Early on the morning of Oct. 11, a 23-year-old Ethiopian immigrant named Ayelegen Sogen was found hanging by his neck from a tree branch within sight of busy Missouri Avenue NW. A belt was used as the noose.
For several hours after the emergency response, his body remained hanging in the tree, enough time for police to tape off the area and interview nearby residents and for a freelance photographer to snap a picture. The following day, Oct. 12, the medical examiner’s office ruled the incident a suicide. Several days passed before officials released that information and the dead man’s identity.
In the meantime, most local media outlets overlooked the incident or passed on it. But the Washington Afro-American ran the photo of Sogen’s dangling body to accompany its lead story on Oct. 16; the headline “Man found hanging in N.W.” crossed six columns above the fold of the paper.
“Well, it was obviously hot news,” says Afro-American General Manager Edgar A. Brookins Jr., explaining the story’s prominent treatment. “The fact that you discover a man hanging from a tree in the year 2003 conjures up all kinds of memories of the past, first of all. And from a purely news standpoint, was it a suicide or was it homicide? Our community needed to be made aware of that.”
There was also a business consideration, says Brookins: “It [would] obviously sell more papers.” Brookins promoted the story during his regular weekly appearance on WUSA Channel 9’s morning news, and the paper sold well. He estimates that, on an average week about 75 people may drop into the Afro-American’s 14th Street NW offices to purchase a copy, but over-the-counter sales jumped to almost 400 on the week after the hanging.
The paper that hit stands on Oct. 30 reported the official finding of suicide, but suspicion has taken root. Brookins says the office gets several calls a day about the hanging, asking how the paper found out about it and why others hadn’t run with it. “I can’t speak for major media,” he tells them. Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty says that for three weeks he has received at least one e-mail per day from constituents either requesting further information about the “lynching” or warning that there’s a conspiracy to cover it up.
Sogen’s older half-brother, Kibret Zekele, says Sogen had been in the U.S. for about two-and-a-half years and in the Washington area for the past six months. Zekele, who lives in Dallas, spoke to Sogen about a week before his death and says his brother gave no indication of any personal problems.
In September, Sogen started working the overnight shift at a 7-Eleven in Gaithersburg, Md., where he had worked for a few months previously. Sogen was reliable, says his former boss, Abraham Habtemariam. Sogen’s commute on public transit from the District could take two hours each way, and yet he was always punctual, often arriving an hour in advance. Habtemariam found Sogen a place to stay much closer to work; Sogen was to move in on Oct. 11. “I saw no symptom in him,” says Habtemariam.
On Oct. 10, a Friday, Sogen cashed his paycheck. That night, the eve of his move, Sogen called his manager to say he couldn’t make his shift. He said he had fallen in the shower and reinjured a broken leg. At 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, a pedestrian found Sogen
hanging in a small triangle of land formed by Missouri, Longfellow, and 4th Streets NW.
Sogen seemed to have left his troubles behind in East Africa, says Zekele. About four years ago, Sogen fled Ethiopia for political reasons; then he lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for about a year and a half. “The life [in the camp] was very bad, he told me. Hungry, people are so rude there,” says his brother. “And there is no work.”
After arriving in America, Sogen lived in the District for a little while, then moved to Dallas to live with Zekele for a couple of years. In Texas, Sogen worked at an Exxon station and a 7-Eleven, and he didn’t have much of a social life. “He just said he was bored here, lonely here,” says Zekele. Sogen moved back to Washington, where he had more friends.
Zekele last saw Sogen in August, when he flew to the District to visit his brother, who was laid up in the hospital with a broken leg. Sogen had been in a fight, and he had fallen, or been pushed, from a third-story window. Zekele says his brother didn’t offer many details. The injury left Sogen with a limp. When Zekele last spoke to his brother in early October, he said he was moving and that he eventually hoped to buy a car.
The photograph of Sogen’s body that appeared in the Afro-American left a key detail open to interpretation: Observers on the scene said Sogen’s arms were by his sides, but the dark exposure of the image in the paper makes it appear as if his arms might have been fastened behind his back. Fenty says this may have fed the rumors of a lynching.
In its Oct. 30 follow-up, the Afro-American cited “unconfirmed reports” that Sogen was “distraught” after a breakup with his girlfriend. Zekele says Sogen had a girlfriend and a 9-year-old daughter who lived with his mother in Ethiopia, but he didn’t know anything about a breakup.
When he learned of his brother’s death, Zekele returned to the District. His first task was to retrieve the body from the medical examiner so he could ship it to Ethiopia. But he didn’t want to tell his mother about Sogen’s death, afraid of the shock it would cause her. Sogen’s girlfriend called Zekele repeatedly, asking why Sogen wasn’t returning her calls. Zekele told her he was ill.
Zekele had the body sent to his mother’s neighbor, who informed the family of Sogen’s death. To help raise the $8,000 required for shipping and burial expenses, the D.C.-based Ethiopian Community Center distributed a flier to churches and local Ethiopian businesses soliciting donations. A week after his hanging, Sogen’s body arrived in Ethiopia. But there was no funeral service for him. “There is no service for suicides,” says Zekele.
Zekele says he still has trouble believing Sogen killed himself. He doesn’t understand how Sogen could have hanged himself with something as short as a belt. “I’m trying to explain to my mother how he is dead,” says Zekele. “Because I can’t lie to her. I have to explain to her and convince her how he died.” Zekele says he doesn’t know if a suicide letter has been found, and he hasn’t been able to get the detective investigating the case to call him back.
“I think someone had him murdered,” he says of Sogen. CP