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About 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 15, EMTs responded to an emergency call at 9th and U streets NW. Moments later, a patient was loaded into an ambulance. In court filings, police officers said the patient “had a contusion and abrasion on the forehead as well as a laceration to the upper and lower lip, with significant bruising to his forearms.” The man was rushed to Howard University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
That much, at least, is clear.
Almost everything else that happened early that morning outside the DC9 rock club, on the other hand, remains subject to significant confusion. In a radio transmission to Howard, an EMT supervisor had identified the patient as a 45-year-old black male. In fact, Ali Ahmed Mohammed was in his late 20s. The supervisor described his condition as “Traumatic cardiac arrest after a fight. No obvious trauma that we could see, but he…he’s in arrest basically.” But medical examiners would eventually suggest there was much more to it than that.
By the morning after Mohammed’s death, conflicting accounts of what happened to him were already emerging. What most agree on is that Mohammed, after being denied entrance to DC9, threw at least one brick through the club’s window, and that he was pursued into the street by club employees. Hours later, five of those people—William Spieler, 46, Darryl Carter, 20, Reginald Phillips, 22, Evan Preller, 28, and Arthur Zaloga , 25—were arrested and charged with murder.
But even the official accusations became muddled. Charging documents initially cited an eyewitness who claimed to have seen the five tackle, punch, and kick the 27-year-old immigrant until he was unconscious. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier called the alleged beating a “savage” act of “vigilante justice.” Other habitués of the nightclub, though, insisted that no such savagery had taken place. They said the men, none of them known as brawlers, merely restrained Mohammed while awaiting the police.
Authorities eventually downgraded the charges against the five, then dropped them all together—albeit with the knowledge that they could re-file after autopsy results came in. But even the much-anticipated medical examiner’s ruling deepened the mystery. While the manner was declared “homicide,” the cause of death was ruled “excited delirium associated with arrhythmogenic cardiac anomalies, alcohol intoxication and physical exertion with restraint,” which would seem to corroborate the non-savage version of events.
Prosecutors are still investigating. No new charges have been filed.
In the meantime, lawyers, cops, activists, and reporters are poring over every detail of what did or didn’t happen that terrible night. But in the fervor over the unsolved mystery, the city has learned very little about one key piece of the story: The man who wound up dead.
Ahmed Mohammed Galtchu came to the United States in 1995, happy to be in a country that offered more opportunity than rural Ethiopia—but heartbroken to have left his family back home. Galtchu chose D.C., he says, because he had friends here; otherwise, he knew almost nothing about the city he would grow to care deeply about.
Galtchu made a life for himself in the District. He found a small apartment among the brick and wrought iron buildings of Somerset Place NW. A friend helped him score a job at a nearby 7-Eleven. But sometimes, early in the morning, he would wake up in tears. When that happened, there was only one remedy. He would pick up the phone and dial Ethiopia, so he could hear the voices of the wife and five children he’d left behind.
In an interview at his attorney’s office, Galtchu says he left Ethiopia mostly because of the children, “so they would have a better education.”
It took two years to earn enough money to fly the entire family to the District. Galtchu never wavered, working at 7-Eleven and a number of odd jobs on the side. The day he went to the airport, it all seemed worth it. His wife and three of his children arrived on one plane. Two other sons came on a later flight. One was his 14-year-old fourth child, Mohammed. The skinny, round-headed lad was soon enrolled in Paul Public Charter School.
As a kid, Mohammed “got average grades,” his father recalls, and picked up English quickly. He spent most of his time playing with other Ethiopian kids. His father says they used to play soccer in the streets near the family’s Brightwood apartment. Mohammed hoped to go to college, but after graduating from Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in 2001, the family realized there wasn’t enough money. Mohammed, always easygoing, adjusted.
Out of school, Mohammed hung around the house, helping his dad with projects. He would go out with friends, read books and watch movies. Coming of age on the cusp of a recession, Mohammed had a hard time finding a job. He tried working at the nursing home where his mother also worked, but that only lasted a month. For reasons his dad couldn’t remember—“maybe he thought he didn’t have the right training”—he despised the job and quit.
Mohammed passed some of the time in his room, listening to music on headphones. When he found something he thought his father might like, he’d put the headphones around the patriarch’s ears and make him listen. “This is that old music that you like,” he’d tease.
A short, stocky, caramel-colored man with tired eyes and a heavy gait, Galtchu doesn’t smile much. But when he remembers these particular moments with his son, his face lights up. “He was my baby,” he says after a couple of beats.
But Mohammed wasn’t, really. He was a man, and he had to find work. Friends say Mohammed got a job as a security guard for FedEx. From the way his father talks about him, a job that involves throwing one’s weight around would seem an odd choice for Mohammed. “He never even yelled,” his father says. Mohammed’s mother, Shashie Bule , wouldn’t sit for an interview. Galtchu says his wife of 35 years sobs for her son every day.
