Was man shot in Harlan woods ‘loving and caring’ or ‘dangerously duplicitous’?

Mark Sawaf, a mental health and drug-abuse counselor in Harlan, and Nancy Penn planned to marry before he was charged with possessing illegal explosives and then killed by a police officer after allegedly grabbing an officer's gun during an escape attempt.
Mark Sawaf, a mental health and drug-abuse counselor in Harlan, and Nancy Penn planned to marry before he was charged with possessing illegal explosives and then killed by a police officer after allegedly grabbing an officer's gun during an escape attempt.

To Cindy Turner, Mark Sawaf was the counselor in Harlan County who helped her daughter with behavioral problems and checked on them even after his job was over.

To Leslie Penn, Sawaf was altruistic and deeply intellectual, but had a great sense of humor. Sawaf dated Penn’s daughter Nancy for nine years, waiting patiently for her to marry him, Penn said.

To officials at another counseling center in Harlan, however, Sawaf was the angry competitor who allegedly told lies about the business and tried to intimidate its clients, employees and executives.

And at the end, Sawaf was an accused felon whom police said put their lives in danger by grabbing an officer’s gun during a search for booby-trapped trail cameras Sawaf had mounted in the heavily wooded hills overlooking Harlan.

Three people had been injured by exploding cameras Sawaf was suspected of placing, and police wanted to find others before there were more injuries. Another officer shot and killed Sawaf during the altercation over the gun, Kentucky State Police said.

State police continue to investigate the circumstances of Sawaf’s death and plan to present evidence to a grand jury, which is routinely done in police-involved shootings.

Conflicting pictures of Sawaf have emerged since the deadly Aug. 11 confrontation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Hanly A. Ingram noted the sharply contrasting portraits of Mark Sawaf at his detention hearing, “loving and caring to those who know him, but a secretive and anonymous explosives manufacturer whose devices are left for any hapless member of the public to find and trigger with serious resulting injuries.”

For some people, the accusations against Sawaf are completely at odds with what they knew of him.

They don’t believe a man who counseled others for mental-health and drug problems would abuse drugs, keep child pornography on his computer or plant an explosive device that blew off part of a man’s hand.

“Mark is not capable of hurting anybody. There is nothing that will make me believe he intentionally tried to hurt anyone,” said Regina Quillen, who attended college with Sawaf.

Others think Sawaf’s defenders either don’t have, or won’t acknowledge, information that shows a darker side.

Sawaf moved to Harlan after his father, Ali H. Sawaf, a doctor there, went to federal prison in 2002.

Ali H. Sawaf, a urologist who has since retired and lives in Lexington, is a native of Iraq who received his medical degree there. He came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, completed more training and eventually became a citizen, according to the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure.

The Daniel Boone Clinic in Harlan County recruited Ali Sawaf to come work in 1998 after he pleaded guilty in Michigan to felony charges of not paying taxes.

Mark Sawaf, one of five children in the family, was in college at Northern Michigan University at the time. He completed a degree in psychology in December 1999, the school said.

After Ali Sawaf set up his own practice in Harlan in 2000, area pharmacists soon raised concerns that he was pouring gas on a growing fire of prescription drug abuse in Eastern Kentucky by overprescribing the powerful painkiller OxyContin and other drugs.

Authorities arrested Ali Sawaf in February 2001, charging that he had written thousands of prescriptions for drug abusers without doing proper examinations with the goal of making as much money as possible. Ali Sawaf maintained his innocence but a federal jury convicted him in January 2002

Mark Sawaf had been working in Missouri but moved to Harlan to help care for his mother Elena, who was ill with a debilitating nerve disease, a longtime family friend said.

“This is the kind of man Mark Sawaf was,” said Susie Pyke, who worked for Ali Sawaf in Michigan for 20 years.

‘He cared’

In some ways, Mark Sawaf didn’t fit the mainstream in Harlan County, where many people are socially and politically conservative.

Eric Perry, who worked with Mark Sawaf, told the Herald-Leader in August that Sawaf was very liberal and non-religious. He was not a Muslim, as some right-wing websites reported.

