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D.C. cab driver Thomas Fitsum Alemayehu traveled thousands of miles from Ethiopia in search of a better life, but his hopes died in a D.C. jail cell where he hanged himself with a tightly twisted sheet. At the time, Alemayehu, 28, faced only a couple of traffic charges, but he suffered from serious mental problems that should have been obvious to criminal-justice officials, according to his friends and family. “If you see him, you know he’s sick. If you see him, he looks crazy,” says Wondwosan Temesgen, Alemayehu’s cousin. But a psychologist from the D.C. Department of Mental Health found Alemayehu was not at risk for suicide and showed no signs of any mental problems in a court-ordered mental competency screening on Dec. 21, just two days before his suicide. One day after Alemayehu received his clean bill of mental health, his erratic behavior and incongruent speech in D.C. Superior Court caused a plea deal to break down, sending him back to jail. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead, the second inmate to hang himself last year in the D.C. jail. Corrections officers didn’t discover his body, alone in a single cell, until a routine head count during an 8 a.m. shift change two days before Christmas. He had only been in jail for four days. Alemayehu might still be alive if his risk for suicide had been recognized. Inmates found to be suicidal are usually sent for treatment at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the District’s psychiatric hospital, or placed under suicide watch at the jail. For Alemayehu’s friends and family, his death struck a jarring blow. It was shocking not only that he would kill himself in a jail cell over a couple of traffic charges but also that a psychologist wouldn’t notice any of his mental problems. “I don’t know why they don’t understand him and locked him up,” Temesgen says. “That’s what makes me sad.” Yet, although he calls the outcome tragic, Mental Health Department Director Stephen Baron contends his department did nothing wrong and Alemayehu’s competency report was accurate, despite his suicide two days later. “We have to stand behind that [report]. I met with the psychologist who did it. He’s extremely skilled and competent,” Baron says. “I’m not being a Monday morning quarterback.” �I SAW THE WORLD’ Alemayehu, whose name means “I Saw the World” in Amharic, sought the American Dream and bought his own home. But problems that surfaced later — including the looting of his house and a foreclosure by the bank — may have led to his undoing. Alemayehu grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, where the annual per capita income is $160, ranking 202nd out of 208 countries studied by the World Bank. After moving to the District in the late 1990s, Alemayehu obtained a green card and began driving a taxicab after receiving a D.C. hack license in 2001. That same year, he got a mortgage and bought a dilapidated row house on Holbrook Street in Northeast Washington for $115,000. On a recent afternoon, neighbors gathered on stoops on Holbrook Street, and 75-year-old Jessie Langley bounced her great-great-granddaughter on her knee, her cane resting beside her. Langley lived next door to Alemayehu. She said he suddenly left for Ethiopia in 2004 in the middle of a renovation of his home, which had been subdivided into four apartments. The rear of the building wasn’t secured while he was gone, she says, so the house was looted and squatters moved in. “The sinks, toilets, everything was taken out,” she says. “I go to bed early. When you hear stuff, you don’t go look, because someone will knock your head off.” In August 2004, Alemayehu filed a pro se lawsuit in Superior Court against contractor Anthony Hurley, alleging Hurley didn’t finish the renovation and failed to secure the building, resulting in the looting. But the case was dismissed when Alemayehu failed to appear for a hearing in May 2005. Hurley, who is no longer a contractor, says Alemayehu was living alone in the building and stopped the project midway when he left for Ethiopia, where he said he could get more money for the renovations. “We were working, and he said abruptly, �I don’t want anyone in my house. Get out,’ ” Hurley says. “ I don’t think he had serious mental issues. On the same token, I would say he was borderline, and he actually threatened to kill me on a couple occasions. I grew up in the projects, so that didn’t faze me.” After Alemayehu’s string of setbacks, the bank foreclosed on his home in 2005. “After that, everything changed. His state of mind just became blocked,” says Assefa Feleke, a friend and fellow Ethiopian immigrant. “Being a young kid, he didn’t have a network to guide him or support him, so he became hopeless.” Feleke, his hands stained black from grease, talked about his friend at his tow-truck compound in Southeast Washington, where he also rents used cabs to several cab companies. Feleke, who helped Alemayehu get a job as a cab driver, says Alemayehu acted strangely for a few years before his suicide, and Feleke had urged him to move back to Ethiopia. “It was like hitting a brick wall. I talk, he listens, but no response,” Feleke says. “I said, �Come on. You’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you.’ “ Alemayehu, a short, slender man who didn’t drink or smoke, disappeared for about a year, says Temesgen, who also is a D.C. cabbie. When he resurfaced last year, he had changed. Alemayehu would call his cousin and would scream and cry in incoherent conversations. Alemayehu, who was single with no children, often wore the same clothes for days at a time, and he ate almost nothing except wheat bread. After Alemayehu’s suicide, Temesgen arranged for the transportation of his body back to Ethiopia. Alemayehu’s mother, a wealthy businesswoman who lives in Addis Ababa, had lost her only son. Her five daughters live in London. Langley says Alemayehu was a loner, but he was always friendly toward her, and he brought her a carved leather picture from Ethiopia, one of his few remaining possessions after his home was looted. “Oh my goodness, I liked him,” she said when she was told about his suicide. “I think he got despondent when he lost the house.” A STRANGE STORY On May 30, 2006, a D.C. police officer saw Alemayehu run a red light in the 1600 block of U Street Northwest in a cab from Empire Cab Co. Alemayehu had a suspended driver’s license and a bench warrant for failing to appear for a hearing in a prior case on the same charge. Alemayehu spent four days in the D.C. jail because he couldn’t afford a $1,000 bond, which was later reduced to a $200 unsecured bond payable if he didn’t appear for a Sept. 14 hearing. He skipped that hearing as well, resulting in his Dec. 19 arrest on another bench warrant and a trip back to jail with another $1,000 bond. Chidi Ogolo, Alemayehu’s court-appointed defense attorney, says he requested a mental competency screening because of Alemayehu’s repeated failure to understand that he needed to appear in court. On Dec. 21, Robert Benedetti — a psychologist who is chief of Forensic Legal Services for the Mental Health Department — interviewed Alemayehu for 50 minutes at Superior Court. His two-page report states Alemayehu showed no behavioral evidence of “suicidal/homicidal ideation or intent” or any signs of acute anxiety, severe depression, or any other mental problems. Alemayehu hadn’t received any public mental-health services in the District, but he told a strange story to Benedetti. “Mr. Alemayehu stated that he was �forced’ to see a doctor during a recent visit to Ethiopia because his family was upset that he was no longer a practicing Moslem,” the report states. “He said the doctor gave him �a shot’ that made him sleep.” Temesgen says that doesn’t make sense because Alemayehu had been a Christian for years, a fact his family accepted. Benedetti’s report found Alemayehu was mentally competent to plead guilty or stand trial, and he “seemed to have the capacity to make reasoned choices regarding plea options.” That analysis proved inaccurate the next day, when a Dec. 22 plea hearing broke down. According to a transcript of that hearing, Alemayehu initially told Magistrate Judge Ronald Goodbread he wanted to plead guilty to attempted operation with a suspended license and no valid driver’s license. A prosecutor had agreed to recommend a suspended jail sentence and probation, so Alemayehu most likely would have been released. But after Goodbread read the standard waiver of rights to 10 defendants entering pleas, Alemayehu was the only one to object, saying it was “not clear for me to decide yes or no,” the transcript states. “I didn’t follow all the statements,” Alemayehu said. “It was too much for me.” When Goodbread told Alemayehu he didn’t have to plead guilty, Alemayehu said he wanted to speak to Ogolo and then launched into a rambling comment. “I’m pleading guilty for something I’m aware of,” Alemayehu said. “So, I’m still guilty, but I’m not going to be guilty for something that is discussed now, if it’s not inside what I plead guilty before.” Ogolo spoke to Alemayehu during a break in the hearing. “He said the state had no authority to charge him,” Ogolo says about that conversation. Ogolo immediately requested a full mental examination, stating in court records that he disagreed with Benedetti’s competency report because of Alemayehu’s “incongruent speech and lack of understanding in broken-down plea proceeding.” “It was just a gut feeling that something might be wrong,” Ogolo says. Ogolo wanted Alemayehu released from jail with an outpatient mental exam, but Goodbread denied the request, apparently because of Alemayehu’s repeated failures to show up for hearings. “But if he just wants to wander the streets waiting to remember to go back in for treatment, I can’t do that,” the judge said. Goodbread set a mental observation hearing for Alemayehu on Feb. 9 because the Mental Health Department must be given at least 45 days to complete a full mental exam. But Goodbread said he regretted sending Alemayehu back to jail because Alemayehu “would be out of here” if he pleaded guilty and Goodbread had accepted the prosecutor’s request for probation, the transcript states. That full mental exam never happened. Phyllis Jones, spokeswoman for the Mental Health Department, says the department never received the court order. A department staffer signs mental-evaluation orders at Superior Court, but the copy of the order in the case file isn’t signed. Jones says it wouldn’t have made a difference in Alemayehu’s