None of the girls hanging out recognized the gold Honda Accord as it pulled into the driveway, blinking its headlights in greeting. Then they realized Freddy Tello was behind the wheel. Cooooool. They hadn't seen him for a long while, maybe months. That's how Tello was. He'd suddenly appear out of nowhere, and for the next week or so, you couldn't get rid of him. Then, just as quickly, he'd be gone again. His unannounced extended cameos were always a trip, as unpredictable and goofy as Tello himself.
Hannah Choi had known Tello for years, ever since they were classmates at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. She had graduated back in '95, and he had dropped out his senior year, but whenever he popped into view, they always had a good time. She couldn't pin down why Tello made her happy. Maybe it was that he managed to tread the fine line between class clown and would-be street thug. Like the time Tello accompanied Choi and a girlfriend to a tanning salon and he lounged in his booth grooving to Wu-Tang Clan full blast, a big smile on his face. An aspiring artist, he was one of those free spirits so relentlessly upbeat he could tire you out. A little of Tello went a long way, so he had learned to spread his routine around in many corners, making rounds to groups of friends in Silver Spring and Rockville.
On the evening of Sept. 9, 1997, Choi and a few female companions were outside a friend's house in Adelphi, down a winding suburban road from the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. A neighborhood hangout, the house had a long driveway that made it an ideal pit stop for socializing. The girls had no big plans for that night, so Tello's arrival was a pleasant surprise. Things were never boring when he was around.
As usual, Tello had a new friend with him, some preppy-looking guy named Aaron Needle. They made an odd pair, at least in appearance: Tello was a tall, gangly hiphopper sporting diamond-stud earrings, Santería beads, and gold chains. A Hispanic of mixed heritage, ultra-thin, and topped by a large, nappy-haired noggin, he resembled the caricatures he was fond of drawing. His boyhood buddies called him Bubblehead.
Guys like Aaron Needle, on the other hand, don't get nicknames—they are doomed to be called simply Aaron. A short, stocky pit bull of a kid with a military crew cut, he wore wire-rimmed glasses on a large nose under dark eyes. He had on khakis and a white T-shirt that showed off his well-developed arms. There was something about him that suggested a freshly shorn, faceless cadet.
Yeah, they made a weird pair all right. What they had in common—on the surface, anyway—was a sort of kindred immaturity: a couple of goofballs who made sparks bouncing off of each other. They weren't friends, not really. Even their names set them apart from each other. Freddy and Aaron. Aaron and Freddy. It gave off a discordant ring.
It was pretty clear who was in charge that day. Even though the '89 Honda belonged to Needle (a present from his parents), Tello was the driver, blaring his favorite cassettes in the stereo and deciding where they were headed. Navigator, DJ, and social director, he ran the show: Needle had the nice car, but Tello had all the friends—a nifty arrangement. Needle sat in the back seat, as if the Honda were his own personal limousine service, and tonight he found himself next to Choi, who had piled into the car along with her friends. The group—two guys and three girls—had decided to cruise around and get some cigarettes at a nearby gas station.
In no time flat, even though nobody asked him to, Needle was spilling out his life story to everyone in the car. It was the typical résumé of a troubled kid: Expelled from several schools, he'd finally dropped out of Montgomery County's Mark Twain School for students with behavior problems. Hell yes, he had some behavior problems: Once, he had stolen his dad's car and his dad had called the police to teach him a lesson. He'd pulled some hard time in a military academy, some sort of boot camp for badass rich kids. Not only that, he'd even been locked up for a while in a psychiatric institute.
Choi wasn't impressed; she'd known plenty of messed-up kids. His back-seat braggadocio was run-of-the-mill teenboy angst. No, the interesting thing about this guy wasn't so much what he said as the way he talked: He was a compulsive motormouth, jabbering on without thinking at all before speaking. "This boy isn't right," she said to herself.