One thing Sawaf did share with many people in the rural, mountainous county was a love of hunting.

His father said Sawaf had loved being in the woods since he was a child and had asked for a BB gun at age 6.

Neighbors around Sawaf’s modest home near downtown Harlan said he kept to himself. He worked out alone in the evenings at a health club in town.

“You had to speak to Mark to get him to speak,” said Jeff Capps, the owner of the gym.

But Sawaf was not standoffish or arrogant, friends said.

He cared about people. He didn’t like to see anyone sad. He was very quick to comfort.

Regina Quillen, a friend of Mark Sawaf

Quillen, of Letcher County, said Sawaf was “incredibly intelligent,” funny and had a deep sense of compassion, supporting her after her father was murdered in 2006.

Quillen was in a master’s program in counseling with Sawaf that Lindsey Wilson College offered through the Harlan County campus of Southeast Community and Technical College. The two were part of a tight-knit group that spent many hours together before graduating in 2007, Quillen said.

“He cared about people. He didn’t like to see anyone sad,” she said. “He was very quick to comfort.”

Turner said Sawaf counseled her daughter, Starr, several times a week for behavior problems beginning when she was 6 — which would have been around 2004 — and continuing until she was 9 or 10.

Sawaf worked through Cumberland River Comprehensive Care in Harlan, which is now called Cumberland River Behavioral Health.

Turner said Sawaf came to her home in Cumberland often, talking with Starr, showing her books and asking about her homework. Once, he helped Turner put together some furniture.

“He acted always nice around us,” Turner said. “It was like he was in the family.”

Turner said Starr, who is now 18, benefited from the counseling. The two of them had not seen Sawaf regularly for years, she said.

A supervisor said in an October 2009 memorandum that Sawaf had excellent practice skills and was well-versed in counseling theories, according to documents from the state Board of Licensed Professional Counselors.

However, there were several instances in which Sawaf showed questionable judgment and didn’t seem to understand actions that could have bordered on being unethical, such as accepting a kitten from a client, said Christopher Westerman, who supervised Sawaf at what is now called, the community mental health provider in Central Kentucky.

Psychiatrist Syed M. Raza, who supervised Sawaf at Cumberland River Behavioral Health, said in a separate evaluation that he had excellent therapeutic abilities, showed good judgment and conveyed warmth and empathy to clients, according to records from the licensing board.

Sawaf worked at Cumberland River from December 2001 to January 2009, when he was fired, according to its attorney, Tom Jensen.

The agency declined comment on why Sawaf was fired and refused to release his personnel file. Raza did not respond to several requests for comment.

Sawaf later started his own counseling business, renting space in a small strip of offices off U.S. 421 just down from a restaurant called Little India, where curry dishes share menu space with pulled beef sandwiches and Indian coleslaw.

He was just a real fun person to be around. He never lost his temper.

Leslie Penn, the mother of Mark Sawaf’s girlfriend

Owner Sharmin Shompa said Sawaf came in often to get take-out orders at lunch, usually staying only a few minutes.

“He was one of the nicest people around. Normal nice,” Shompa said.

Penn, who lives in Midway, said Sawaf met her daughter, Nancy, when she was 19 and working at a clothing store in Lexington, where Sawaf also has a brother.

Sawaf, 28 at the time, “decided that was going to be his love,” Penn said.

The two were together the rest of Sawaf’s life. Nancy Penn has been too upset over Sawaf’s death to talk with the newspaper, Penn said.

Leslie Penn of Midway remembers Mark Sawaf, her daughter's fiancée who was killed in August during an altercation with law enforcement officials.

Penn said Sawaf had an analytical bent and loved doing puzzles and putting things together. He was an avid reader whose interests included history, philosophy and psychology.

Sawaf was a workaholic, holding down his job in Harlan and doing counseling in Lexington on the weekends, but also liked getting away to the beach and had a playful side, Penn said.

