fugitive@hotmail.com: The search for Dr. Yazeed Essa

The global manhunt for a dashing Ohio doctor after his wife's mysterious death

Produced by Joshua Yager and Jonathan Leach
[This story first aired on Oct. 9, 2010. It was updated on June 1, 2013.]

CLEVELAND - "I've been working international fugitives with the FBI about 26 years ... we've arrested a lot of bad guys," FBI Special Agent Phil Torsney said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime case ... and it was certainly one of the tougher ones I ever worked on."

Special Agent Torsney remembers the moment in January 2009, when a three-year international manhunt for Dr. Yazeed Essa came to an end.

"It was nice when we could actually say, 'We have this guy in custody.' Now we're sitting next to him on a plane ... and I'm thinking, at that point, 'You're going to court. It's been a long road, but you're going to court.'"

Rosemarie Essa
Rosemarie Essa

Dr. Yazeed Essa was charged with the mysterious murder of his wife, Rosemarie, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Her family has been waiting ever since to hear the truth about what happened to her and of her husband's odyssey in five countries, forged documents, foreign prisons, safe houses and secret affairs.

It's a story that Yazeed Essa's friends say is too bizarre to believe.

"If you were to watch this in a movie you wouldn't even believe that this is possible," Dr. Bob Khadar told "48 Hours" correspondent Troy Roberts.

It's also a story that Essa's lawyers, Stephen Bradley and Mark Marein, believe is too bizarre to be true.

Two months before Yazeed Essa goes to court, they conduct a mock trial - a high-stakes mission in a case that Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Leila Atassi says has taken on a high profile, too.

"You'd be hard pressed to find someone in the greater Cleveland area who hasn't heard of this case," Atassi explained. "Just the mere mention of the last name Essa will dredge up, you know, at least details, shadowy details of what happened."

What happened to Rosie tore a hole in her tight-knit family. Her parents, Rocco and Gee Gee DiPuccio, still host their kids and grandkids for supper most Sunday nights. Rosie's brother, Dominic, an attorney, says she always loved a good dinnertime debate.

"Rosie called a spade a spade. She never let my head get too big..." And, he says, his little sister never missed a chance to look out for others.

"Rosie always rooted for the underdog," Dominic continued. "She used to say that she wanted a handicapped child... I mean, who do you hear say that? Anybody who was disadvantaged in any way, she was attracted to that person."

That calling led Rosie to become a nurse at Cleveland's now-defunct Mount Sinai Hospital. She was on ER rotation in 1995, when she met a dashing young doctor named Yazeed Essa. Everyone knew him as "Yaz."

Dr. Bob Khadar became Yaz's best friend.

"So I said, 'Well, who is this guy Yaz everybody is talking about?" Dr. Khadar recalled. "He was very funny. He had a kind of 'I don't care' attitude."

When asked if Essa was smart and a skilled physician, Khadar replied "Yes."

"Yaz always wanted to be a doctor and he wanted to be a successful businessman," Yaz's brother, Firas Essa, told Roberts.

Firas says growing up in a Palestinian-American family, they learned about life on the mean streets of Detroit before moving to Cleveland in 1988 for Yaz to go to medical school.

As if Yaz wasn't busy enough with his studies, he and Firas started a beeper business. They would eventually own a satellite TV company worth millions.

"Yazeed Essa was what every woman dreams of - of the perfect man," Alexandra Herrera said. "He was the kind that made everyone laugh, he made everyone feel comfortable. I mean, he even charmed my dog groomer."

Herrera says she wasn't looking for love when she met Yazeed at work in the hospital in 1995. She says she found his lust for life impossible to resist, and within months, they were living together.

About a year later, Herrera began to suspect that he was seeing someone else. Sure enough, one day while she wasn't home, Yaz suddenly packed up and left.

"There was a letter that said that 'he wasn't my bitch anymore,'" Herrera told Roberts. "I remember asking, 'What is it about this new person in your life that is so special?' That person was Rosemarie."

Video: Watch more of Alexandra's interview

Herrera says Yaz couldn't stand her suspicions and told her, in Rosie, he'd found someone who didn't ask questions.

About a year later, on Sept. 11, 1999, Rosie and Yazeed got married. The next year, they had a son, Armand. Their daughter, Lena, was born two years after that.

"She loved being a mom...it's all she ever wanted," said Dominic.

"She was so happy being a mother," sister-in-law Julie DiPuccio added. Julie says the couple seemed to have it all: a comfortable home, a loving marriage, two beautiful children - and were even planning a third.

But tragedy struck on Feb. 24, 2005.

At about 2 p.m., Rosie left home to meet her sister, Leila, for a movie. She was only driving about 10 mph when, at an intersection, she had a fender bender with another car... and her near perfect life came to a bizarre halt.

"When first responders arrived at the scene of Rosie's car accident they found her on the brink of unconsciousness, slumped in the driver's side seat, clutching her open cell phone," Atassi said. "She was trying to call her husband..."

"Her eyes were still open... her chest was gurgling... and she was just slumped there clutching her cell phone," said Leila.

"I drove 100 mph to the hospital thinking it was bad," Dominic recalled. "And I was praying the whole way that she would - that it wouldn't be bad."

But it was bad. Rosie was pronounced dead at 3:02 p.m. - an almost impossible reality for her family because she was just 38, otherwise healthy, and, says brother Rocky, she didn't have a scratch on her.

"I mean, my father was right at Rosie's head. He was just cradling her and my mom was on one side, I was on the other side," he said. "You know, it was chaotic. It was so emotional."

As more relatives gathered, Yaz stood quietly apart. His behavior struck everyone as strange.

"[He was] just kinda... rocking against the wall - all upset. We just kinda made eye contact and he just shook his head," Dominic explained.

Yaz said he had no idea how Rosie could have died; nobody else did either. But one thing was clear. "It was obvious to everybody in the room," Rocky said. "I mean, clearly, she didn't die in a car accident."

Now, Yazeed Essa is about to go on trial for murder.

"This is going to be contentious...," his lawyer, Mark Marein said. "... a ball busting, down-in-the-trenches trial."

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