Rasim Katanic is a refugee from the Bosnian War who tells the story of visiting a gymnasium full of corpses in search of his brother in vain.
Iman Al-Sarraj, who is only 18 years old, also has immigrant roots but has lost touch with his father who keeps hoping he will return.
Their lives are now connected by murder.
Chicago police are investigating whether the same man responsible for their deaths, Brandon Sanders, was previously arrested in Montana and accused of coercing his wife into prostitution.
Sanders has so far been charged with stabbing Katanic to death in May after a chance encounter on the roof of a restaurant in West Ridge. He has not been charged with the murder of Al-Sarraj, whose beaten body was found in the fridge in Sanders’ West Ridge apartment earlier this month.
Police said an investigation was ongoing, and sources told detectives the Sun-Times would likely investigate a similar missing persons case, given Sanders’ history in Montana.
“I wish it were just these two bodies,” said Katanic’s daughter, Aida Sutardo. “This is truly a devastating loss that we are still trying to process as a family.”
Al-Sarrj’s father said he never gave up hope of seeing his daughter again. “They didn’t give him a chance,” said Khalil Sarraj. “No one has the right to do that.”
As detectives investigated Sanders, they learned of his arrest at the Motel 6 in Great Falls, Montana, on August 14, 2019. An employee reported seeing him sitting in the parking lot while his wife “entertained many male guests” in a room, court records show.
His wife told investigators he came to the United States from Germany to attend college and was “very naïve” when she met Sanders, who she said encouraged her to become a sex worker and used “extreme violence” to keep her in line.
Sanders was charged with aggravated human trafficking and promotion of prostitution, records show. He was later charged with witness tampering after he and those close to him allegedly began to intimidate and harass his wife, who was in protective custody and eventually returned home to Germany.
She told a detective that she started dating Sanders in 2018 while attending college in Chicago, and “he convinced her to try prostitution as a way for them to make easy money,” according to court records.
Sanders “used increasing violence to force her to remain in prostitution,” including strangling her in front of a hotel mirror, records show. He told investigators that Sanders got him addicted to cocaine, which he said he used to get “through meetings with clients”.
But Sanders’ trial was postponed because his wife “refused to travel to the United States because of the risk of COVID-19”, according to court records. He was acquitted on his own admission, and the case was eventually dropped when the judge did not allow him to testify virtually.
“In addition to the pandemic being the main reason for this, I also feel emotionally unprepared to face all of this in the courtroom,” he said in an email to prosecutors. “I don’t want to see Brandon either.”
Joshua Racki, a prosecutor in the case, said Sanders faced about 25 years in prison but would likely be given a lesser sentence of around 10 years if he is found guilty.
“I wish we could get it,” Racki said. “But with the judge making that decision, that’s where we are.”
Sanders already has a record in Chicago. He pleaded guilty to hiding in the backseat of his ex-girlfriend’s car in 2016 and choking her from behind, then sending threatening text messages, court records show.
Sanders’ next run-in with Chicago police occurred on January 1 this year when he was kicked out of the Electric Hotel Nightclub at 222 W. Ontario St. “out of anger,” according to the arrest report.
When a manager escorted him out of the club, Sanders threatened to take a gun from his car, then pushed the manager, according to the report. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery.
“I’m afraid s—less than this guy,” said the manager. “He’s as upset as a person.”
The charges were dropped during Sanders’ first court hearing later that month.
Rasim Katanic with his beloved dog RJ, a beagle mix.
Later in the afternoon of May 12, Sanders took a walk in the “Little India” area of West Ridge, according to prosecutors.
He stopped at Hanmi Bank, 6335 N. Western Ave., where he began “behaving erratically” around 2:20 p.m. while trying to open an account, prosecutors said. He called the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center and reported “plots to overthrow the government”, prompting an employee to call the police.
He left before police showed up and went into a shoe store on Devon and West streets, walking through a back room into a backyard, prosecutors said. Surveillance footage shows him lingering in the yard around 4pm, then climbing the stairs to an adjacent roof where Katanic is working on a compressor cooler.
Katanic is later found stabbed to death.