He joked about her husband’s driving, Penn said, and put a machine that made fart noises under a pillow at dinner one time.

“He was just a real fun person to be around. He never lost his temper,” Penn said.


Penn said Sawaf told her he became a counselor because he wanted to help people. In the year before his death, though, Sawaf faced allegations that he had problems of his own.

Supervisors at The Ridge Behavioral Health System in Lexington, where Sawaf worked as a counselor, had him take a drug test on Sept. 15, 2015. Someone concerned about his well-being had made an anonymous report that he was abusing painkillers, according to a complaint from the center’s human-resources director received by the state Board of Licensed Clinical Counselors in December.

The allegation came not long after Sawaf’s mother had died on Aug. 26.

The complaint said Sawaf tested positive for two pain drugs, oxycodone and oxymorphone.

Sawaf acknowledged using Percocet, which contains oxycodone, for “recreational purposes” occasionally, but said he hadn’t used oxymorphone, according to a document from The Ridge included with the complaint.

The Ridge fired Sawaf on Sept. 28, according to the complaint.

Sawaf told the board that the document saying he had acknowledged Percocet use was not filled out by the human resources director at The Ridge, but by another employee against whom he had filed a complaint. The facility waited until after that to file a complaint against him, he pointed out.

The licensing board notified Sawaf in early May it had opened a formal investigation. The matter was pending when he died.

Jessica Burke, an attorney for Addiction Recovery Care LLC, told the state Board of Licensed Clinical Counselors that Mark Sawaf’s behavior was “unstable, inappropriate, illegal, threatening and escalating.”

Sawaf also was involved in a dispute in the first half of 2016 with a counseling service called Addiction Recovery Care LLC, which had an outpatient center in Harlan.

In a lengthy post on his website in March, Sawaf charged that ARC had poached some of his clients.

Sawaf said ARC was taking part in a scheme to pad its bottom line by requiring patients to undergo too many drug tests and counseling sessions, and was falsifying medical records and charging fees far above the industry standard.

ARC denied any wrongdoing, telling the state licensing board that it followed the law and upheld the highest standards of patient care and ethics.

Jessica Burke, an attorney for ARC, filed a lengthy complaint with regulators against Sawaf in April, alleging behavior that ranged from unethical to bizarre.

Among other things, ARC charged that Sawaf had harassed its executives and employees; impersonated people to file false claims against the company with insurance providers; improperly contacted ARC patients to make allegations about the business; and offered cash rewards for information about ARC.

Sawaf even allegedly impersonated Fayette District Judge Joseph Bouvier to send ARC an email seeking information on its fees.

ARC told the licensing board that after its initial complaint, Sawaf sent company officials a package that contained a whistle — apparently a reference to him blowing the whistle on the company — and a photo of a winged creature with a reference in Arabic warning against following Satan.

Burke told the licensing board Sawaf’s behavior was “unstable, inappropriate, illegal, threatening and escalating.”

Sawaf denied the claims, calling them a “false collection of flailing allegations,” but the board issued a notice in early August that it had opened a formal inquiry.

‘Dangerously duplicitous’

By then, Sawaf was jailed in the case that would end with his violent death.

That case started in late March or April, when someone found two trail cameras along an all-terrain vehicle trail on a mountain near Harlan.

Hunters mount the cameras in the woods to get photos of deer and other animals.

When a young man named Dustin Hall tried to put a battery in one of the cameras, it blew up and tore off more than one of his fingers, according to a sworn statement from Richard McMahan, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Witnesses said they’d seen Sawaf several times in the area where the cameras were found. One witness, Kevin Jump, said he and property owner Joseph Bennett had “confronted” Sawaf because he didn’t have permission to be on the land. The site was accessible from Sawaf’s house by ATV.

Authorities searched Sawaf’s house June 21 and arrested him after finding wires, a fuse and other items identical or similar to components in the camera that injured Hall, according to a court record.

Police also found a small amount of marijuana and methamphetamine at Sawaf’s house, according to a court record.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Hanly A. Ingram ordered Sawaf held without bond until trial.

