On Oct. 16, 2010, the head of the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide branch sat down to document a 911 call. The request for service had come into the District’s Office of Unified Communication via cellphone the day before, at around 2:30 a.m., and figured prominently in a high-stakes case, one for which the chief of police had already held an emotional press conference. The emergency call, Capt. Michael Farish wrote, “is very telling in regards to the mindset of the assailants and the verbal pleas of the decedent.”
We still don’t know many details of what happened to 27-year-old Ethiopian immigrant Ali Ahmed Mohammed two years ago. After Mohammed allegedly winged two bricks through the club’s storefront as payback for not being let in at closing time, authorities say a group from DC9—-owner Bill Spieler and employees Darryl Carter, Evan Preller, Arthur Zaloga, and Reginald Phillips—-chased Mohammed down, then restrained him until police arrived.
When cops showed up to pick up their vandalism suspect, Mohammed was already going cold, according to a December 2010 medical examiner’s report, which concluded he was a victim of “excited delirium,” a situation not unlike dying of fright. The medical anomaly was buoyed by a perfect storm of physiological misfortune: Mohammed was drunk, exhausted, and nursing a slight heart defect. After MPD’s initial eyewitnesses proved dubious, the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped its criminal charges against the DC9 employees in November; it dropped the case entirely in June.
But that broad-stroke narrative says little of the micromechanics of the incident, a frustration to those of us still wondering what, precisely, went on. The 911 call Farish wrote about has always promised to shed some light on the events of Oct. 15, 2010. On the clear fall evening DC9 workers subdued Mohammed, one of them immediately dialed police on a cellphone and stayed on the line—-logging audio of the event in the process.
When Mohammed’s story first broke, DC9 insiders advised me to dig up the tape. They told me it would exonerate the club workers of murder and assault charges while an MPD homicide source who’d heard the tape warned me it was anything but absolving. “There’s parts they wouldn’t like to have heard,” he promised. Now, the call could easily play a pivotal role in a $15 million civil suit against DC9 brought by Mohammed’s family and currently working its way through courts.
But three Freedom of Information Act requests and an appeal later, obtaining the recording has been impossible, with MPD first citing open investigations and then privacy concerns as reasons for keeping the tape to themselves. According to the Associated Press, MPD has stonewalled the release of 911 tapes for a while now. Lawyer Donald Temple, who’s representing Mohammed’s family in their lawsuit, has also tried to FOIA the recording, with no luck. Temple, who has a scheduling conference for the case on Dec. 21, says court proceedings could finally get to the bottom of what happened to Mohammed. He believes, for instance, that depositions could provide a bombshell. “We’ll be able to get information the police were never able to get,” he says.
A FOIA I submitted for Mohammed’s homicide investigation file, at least, was more succesful. Closed after a debacle of a police theory——that the men had beaten Mohammed—-collapsed in on itself, Mohammed’s file includes Farish’s account of what he heard when he eavesdropped on Mohammed’s last moments. It’s not much, just a paragraph:
One defendant places a 911 call, during which he is very calm, almost fllppant [sic] in some of his responses, as if nothing serious is occuring [sic]. Because of his calmness there are portions in the background the listener can hear what are believed to be the pleas to “get off” and moans and/or wails of the decedent. There is also heard other male voices beratíng[sic] the decedent and telling him to ‘shut up’ as he pleads for the assailants to get off him. The pleading voice trails off into silence as the sirens increase in volume in the background as they arrive on the scene. The arriving officer is heard on the radio zone to request medical assistance as the[sic] is unconscious and not breathing.
Parsing that account is tough. Lawyers for DC9 either wouldn’t discuss the account or didn’t return messages. (One, Valerie Tetro, says, “I think the case has been tried in the media enough, so I have no comment. I think the appropriate place to try the case is in the courtroom.”) Farish, now retired, asked not to be contacted about the case ever again. Though it has lauded Farish at award ceremonies—-he presided over a homicide division with an almost unrivaled closure rate—-the Metropolitan Police Department is now distancing itself from his work. “Captain Farish gives a personal analysis of the 911 calls that were made in the case,” says MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump.
Of course, every police account is personal, something that’s never diminished their value as legal documents. Interestingly, the report that includes Farish’s 911 summary also suggests that Mohammed wasn’t beaten that fateful night, and it’s dated the day prosecutors decided to drop murder charges against the DC9 five. But until MPD actually decides to give up a copy of the tape, we won’t know the extent to which Farish’s summary of the emergency call is an accurate one.
Photo courtesy the family of Ali Ahmed Mohammed