The next day, two recent graduates from Chicago’s Loyola University reported burglaries at their Devon and Western apartments, prosecutors said. Sanders had unscrewed the skylight using a Katanic screwdriver, then shaved in the bathroom, changed his clothes and left some evidence, according to prosecutors.
Katanic’s wallet was left on the table, Timberland Sanders boots were placed in the oven, and a pitcher of water with Sanders’ DNA was found on the stove, prosecutors said. A screwdriver and a hair clipper are placed above the mailbox at the front of the building.
Surveillance footage shows Sanders leaving shortly before 6 p.m., wearing some of the stolen clothes with his Katanic key hanging from his belt, prosecutors said. He then walked into a furniture store in the 2700 block of West Devon Avenue where he had previously worked.
Sanders confronted his uncle, who said he was acting erratically and called the shop owner for help, prosecutors said. When the owner arrived, Sanders told him he no longer had to pay rent “because the owner is on the roof and he takes care of it”.
He eventually went to Evanston, where he flagged a police officer and asked to be taken to a hospital, prosecutors said.
He was arrested on June 29 and charged with murder, along with felony charges of burglary and robbery. At his bail hearing, Sanders’ lawyer said there were “some mental issues.” He remains held without bail.
The same day he appeared in court, police searched his apartment and found Al-Sarraj’s body.
Rasim Katanic poses with his wife.
Katanic’s daughter, Aida Sutardio, said she had a hard time understanding “that he was butchered on the roof.”
“Did we ever process it? Have we ever thought about how to move forward from this or what it could collectively mean for us? he asked.
While Katanic lived a full life, Sutardio said it was defined by tragic events.
During the Bosnian War in the 1990s, he spent months hiding in the jungle from Serb soldiers, Sutardio said. After her brother went missing, she went to the gymnasium where the remains of the mass grave were taken, hoping to find her brother’s body or belongings.
He never did.
“I think it really broke my dad,” said his daughter. “And that’s how we ended up in America.”
Katanic took English courses, became a licensed contractor and served as the primary caregiver for his two daughters because his wife worked nights. He encouraged them to get an education, work hard and keep their loved ones close.
He retired at age 66 but continued to perform maintenance work for a longtime client of his heating, ventilation and air conditioning business. That includes Tahoora Sweets & Bakery, 2345 W. Devon Ave., where he was murdered.
“We never thought that his life would end like this,” said Sutardio. “Living in Chicago, you hear [violence], you read about it. You never think that you will be part of the statistics.”
In a haunting coincidence, Sutardio said he learned that Al-Sarraj’s body was found in Sanders’ apartment from a family member who lived nearby.
He questioned why Sanders was free then.
“I feel that every step in the system, the crimes keep getting bigger until it ends with two people being killed,” said Sutardio. “And I think that just reflects how inconsistent our system is and how many holes there are.”
Khalil Sarraj was driving a taxi in downtown Chicago when police called him earlier this month.
The officer tells Sarraj that they need to meet. After asking why, Sarraj suddenly realized what it was about: “Oh God, please, I started crying. Is he okay? Is he alive? Is he dead?”
Officers told him that his daughter had been killed.
Al-Sarraj was born in Chicago after Sarraj came to the United States from Israel. Al-Sarraj’s mother is from Yugoslavia, and Al-Sarraj was born in Chicago.
“My heart is torn to pieces,” he said. “I will never have a normal life, especially after I saw my daughter’s face and what that monster did to her.”
Every day he visited the tomb of Al-Sarraj. “I pray for his soul.”
Sarraj and his wife, Arnetia Seals, detail Al-Sarraj’s brief and turbulent life.
He grew up on the Northwest Side with his mother, who dropped him from school around third or fourth grade, Sarraj said. Still, he and his wife were able to enroll her at Schurz High School in Irving Park as a freshman.
He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and began adjusting to a more normal life.
“He lost many years,” said Sarraj, “but he is fine.”
Despite his efforts to “put all the pieces together”, Al-Sarraj fled about a year later.
Her mother contacted Sarraj at one point and told him that their daughter wanted to get back together with him, but Al-Sarraj insisted that her mother was “lying” and that she was happy where she was.
Last August, Sarraj texted his daughter because his brother was in town from Israel and wanted to meet her.
“I don’t want to see anyone,” he texted back.
It was the last communication he had with his father.