Yale’s admissions officers were not the only ones duped by Akash Maharaj’s alleged deceptions. He fooled everyone he met at Yale, too — until his boyfriend discovered his secret.
Interviews with some of Maharaj’s former professors and classmates reveal a portrait of a smart, pleasant, sometimes shy, politically minded student — a lot like most Yalies. That was before the former Morse College junior was removed from the University last summer and arrested last September for forging his application to Yale and stealing financial-aid money.
Those who knew him personally were no less surprised than administrators in the Yale College Dean’s Office when they discovered that everything about him was allegedly a lie.
“From what I can ascertain, the kid did a really good job of keeping everybody unaware,” said Stephanie Wright ’08, who took an English seminar with Maharaj.
Yale’s English program was the reason Maharaj wanted to transfer to Yale from Columbia University, he said in a phone interview earlier this month. He said Yale’s English Department was stronger than Columbia’s, and it would boost his chance of admission into Yale’s English doctoral program.
Professor Shameem Black, who taught Maharaj in her “Fiction Without Borders” seminar, said he actively participated in class and was “very enjoyable” to teach.
Black said Maharaj was bright and high-achieving. But when his grades were not as good as he wanted, Maharaj could be “pushy,” said English Professor Wai Chee Dimock, who taught Maharaj in her “Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald” class.
“He was obsessed with getting a good grade,” she said.
A paper he wrote for her class, titled “Procreation in Gatsby,” won the Henry H. Strong Prize in American Literature from the English Department.
‘A normal Yale student’
Maharaj’s classmates also said they remember him as a bright student.
“He didn’t stick out as someone who didn’t have a clue about what he was doing academically,” Wright said. “He made intelligent comments that added to the class.”
Maharaj maintained that he is just as qualified as any Yale student.
“I got great grades — it’s not like I was not up to the task,” Maharaj said earlier this month. “I’m not someone who had to forge to get in.”
And he did not appear out of place.
“He didn’t seem like somebody who didn’t deserve to be at Yale,” said Jonathan Thompson ’09, also a transfer student in Morse, who said he remembers sharing a few lunches with Maharaj, as well as casual conversations when they passed in the courtyard. “He seemed like a normal Yale student to me.”
Though shy, Maharaj integrated himself into the fabric of student life, finding a boyfriend and taking an interest in extracurricular activities. Students interviewed said they remembered him for his political awareness and activism.
In a 982-word guest column in the March 28, 2007, edition of the News, Maharaj criticized Republican fear-mongering and Democratic spinelessness on issues including the war in Iraq and gay marriage.
“The power players in Washington should have their own reality show,” he wrote. “They know how to distort truth, and how to create scandalous episodes that inspire water-cooler conversation.”
Just after his September 2007 arrest for defrauding Yale, Maharaj started contributing to a political blog called “Smart, Sexy & Progressive … What About You?”
He has used his Facebook profile as another platform for political expression, posting links to news articles and commenting on them.
Columbia to Yale, and vice versa?
To his peers at Yale, Maharaj presented himself as a wealthy 21-year-old Briton. He told them he attended Columbia for his freshman and sophomore years and then transferred to Yale.
But Maharaj is 26 years old and a native of Trinidad and Tobago. He attended St. John’s University in New York for the 2002-’03 academic year and New York University in 2003-’04, those universities confirmed. He attended Columbia from fall 2004 until spring 2006, according to a police affidavit.
But in his application to Yale, Maharaj claimed to have attended Columbia from fall 2003 to spring 2005, then taken fall 2005 off on medical leave and spent spring 2006 in Sri Lanka, according to an affidavit signed by Sgt. Steven Woznyk of the Yale Police Department.
The story in Maharaj’s application differed from what he told his classmates. He told yet another story to the Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper. Maharaj told the paper in March 2006 that he transferred to Columbia from Yale at the beginning of the academic year and wanted to transfer back.
The author of the article, Aviva Erlich, said she remembered interviewing Maharaj in person, but his application to Yale claimed he was in Sri Lanka during spring 2006.
