajwa's son.

Muhammad U. Cheema got an apartment and opened a sandwich shop called Seven Seas at 145 W. 95th St. on the South Side.

And not long after he arrived in the U.S., Muhammad U. Cheema took out a $200,000 Metropolitan Life Insurance policy on his purported "father," according to court filings.

He provided MetLife with information about Bajwa, arranged to pay the monthly premiums and named himself as beneficiary, court records show.

In violation of MetLife’s own policy, an account representative permitted Muhammad U. Cheema to have the paperwork signed by his “father” and approved it without ever meeting the policyholder in person, court documents allege.

MetLife did send someone to conduct a medical exam before issuing the policy. A man claiming to be Bajwa — under the name Muhammad A. Cheema — presented a state-issued ID card and submitted to the exam, court documents state.

But the family's lawsuit argues, and Cook County medical examiner records support, that Bajwa may not have been the individual examined by MetLife before the company issued the policy.

Civil court files do not give a clear indication of whom the imposter might have been.

About a month after the policy was issued, a man called MetLife to find out whether the insurance company would pay if Bajwa died in “specific hypothetical situations,” according to court filings.

The caller wanted to know what would happen if he were to perish in a car crash, die in another country or be killed in a home invasion, according to the lawsuit.

Several days later, on Feb. 23, 1993, Bajwa was found murdered inside his third-floor apartment in the 5100 block of North Sheridan Road, according to a report by the medical examiner.

He had stab wounds to the abdomen and his throat had been slit, according to court records. Bajwa had also been beaten with a baseball bat. 

Muhammad U. Cheema was named by police and prosecutors as the killer several weeks later, according to court records, including an arrest warrant accusing Muhammad U. Cheema of the slaying.

"The evidence in the criminal case is overwhelming,"  Jim McKay, a Cook County assistant state's attorney who tried to have Muhammad U. Cheema brought back to the U.S. to stand trial, said in an interview with DNAinfo Chicago. "The case against the defendant is an uncontested layup. There's no defense."

A neighbor heard screaming the night of the murder and allegedly saw Muhammad U. Cheema covered in blood and running from Bajwa's apartment with two women, who were also blood covered, McKay alleged. Cheema's fingerprint was found at the murder scene, and the baseball bat used to bludgeon the victim was identified by a witness as the same one he kept behind the counter at his South Side restaurant, McKay charged.

The two women were never identified. Muhammad U. Cheema then fled to Pakistan, court records indicate.

Muhammad U. Cheema "flees to Pakistan, the same country he had to leave just three years earlier for the great opportunities the U.S.A. provides," McKay said. With help from the Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., McKay was working to have the defendant extradited for prosecution.

An international warrant was issued, and Interpol got involved in the investigation, according to court records.

Cheema was detained in a Pakistan jail, where he allegedly told a cell mate that Bajwa had taken pornographic photos of Muhammad U. Cheema having sex with two woman and was extorting him, McKay said.

He was later released from the jail after a judge denied the extradition request and retired.

The international warrant issued in 1993 is still valid, and authorities said they would file charges against Cheema if they could get him. 

"Just like any defendant, Cheema is presumed innocent," McKay said. "The burden would be on the state to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Still, he may never stand trial for Bajwa's murder. But the victim's family may find some degree of justice in civil court.

After his death, Bajwa's wife filed a wrongful death complaint against MetLife, alleging the insurance company had negligently issued the life insurance policy, thereby causing her husband's death.

There is precedent for such a claim. A South Carolina man, for example, successfully sued Carolina Life Insurance Co. after his wife took out a policy on his life without his knowledge and then tried to poison him. In that case, evidence showed the insurance company knew that the husband was not aware of the policy, court records state.

A judge dismissed Bajwa's family case in 1997, finding that the insurance company could not be held liable because the plaintiff failed to prove that MetLife “had knowledge of Cheema’s murderous plot,” according to court papers.

The case was appealed, and the Illinois Supreme Court eventually allowed Bajwa's family to refile the complaint.

The most recent iteration of the legal battle, filed in 2009 in Cook County, names MetLife, the insurance rep who processed the application and Muhammad U. Cheema.

MetLife has argued that if what the family claims is true, then Cheema duped them, and the insurance contract it issued was immediately void, according to court files. The company also maintains that it could not have known Bajwa's life was in danger and therefore cannot be held accountable.

In April 2013, MetLife filed a motion for summary judgment saying the company “has never conceded that the allegedly wrongful issuance of a life insurance policy proximately caused the death of [Bajwa]. ... MetLife satisfied its duty of care."

MetLife's attorneys refused to comment.

An attorney representing Bajwa's family said last week that a tentative settlement had been reached in the lawsuit against MetLife, though he declined to offer any specifics.

If a settlement is approved by the court, it will be the final chapter in a 20-year legal battle. If not for the civil action, Bajwa's family may never have had their day in court.

"Will the defendant ever return to the U.S. to stand trial for the murder he committed? Who knows?" McKay said. "But based on all of the evidence in this case, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in an Illinois prison, not walking around as a free man in Pakistan flaunting in front of the victim's relatives."