Ingram noted the sharply contrasting portraits of Sawaf at his detention hearing, “loving and caring to those who know him, but a secretive and anonymous explosives manufacturer whose devices are left for any hapless member of the public to find and trigger with serious resulting injuries.”

The evidence pointed to a “dangerously duplicitous individual” who appeared to have hidden his dangerous nature from his fiancée, Ingram said.

Ali Sawaf said his son was a wise, well-mannered man who loved Harlan and its people.

Mark Sawaf was upset because some of his trail cameras had been stolen, and put small amounts of explosive material in cameras — akin to fireworks — to deter thieves, Ali Sawaf said.

“His intention wasn’t to harm anybody,” Ali Sawaf said.

Ali Sawaf does not believe his son booby-trapped cameras that injured Hall and two others.

He visited his son in jail several times. “He said, ‘I’m frustrated. It’s a bunch of BS,’” Sawaf said.

In mid-July, an ATF technician looking for evidence on one of Mark Sawaf’s computers saw an image of a nude girl, age 6 to 8, facing the camera with her legs spread, according to an affidavit.

Mark Sawaf was facing eight charges of making or possessing unregistered destructive devices, a crime with a top sentence of 10 years in prison.

In mid-July, however, an ATF investigator looking for evidence on one of Sawaf’s computers saw an image of a nude girl, age 6 to 8, facing the camera with her legs spread, according to an affidavit by McMahan, the agent handling the explosives investigation.

Authorities applied for a separate warrant to see if the computer contained other images of child porn.

Ali Sawaf said the image could have been planted on his son’s computer or gotten there by way of a virus.

Mark Sawaf treated people dealing with such problems and would not have been involved in child porn, his father argues.

“This is not my son,” Ali Sawaf said.

‘He was chained up’

Mark Sawaf first denied making explosive devices, but later contacted authorities through his attorney and said he had in fact hidden explosive devices in trail cameras and placed several more in the woods, according to a motion filed by Assistant U.S Attorney Andrew H. Trimble.

Mark Sawaf offered to show police the other devices.

Ali Sawaf said his son had decided to plead guilty in order to reduce his potential prison time, and wanted to help police find the other trail cameras because he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.

Ingram approved a request for police to escort Sawaf into the woods to look for the cameras, but directed that he remain shackled.

Sawaf and several officers worked through the hot afternoon of Aug. 11, locating and dismantling seven cameras. Sawaf was upbeat and smiling that evening during a break for supper, his attorney told Ali Sawaf.

“He told his lawyer, ‘I’m relieved now,’” Ali Sawaf said.

Police hadn’t found all the explosive devices Mark Sawaf said he made and placed in the woods, however, so they took him back after supper to continue searching.

That’s when Mark Sawaf tried to escape, according to police and a court motion.

State police said that when officers caught Sawaf, he grabbed one officer’s gun.

State police said Todd Tremaine, a veteran ATF agent, was involved in the altercation with Sawaf along with Capt. Brad Dobrzynski of the Lexington Fire Department and Lexington police Lt. Matt Greathouse, who were helping in the search because of their expertise in explosives.

State police said Dobrzynski, who like other Lexington fire investigators is trained to carry a weapon, shot Sawaf during the altercation.

He was chained up! It just shouldn’t have happened like that.

Leslie Penn, the mother of Mark Sawaf’s girlfriend

Ali Sawaf said his son was shot in the head.

Ali Sawaf and friends of his son think police used excessive force, contending that officers could have subdued a handcuffed Mark Sawaf without killing him.

“He was chained up!” Leslie Penn said. “It just shouldn’t have happened like that.”

Ali Sawaf also argues that racism was involved, attempting to link the case to other fatal police shootings of people of color around the country. Sawaf said his son had written about racism on his Facebook page, but he offered no evidence that prejudice had anything to do with Mark Sawaf’s death.

State police have declined comment on whether they believe the use of deadly force against Sawaf was appropriate because of the continuing investigation.

Ultimately, a grand jury will decide whether the killing was justified.

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