Maharaj told the News earlier this month that the article misrepresented him. He said he will return to Columbia in the fall but that those plans are not yet final.
The restraining order
Maharaj left Columbia by choice, but he left Yale in handcuffs.
His secret life began to unravel when his love life began to crumble. The events leading up to his September arrest for larceny and forgery began with a row between Maharaj and his boyfriend.
In May 2007, Maharaj’s boyfriend decided to end their relationship, which he decided was unhealthy, according to the affidavit submitted with the warrant for Maharaj’s arrest. Maharaj responded by threatening to kill himself, according to the affidavit, so the boyfriend agreed to try to resolve their problems if Maharaj sought psychiatric treatment.
The ex-boyfriend declined to comment. Maharaj did not return phone calls seeking comment over the weekend.
Maharaj called his English professor, Sara Suleri Goodyear, and told her he was “distraught and suicidal” and wanted to meet with her. Goodyear asked Black to be present at the meeting, where the professors persuaded Maharaj to willingly seek psychiatric help, Black said.
When asked about Maharaj in an e-mail, Goodyear replied: “I hope we are too tired and too sane to spend any more [time] on this.”
The boyfriend brought Maharaj to a New York City hospital. After several attempts at escape, Maharaj was moved to an isolation unit, which infuriated him so much that he threatened to kill his boyfriend, according to the affidavit.
The boyfriend reported that threat to the Yale Police Department on June 9, 2007, according to the affidavit. This same complaint prompted the Yale College Dean’s Office investigation that discovered discrepancies in Maharaj’s application.
The next day the ex-boyfriend called Maharaj to tell him their relationship was over and to stop calling him. But the day after, Maharaj called him back. The boyfriend told him he would report further contact to the police as harassment, but Maharaj continued to call and e-mail him, according to the affidavit.
On June 21, the ex-boyfriend, accompanied by a YPD sergeant and Assistant Dean of Yale College Rosalinda Garcia, filed for a temporary restraining order in the New Haven Superior Court.
At 2:53 a.m. on June 23, two days after he was served with the restraining order, Maharaj called the YPD to report that his ex-boyfriend had contacted him about their relationship, according to the affidavit. He said the call was dropped and he sent a text message back, and he wanted to clarify that he did not initiate the communication, which he knew violated the restraining order, according to the affidavit.
But on June 28, Maharaj sent three e-mails to his ex-boyfriend.
“Soon you’ll have everything you want and I’ll have nothing,” an e-mail sent at 3:41 p.m. read. “The dean sent me a letter today that was not great,” the message continued, referring to the letter that Yale College Dean Peter Salovey sent Maharaj that day informing him that his admission was being rescinded.
Hours later, another e-mail read: “don’t hate me.” And a third: “I’m getting drunk in a few minutes …”
Maharaj has been charged with violating his restraining order, along with charges of larceny and forgery for allegedly defrauding Yale. The alleged discrepancies in his application were only discovered because his relationship with his ex-boyfriend ruptured — at least, that is how Maharaj explained it in a seven-page letter he sent last July to the Yale General Counsel’s Office after his admission was rescinded.
In the letter, Maharaj blamed his ex-boyfriend for abuse and manipulation, according to the affidavit. He wrote that his ex threatened to access his Columbia records through his secret-society connections. But Yale’s investigation found no evidence of any tampering with Maharaj’s file, according to the affidavit. It found the documents Maharaj had submitted in his application to be fraudulent.
Maharaj blamed the discrepancies between the transcript he submitted and the records at Columbia on identity theft and the confusion of the Columbia registrar, according to the affidavit.
But Maharaj’s letter did not allay the concerns of the Yale College Dean’s Office, nor those of the YPD, who arrested Maharaj in September.
At a hearing today in the New Haven Superior Court, Maharaj, who has pleaded not guilty, will apply to have the charges against him dismissed and his record wiped clean if a judge concludes the offense was not serious and is not likely to be repeated.