Around 9th Street NW, where DC9 is located and also the heart of the area known as Little Ethiopia, locals paint a consistent picture of Mohammed, who was a neighborhood regular. No one ever saw him get into a fight, or even get angry. “He was a joke boy,” long-time friend and big-sister figure Tegest Kapaw says, explaining that he used to come to the restaurant where she worked and josh around with customers. Friends in Little Ethiopia also say that despite the alcohol the medical examiner found in his system, Mohammed was not much of a partier.
Mohammed stuck with his job for years. He was generous with his earnings, bringing little random gifts home for his relatives—“socks or a shirt,” his father remembers. Mohammed was fastidious about his appearance. On days he was working, his uniform was crisp and unstained. Off the clock, he was just as attentive, regularly sporting fresh haircuts and stylish clothes. In one picture Mohammed’s father keeps around, the young man looks suave in brown leather boots, gray slacks and collared shirt. In another, he sports street gear, complemented by a baseball cap cocked to the side.
The discerning, perfectionist gaze Mohammed wielded wasn’t limited to clothes. He had opinions about other things. He regularly gave his father and other relatives advice about how they could be better. “He said, ‘look, Dad, you can do it this way,’” remembers Galtchu.
Fifi Woldeamlak , the former manager at Little Ethiopia’s Shashemene Restaurant, calls Mohammed “a typical young Americanized male.” She says she got to know him because he frequented the restaurant, and because he was particular about his drinks. Twice, a waitress made a mistake with his drink order. Each time, Mohammed didn’t immediately raise a stink. But he did call Woldeamlak later to complain. Even then, she remembers, he joked his way through most of the conversation.
Part of being a typical young Americanized Ethiopian male, in Woldeamlak’s estimation, is restaurant-hopping. She says that groups of Ethiopian-American friends descend nightly on Little Ethiopia: “They get one drink here and another there.” The point isn’t to get roaring drunk, “just tipsy.”
Which is how Mohammed wound up in close proximity to DC9 on the last night of his life.
One thing to know about Little Ethiopia: It’s not little. Decade-old census figures place the number of Ethiopians in the region at about 30,000, but community members suspect the real number is considerably higher—at least 100,000. It’s the largest Ethiopian community outside Ethiopia, says Andrew Laurence , president of the Ethiopian-American Cultural Center and the neighborhood’s unofficial historian.
Like the demographic that congregates there, Little Ethiopia has been growing. Today, Laurence says, it encompasses a “traditional border of 18th Street in Adams Morgan from Columbia Road to Florida Avenue over to 9th Street along Florida (U Street) to 9th Street and then down 9th Street to Q Street and over to 7th and Q Street.” Of course, Ethiopians aren’t the only ones who flock to the 1900 block of 9th Street NW. DC9, with its appeal to white hipsters, and Nellie’s, a gay sports bar on the corner, reflect two other populations with a growing presence in the neighborhood.
Laurence says D.C. became a hub for Ethiopian immigrants starting in the 1970s, “when Haile Selassie was overthrown.” The Marxist military regime that took over began killing off elites and intellectuals, Laurence says. Many fled to America, which had supported the deposed monarchy. The immigrant population was initially centered in Adams Morgan, near the former home of the Ethiopian embassy.
As so often happens with immigrant populations, a small initial group achieved critical mass: “As soon as a small community of Ethiopians moved here, others would be attracted to the area to feel comfortable around their own people,” Laurence says. “Soon grocery and hair shops, restaurants, and even churches were developed to cater to their needs and this brought even more people to the area.” Ethiopians quickly spread throughout the region, to places like Falls Church and Arlington in Virginia, and Takoma Park, Hyattsville, and Silver Spring in Maryland, where Mohammed’s family moved to in 2004.
Ethiopian communities in the states are often anchored to an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, practicing the form of Christianity that is the primary religion in Ethiopia. As a way of helping Ethiopian children born in America hold on to family culture, these churches often provide classes in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language. Though practitioners of Ethiopia’s second-largest religion, Islam, attend mosques, the two groups—Christians and Muslims—socialize heavily when it comes to non-religious activities.
In Mohammed’s case, few who hung out with him thought of him in terms of his religious affiliation. Along 9th Street, the only externally visible dividing line that applied to him was between Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians.
At around 9:30 on a Saturday night in Little Ethiopia, the restaurant of the same name is full. Waitresses in color-trimmed white dresses float about delivering extra dishes of injera to scoop up the spicy food. Most of the faces clustered around messobs—knee-high straw tables—are young and white. A few Ethiopians sit around a bamboo bar where the offerings include Johnny Walker Black Label, Green Label, and Red Label.
An hour later, everything is different. The tourists have cleared out. A table of young Ethiopian-American males jovially orders rounds of Heineken instead of food. The place surges with music: Three traditional musicians vibrate on a recessed stage, one of them wailing on a trio of tiger-skinned drums. As the number of outsiders decreases, the room gets more and more relaxed, with customers getting up to dance with the performers, and a few bouts of call and response between audience and band.
Meanwhile, the drinks keep flowing.
“You go to the restaurant for just one thing, to have a good time,” says Grebremaryam Gebremechin , 46. Though he personally doesn’t like to spend late nights restaurant-hopping, he knows plenty of other Ethiopians who do. “Coffee, that dish is my favorite,” he says. But he doesn’t pass judgment on those who like to drink. “Friday and Saturday, they like to have fun.”
