Sunday, November 18, 2012

A promise between Ethiopian friends ends in a murder-suicide

Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post -  Mesfin Nega, right, is cared for by his older sister,
Mamie Preston, in Washington on Sept. 18, 2006.

By Paul Schwartzman, Published: October 25

The two men were close friends, dancing at nightclubs, listening to reggae music, talking about their aspirations and, sometimes, their worst fears. If one suffered a life-threatening injury, they promised each other, the other would make sure to disconnect him from any machine keeping him alive.

Neither man would allow the other to suffer.
In 2006, the year after Mesfin Nega and Shimelis Yegazu made their pact, a group of men attacked Nega outside an Adams Morgan nightclub, breaking his neck and damaging his spinal cord. When he awoke from an induced coma, his breathing made possible by a ventilator, Nega learned that he was a quadriplegic.

For six years, Nega and Yegazu did nothing. Then, three months ago, on Aug. 14, Yegazu fulfilled his promise, D.C. police announced Wednesday. He administered a lethal dose of phenobarbital to his friend in the Columbia Heights rowhouse that Nega, 38, shared with his sister, police said.

Yegazu, 38, who was visiting from his home in Colorado, then took the drug himself. He died five days later. Police have classified the case as a murder-suicide.

A police official with knowledge of the investigation said detectives think the two men carried out a long-planned suicide pact, in which one would help the other die and then take his own life. The police official said the men probably swallowed pills that caused their deaths.

Mamie Mesfin, Nega’s sister, a nurse at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, said yesterday that her brother had long been despondent over his physical state and had told her numerous times that he wanted to commit suicide. But she had not believed that he would because he had no use of his hands.

“How would he do it?” Mamie Mesfin asked. “He couldn’t scratch his nose. You had to move his arm for him.”

It had not occurred to her, she said, that Yegazu, the father of a 3-year-old daughter, would assist her brother with his suicide. She said she knew nothing of a suicide pact and did not realize that her brother’s friend, who went by the nickname “Shime,” was in despair.

“The mystery is how and why Shime was that down,” she said.

Lydia Tabesse, 34, a friend to both men, said she was aware that Nega and Yegazu had talked of helping each other if either suffered a critical injury after which he was kept alive by a ventilator.

She said she was present when the two men discussed the idea seven years ago.

Nega told Yegazu, she said: “ ‘If anything were to happen to me, I hope you got my back. I hope you advocate on my side not to keep me on a machine.’ ”

After doctors put Nega on a ventilator to keep him alive, Tabesse said, Yegazu “had a lot of guilt. Mesfin was on the machine, and he was saying he felt guilty for not doing anything about it or pulling the plug. He was like, ‘I made a promise to him.’ ”

Instead, Yegazu led a fundraising drive to cover Nega’s medical costs.

The men were friends for about a decade, Tabesse said, having become close at a reggae festival in California. She described them as “very tight. They were like kindred spirits, very brave about taking challenges.”
Before suffering his injuries, Nega, who emigrated from Ethi­o­pia when he was 12, was a free spirit, working construction and other jobs to help subsidize his appetite for dancing at nightclubs. In his free time, he also liked to play golf and basketball, lift weights and listen to Bob Marley’s music.

In May 2006, Nega went to a club on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan. It was 2:30 a.m., closing time, and the security guard would not let him in. As Nega persisted, four men who were passing by intervened. They lifted Nega up and threw him against a metal grating. They punched and stomped him on the sidewalk.
Several ran away, but police arrested Miguel Angel Avalos, then 22, who was later sentenced to eight years for the attack.

At George Washington University Hospital, a vigil was kept for Nega, his relatives flying in from across the country and from Ethi­o­pia. Eventually, he was moved to a rehabilitation ward and then to Mamie Mesfin’s rowhouse. A construction company, reading an account of Nega’s injuries in The Washington Post, transformed Mamie Mesfin’s home to accommodate her brother.

Nearly two years after her brother’s attack, Mamie Mesfin’s husband, Edwin Preston, a surgeon at Providence Hospital, was killed in a car crash. The couple had just celebrated the birth of their son, Paulos.

Despite losing her husband, Mamie Mesfin said Wednesday, she could not afford to allow herself to be overcome by sorrow.

Her brother and her newborn, she said, “gave me a reason to live.”

Nega spent his days in bed watching movies and, with the help of a device, navigating the Internet. His sister said he was in constant physical agony.

“I was there with him for six years, but I could never feel the pain he went through,” she said. “It was like putting his hand in hot oil.”

Still, she said, he never lost his irreverant sense of humor.

A religious woman, Mamie Mesfin sometimes asked her brother to pray with her.

“Yeah,” he would reply, “that funny God you believe in.”

Her brother would joke that his relatives and friends were “selfish” for keeping him alive after he was attacked.

“Why would you want to keep me around like this?” he would ask.

More than a year ago, Tabesse said, Nega told her that he had “found a drug in China” that would allow him to commit suicide.

“He told me it’s supposed to be very easy as long as he has someone to administer it,” she recalled. “I asked, ‘Who is crazy enough to do that for you?’ He said, ‘I found someone.’ ”

At first, she recalled, he refused to identify the person. Then he told her it was Yegazu. He swore her to secrecy, she said.

In July, she said, she confronted Yegazu about the idea of suicide, asking: “Can you see yourself ending your life? And he said, ‘Not at this moment.’ ”

She never imagined that Yegazu would help Nega kill himself, if only because he was a father and he could be charged with homicide.

In mid-August, Yegazu flew in to visit Nega. On the night of Aug. 13, the two men were up late watching movies. Nega’s nurse, Omowumi Dairo, left them alone in Nega’s room. Nothing, she said, seemed out of the ordinary.

When she came down the next morning, Dairo recalled, Nega did not respond when she tried to talk to him. Yeguza was on the couch. She thought that he was asleep. It was only after shaking Nega that she became alarmed and called 911.

Later, Mamie Mesfin found an exchange of e-mails between her brother and Yegazu, a conversation that occurred several days before Yegazu arrived for his visit.

“I will be there Friday,” Yegazu wrote, she recalled Wednesday.

“Are you sure?” her brother responded.

Yegazu repeated that he would be there.

Yegazu asked, “Did you get enough for two?”

Days later, the two men were buried side by side.

Keith Alexander and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.