Driven from his native Afghanistan in 1979 by the Soviet invasion, Wassel came to America, learned to speak six languages, worked his way through the City College of New York, and became a U.S. citizen. Convinced the medium of film could be used to foster world peace and understanding, Wassel spent six years writing and directing Firedancer, an autobiographical story chronicling the pain suffered by the Afghani people under the twenty year Soviet occupation. To cut costs, the director lived with his three brothers in a rundown apartment in Chelsea, used nonprofessionals in the film, and exercised his considerable charm to secure financial backing for the project. Bruce Hathaway, composer for Firedancer, described Wassel as a "visionary" who would "promise the world" to get what he needed for the film, but disappointed many when his promises were not fulfilled. Wassel allegedly promised Nathan Chandler Powell a producer's credit and 30% of the gross for Firedancer in exchanged for becoming the film's principal financial backer. On the afternoon of October 3, 2001, hours before the film's New York City premiere, the 42-year-old filmmaker showed up at Powell's Long Island City apartment in Queens in a bid to convince the investor to take a smaller percentage. The pair argued and Powell struck Wassel in the throat with a pool cue stabbing him to death as the filmmaker fought for breath. Powell dismembered Wassel's body with a hacksaw and stored the severed head in the freezer of his refrigerator. Afterwards, the producer attended the screening of Firedancer.
The following evening, a Nassau County police officer made a routine stop of a motorist driving a van erratically with its lights off in the area of Bethpage State Park on Long Island. "I knew I wasn't dealing with somebody going home from work," commented the patrolman after seeing a shovel, a pickax, and two bloody boxes stuffed with body parts in the vehicle. The van's driver, Nathan Powell, was arrested and authorities believed their murder case against the producer was air-tight after they retrieved Wassel's head from his freezer. In the first recorded use of the "9/11 defense," however, Powell claimed he was traumatized by the recent terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Wassel, he claimed, told him the attack was "America's just deserts" and made similar pro-Taliban statements against his adopted country. The Afghani-American filmmaker also allegedly threatened to use his Taliban contacts to have Powell's family killed. Outraged by Wassel's anti-American remarks, the "patriotic" producer killed the traitor during a fit of temporary insanity. Powell's accusations, however, did not jibe with Wassel's actions. In the wake of 9/11, the director took to the streets to film various victims' memorials for a planned documentary entitled New York Shrines. Wassel had also given U.S. intelligence authorities over 80 hours of film shot in Afghanistan showing roads and mountain passes to aid in the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. On the eve of his trial in June 2003, Powell scrapped the dubious "9/11 defense" and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, Powell could be out in 15 with time off for good behavior and time already served. In 2002, Firedancer became Afghanistan's first submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. As of April 2014, Nathan Chandler Powell, Inmate #03A4785, was housed in the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, New York.