Occasionally, Nuba Fasil , 31, is one of those out for fun. Little Ethiopia is a good place to hang out, she explains. “The [Ethiopian] restaurants are back to back so you can just get out after you park your cars,” she says. Though Woldeamlak says that the Ethiopians who frequent Little Ethiopia at night are just looking for a pleasant buzz, Fasil, who owns the strip’s Teleflora flower shop and is cutting some yellow carnations for a bouquet when we meet, disagrees. Little Ethiopia isn’t perfect, she says. “Some people like to get drunk.”
But even if that’s true, the atmosphere of Little Ethiopia never rises to the drunken bacchanals that D.C. bar strips can become. “I think we are a responsible community,” says Fasil. “Even if we entertain ourselves, we do it cautiously.”
Technically, as a Muslim, Mohammed wasn’t allowed to drink, even cautiously. But Muslims from Ethiopia sometimes tend to be a bit more relaxed than those from other countries about the no-libations rule. Mohammed’s family, according to Galtchu, doesn’t strictly adhere to religious code. That doesn’t necessarily equal going overboard, though. Woldeamlak, like everyone who knew him, says she never saw Mohammed stumbling drunk. He’d have one or two drinks and that’s it, she says.
But on the fateful early morning of Oct. 15, Mohammed might have had a reason to have a little more than usual.
Woldeamlak says her friend Mohammed was in an especially good mood on the night he died. He strolled into her restaurant at about 1 a.m. with two friends. Woldeamlak overheard snippets of their conversation. “He was talking about changing his life,” she says.
What sort of change was coming? Laurence, who has befriended Mohammed’s family in the months since his death, says it was the romantic kind of change—as in wedding plans. But Mohammed’s father denies his son ever even had a girlfriend. He says Mohammed, after having been laid off from his security job several months earlier, was merely excited about a decision he’d made. He was going to learn a trade. “He was going to become a handyman,” Galtchu says.
Idris Yusuf, 35, a friend who grew up with Mohammed, believes the change wasn’t about either becoming a handyman or getting married. He saw Mohammed several days before his demise, and says Mohammed was recommitting himself to Islam. One of Yusuf’s strongest and most amusing memories of Mohammed is of the younger man struggling to fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Whenever Yusuf reminded him of his responsibility, Mohammed procrastinated: “He was saying ‘yes, but maybe next year,’” Yusuf says. “I don’t blame him. He’s young.”
But when he last saw Mohammed, he says, Mohammed was determined to turn over a new leaf, vowing to both fast and pray from then on.
When Mohammed and his two friends left the restaurant, says Woldeamlak, he’d been imbibing, but he didn’t seem drunk.
As the night wore on, Mohammed somehow lost track of his buddies. At around 2:15 a.m., by Woldeamlak’s estimate, he knocked on the door of the restaurant. The business was closed, but the door swung open for Mohammed’s familiar face. “He said he was looking for his friends,” Woldeamlak recalls. He talked to the DJ for a little while and then left. “He was very normal,” says Woldeamlak. Her account provides the first working theory as to why, minutes later, Mohammed ended up at DC9, a place he didn’t frequent: He was on a mission. Could his friends be among the stragglers still inside the club at closing time?
Damon Dixon, a bartender at the club, had a different take on Mohammed’s state of mind. As he walked along 9th Street to DC9, Dixon says, he didn’t seem “normal.” He seemed drunk. Dixon claims to have not seen Mohammed’s peaceful side that night, either. He says that after he told Mohammed the place was closed, Mohammed made some cutting remarks. “He said things like ‘I’m sucking up to the white man,’” says Dixon, 36, who is African-American.
Minutes later, a brick would crash through the window. Dixon did not join the colleagues who gave chase. But he says he saw Mohammed in the seconds after the glass shattered. “I saw Mr. Mohammed standing there, wide-eyed and agitated,” Dixon says.
Dixon, who placed a call to 911 as the incident unfolded, says that the five men who pursued and caught Mohammed didn’t all touch him: Only Zaloga and Carter “restrained” him, Dixon says. Zaloga, he says, was “laying prone on top” of Mohammed, who was on his belly. Carter, he says, had his foot on Mohammed’s left hand.
If prosecutors wind up re-filing charges against any of the men, the truth of what happened may eventually get hashed out in criminal court. If not, Mohammed’s family may look for answers in civil court. They’ve hired Billy Martin, a prominent D.C. attorney. “This is a tragic death, a tragic way for any human being to die,” the attorney said in a statement. “The family has hired our firm to investigate the actions which resulted in the death of Ali Mohammed and all legal options on the table, including option of filing a civil lawsuit.”
But none of that will bring back the 27-year-old who, by crime or by accident or by personal recklessness, lost his life. Following a memorial for Mohammed, Aman Deka , who’d known him since 2002, left the impression the world had lost out on an extremely balanced personality. “He would flow with the mood,” Deka said, but he’d also “speak his mind.”