A 24-year-old Texas man was sentenced to 45 years in prison for his role in the murder of a former high school classmate whose burned remains were found in a shallow grave a year later in a case stemming from “some marijuana and a couple hundred bucks.”
Jose Varela was sentenced to 45 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder for killing 22-year-old Zuhyr Hamza Kaleem on April 27, 2019.
“This was a premeditated murder that left a family questioning what happened to their loved one for more than a year,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “With help from the victim’s family and great police work, we were able to get justice in this horrible case.”
Varela and Kaleem had been classmates at Cypress Lakes High School and had agreed to meet at Varela’s home to make a marijuana deal. When Kaleem arrived, Varela and another man, Eric Aguilar, closed the garage door to make the deal, and Aguilar fatally shot Kaleem. Aguilar reportedly claimed that Kaleem pulled a gun on them and that the gun went off when he tried to take it, local ABC affiliate KTKR reported.
Varela and Aguilar took Kaleem’s body to Grimes County, where his remains were burned, prosecutors said. Varela then drove Kaleem’s car to Mexico and dumped it, officials said.
Kaleem’s family filed a missing person’s report. They were baffled by the disappearance of their son, a Lone Star College student who hoped to go to the University of Houston, KTRK reported.
“It’s just like, what happened really, though?” his father, Kaleem Ahmed, said then. “We know where he’s going to — a friend, where he’s going to eat, where he’s going to visit a place. It’s just unusual for him to be gone that long.”
Prosecutors said Varela was linked to the case when the victim’s brothers used their expertise as software engineers to identify him as the last person to have contact with Kaleem, officials said.
A year after the killing, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced the recovery of Kaleem’s remains from a property in Grimes County and charges in the case, officials said.
Aguilar was sentenced to life in prison without parole in November. Trial for a third suspect, Austin Walker, is pending. He’s set to appear in court on Thursday. A fourth man, who lived on the property where the remains were found, allegedly admitted to burying the body, and he was charged with tampering, according to KTRK.
“These defendants thought they had gotten away with murder and had moved on with their lives, but they had not counted on the victim’s brothers and law enforcement relentlessly pursuing Kaleem’s whereabouts,” Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Dupree said. “This family went an entire year, pining away, praying for their loved one to come home only to find that his remains had been burned because of some marijuana and a couple of hundred bucks.”
Kaleem’s family and friends set up a fundraiser to build a water filtration plant in Pakistan so that he may continue to “attain eternal good deeds by aiding those in need.”
“Those who knew him personally will tell you how much Zuhyr was a light in their lives,” the site said.
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