A Liking For Nietzsche, A Dislike Of Convention -- Murder Suspects Wrote Of Feelings Of Superiority

When Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns first gravitated toward each other in a high-school English class, it was no surprise to those who knew them.

Quick to challenge authority, fond of philosophical riddles and gifted intellectually, the two were very much alike.

"They were extremely enthusiastic," said Drew Meikle, who taught their West Vancouver (B.C.) Secondary School 10th-grade honors English class. "They were always taking an adversarial position. They loved to wrangle."

Unlike many students in his classes, Rafay and Burns cherished a good debate, Meikle said.

Friends who spent nearly every waking moment of the past year together now sit in separate jail cells, awaiting their government's decision on whether they will be extradited to the United States to face three counts of aggravated first-degree murder.

Burns and Rafay, both 19, were charged in King County Superior Court on Tuesday with the July 1994 bludgeoning deaths of Rafay's parents and sister in Bellevue's Somerset neighborhood.

With the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Bellevue investigators pieced together a case based on DNA evidence and, prosecutors say, an audiotape in which the two describe the crime in great detail.

Prosecutors contend the motive for the slayings was greed, that Burns and Rafay thought they could earn about $350,000 from the Rafay estate. RCMP investigators are trying to determine whether Rafay and Burns conspired to carry out the slayings while living in Canada.

Rafay and Burns grew up in the upscale Vancouver suburb of West Vancouver and attended Hillside Middle School. But it wasn't until high school, when both enrolled in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, that they cultivated a friendship.

Both were smarter than average and enjoyed flaunting it. Despite high grades, they earned a reputation among some teachers and administrators as troublemakers.

Most notable was their reported involvement in a yearbook prank. The book was altered just before publication with photo captions exchanged for degrading phrases describing teachers and fellow students. The entire yearbook had to be revised and reprinted at great cost to the school.

During their final year at West Vancouver Secondary, Burns acted in a play directed by another close friend.

The play, based on "Rope," by Patrick Hamilton, is a tale of two wealthy college students who murder an acquaintance, stuff him in a trunk and host a dinner party with the closed trunk as the serving table.

The school's yearbook entry for the play, which features Burns goofing around with the cast, said the production "explores the concept of murder legally condoned by the judgment of the `enlightened few.' "

Chelsea Krokosinski, who acted in the play with Burns, described him as both outgoing and intellectual but with few acting skills.

"We would always end up sitting around discussing the plot of the play and wondering if someone would really do it," Krokosinski said recently from Eastern Canada, where she attends school.

Rafay earned top grades in his classes. He also entered an essay contest sponsored by the University of British Columbia and took first prize out of thousands of entries from across Canada.

His brief essay, in which he quotes the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, was titled, "A Revaluation of Tolerance."

The essay argues that the lack of absolute moral code leads to a new kind of tolerance: a desire for disparity.

Burns shared Rafay's affinity for Nietzsche and the two became well-versed in Nietzsche's philosophies.

"(Rafay) was always mentioning that everything that people take for granted, like laws and morality, are just convention," recalled Dan Hutchison, who attended high school with the two and roomed with Rafay in a Cornell University dorm in his freshman year.

"If you are serious enough about the idea that things in general are convention, then there's nothing that would give you a reason to believe in anything."

Their intellectualism fostered a kind of superiority complex, acquaintances said, and the two seemed to enjoy mocking their peers. "Striding across his realm like a Titan," Burns wrote in the yearbook about himself, "Sebastian's furious contempt for the petty strictures of the plebeians about him could not be contained by the all-too-small hallways."

Rafay expressed a similar view.

"Hearing the cries of the plebs below, Atif descended through the clouds," he wrote in his quote. "Casting aside the hollow illusions of his peers, he gazed bemusedly at the petty struggles of those around him and began to laugh."

But graduation from West Vancouver Secondary meant separation.

One of the top 10 scholars in Canada, Rafay earned a scholarship to Cornell. Burns, who never earned his International Baccalaureate diploma, went to the University of British Columbia.

Burns accompanied Rafay to Cornell in the fall of 1993, stopping at the home of Rafay's uncle in Toronto for a brief visit, then staying with him for about a week.

Hutchison said Rafay and Burns remained friends, talked on the phone occasionally and saw each other on vacations.

At Cornell, Rafay's interest in Nietzsche grew. One of his first-semester classes was an introductory course in ethics.

"He was quite a bright student," said his professor, Alan Wood. "He had an impressively wide knowledge of Nietzsche."

When Rafay received a B-plus on a paper, he complained, Wood said, arguing that he knew more than the teaching assistant who graded it.

Rafay seemed a typical college freshman. He went to movies, wrote term papers and argued late into the night with other students about the meaning of life. He talked of a possible filmmaking career.

But summer vacation changed all that.

Rafay, whose parents had recently moved to Bellevue, decided to spend the summer with Burns. The two were visiting Rafay's family in their Somerset home when Tariq, Sultana and Basma Rafay were bludgeoned to death.

The two had detailed alibis for the night of the killings and returned to Vancouver before the family was buried.

At first, they lived with Burns' parents but then rented a house in a hilltop neighborhood in North Vancouver.

The young men lived nocturnal lives for nearly a year behind the drab drapes of the two-story house. They slept by day and went out to clubs or watched movies at night, sometimes blaring music that prompted complaints from neighbors.

In a brief telephone conversation several weeks before the arrests, Rafay expressed boredom and disappointment that police investigations prevented him from returning to Cornell. He spoke of plans to enroll at the University of British Columbia or another Canadian university this fall.

Some of Rafay's relatives, who live in other parts of Canada, say it was Burns who led Rafay to the jail cell where he stands accused of killing his family.

"It seemed he was leashed to him," said Anwar Fayez, sister of Rafay's mother. "I'm 100 percent sure he had a bad influence."

But other friends insist the friendship was built on mutual admiration and a similar belief system.

"Why is anyone friends?" asked the friend, who didn't want his name used. "They enjoyed each other's company."