case, because he killed himself less than 24 hours after the mental-exam order was issued. Superior Court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz admits Alemayehu’s mental-exam order was not provided to the Mental Health Department as it should have been, and Superior Court is investigating whether changes are needed “to make sure our system is as error-proof as possible.” In other cases, problems with the transmission of court orders between Superior Court and the D.C. jail have contributed to the wrongful imprisonment of inmates past their release dates. Neither Benedetti nor Goodbread returned phone calls seeking comment. Baron, the District’s mental health director, couldn’t explain Alemayehu’s strange behavior in court just one day after he was found to be mentally competent. “Who knows what happened once the judge detained him?” he says. “This is a very, very thorough initial exam that was done.” Only one in three inmates tested was found mentally competent in screenings last year, down from 40 percent in 2000, the Mental Health Department reported. The number of screenings doubled from 351 in 2000 to 701 last year. D.C. Corrections Department spokeswoman Beverly Young wouldn’t comment on why Alemayehu’s body wasn’t discovered until a shift change or if any corrections officers have been disciplined, citing an ongoing investigation. Department Director Devon Brown refused to be interviewed. Jail health-care contractor Unity Health Care does mental-health screenings for all inmates entering the jail, but Young says those records are confidential. Only a psychiatrist can order an inmate placed on suicide watch (Alemayehu was not). On suicide watch, inmates are strip-searched, given a paper gown, and placed in a special cell to be observed every 15 minutes. Dr. Nader Marzban, the jail’s medical director, says the jail had no reason to believe Alemayehu was suicidal. “He had a [mental] competency review at the court, and that competency review was fine,” he says. Last year, two inmates killed themselves and 35 others attempted suicide in the D.C. jail out of the 19,000 inmates who passed through its doors, according to the Corrections Department. In 2005, 30 inmates attempted suicide, but none died. Young says the jail’s suicide rate is similar to the rate for jails nationwide. Roughly two out of three jail inmates across the country suffer from mental-health problems, and suicides are more common during the first 24 hours of incarceration and near holidays. Some D.C. officials have shown little interest in Alemayehu’s suicide or the questions his death raises about the reliability of mental evaluations for jail inmates. D.C. Councilmember David Catania (I-At-Large), who chairs the committee overseeing the Mental Health Department, declined to comment. Peter Nickles, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s general counsel, also declined to comment. A TROUBLED HOSPITAL The failure to assess Alemayehu’s risk for suicide was nothing new for the Mental Health Department, which also runs St. Elizabeths. The hospital’s systemic failure to adequately assess suicidal patients eliminates prompt interventions needed to prevent suicides and suicide attempts, according to a scathing Justice Department report last May. The report found that substandard medical care and lax staff supervision may have contributed to the deaths of at least five patients. Even when patients are found to be suicidal, they “are not properly monitored and treated,” the report states. In February 2005, a patient was inappropriately restrained by her arms and legs for 24 hours after she was found “sitting on the toilet with a plastic bag around her head and a string around her neck,” the report states. The woman tried to kill herself again four days later. According to the Mental Health Department, the last patient suicide at St. Elizabeths occurred in 1998, with two suicide attempts since then. The number of reported suicide attempts seems low, given the Justice Department’s findings and two suicide attempts by one patient in 2005. The Mental Health Department is close to reaching a settlement with Justice to avoid a civil-rights lawsuit, Baron says. The settlement will include benchmarks for needed changes. Patrick Canavan, a psychologist who headed the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, was tapped by Fenty in January as the new chief of St. Elizabeths. The hospital has hired and trained new staff and upgraded medical equipment, Canavan says, and is developing new assessments to help identify and treat suicidal patients. Canavan, who also oversees mental-competency screenings at Superior Court, defended Alemayehu’s screening. “Not only was he found not suicidal, he was found competent. That means he was in relatively good shape,” Canavan says. “Your mental status can change in jail. That can happen within 24 hours.” After burying her only son in a church cemetery in Addis Ababa, Alemayehu’s mother now wants to visit Washington, but she has been unable to obtain a U.S. visa. “She says she just wants to see the place where he died,” Temesgen says. Her trip would take her to Cell 43 of the Northwest 3 Unit at the D.C. jail.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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