She began to get even more unnerved when his conversation veered toward her. It turned out they were in the same broadcasting class at Montgomery College, whose fall semester had just begun. Only two classes had been held so far, and Choi said she didn't remember him. But Needle had already done his homework regarding her, right down to what she wore and whom she sat next to in the front row. He knew all about her and rattled off the details, noting her change from highlighted-blond to dyed-brown hair.
"I think you're hot," he blurted out. "You caught my attention. I just wanted you to know that."
Choi tried to crack a joke: "What are you doing, stalking me?" Her intent eluded him, and he replied blandly, "No, why do you think that?" She tapped him on the thigh, saying, "I'm just kidding." But her playful touch only made his muscles tense up reflexively, as if he were unaccustomed to physical intimacy.
Choi quickly changed the subject, asking why he had decided to take the class. His mom had chosen it for him, explained Needle, without any embarrassment; in fact, Mrs. Needle had selected his entire school schedule. His mother was something of an obsession for him, and he complained how strict she was and how she hounded him mercilessly. She was the most overprotective, overbearing Jewish mom ever, he whined. Worst of all, she and his father ran their computer firm out of their Rockville home, so he felt as if he were under constant surveillance.
"I could never bring a black person home," he said. "My parents would kill me."
"How about someone like me?" Choi asked.
No problem, Needle assured her. In fact, his folks admired and respected Asians, whom they deemed hard-working, honorable people. In his rapid-fire near-monologue, he had already correctly surmised that Choi was Korean-American, and she was impressed that he could identify her ethnic heritage. Now he rambled on about how his Jewish upbringing was similar to hers. She argued that Korean mothers were even more strict. He lectured her about the myriad ways the two groups resembled each other, most of all in their tightknit, competitive family life in which failure is a major sin.
Tello and the others weren't paying much attention to the conversation, just listening to music and chilling out. But Needle had a lot on his mind, and he had found a captive audience in Choi, pinned between him and the car door. Jumping from topic to topic, he ran the gamut from cultural historian to personal confessor, like when he told her matter-of-factly that he was still a virgin. He also announced that he was ready to get his life together, that he wanted to join the Marines and work his way up the ranks to be an officer.
It was at these moments that Needle seemed older than his 17 years. At first, Choi had taken him for 23, and he could converse on an intellectual level above most teens.' But he always reverted to his persona as an "obnoxious dork," realized Choi, especially in the way he related to Tello.
The pair would often converse in a round robin of putdowns, stale riffs in the Jerky Boys tradition. Needle always kicked things off, as if it were the only way he could catch Tello's attention. It started when someone asked him why Tello was driving his car.
"He's my chauffeur," said Needle.
"Yeah, you're just my flunky," Tello shot back. "I'm flunking you for a ride."
This fairly innocuous start soon escalated into a battle of racial insults.
"Puerto Rican motherfucker."
"Jewish people are my worst enemies."
Back and forth, with Needle more than holding his own. It was obvious that he enjoyed the game more than Tello, who seemed to grudgingly accept it as part of keeping Needle in line. Whether it was habit or wannabe reflex, Choi and the girls were wondering how these two could hang out together for several months straight, much less be friends. They'd seen plenty of the usual male bantering, but this was over the top and beyond, as if neither knew or cared to draw the line. At the same time, there was something staged about it, especially on Needle's part, as if he were trying to show off in front of the girls. Not only was it unamusing to witness, it carried an undertone of real menace.
Over the course of the aimless riding around, the verbal sparring would eventually peter out—usually after Needle had simply run out of insults—and that would be it. They'd go back to whatever they were doing: Tello fiddling with another tape, Needle resuming his hyperactive efforts to tell Choi everything that crossed his mind.
Needle was also something of a phone freak, like many teens who wield cellulars like fast-draw revolvers. Most, though, have a whole Rolodex of friends to buzz up in rapid-fire succession. But Needle called the same person nearly a dozen times in less than two hours as they rode around that night. He would preface the call with a formal announcement: "Hold on one second. Let me call my friend Sam Sheinbein." He always said the entire name, and it was as if it concerned the most pressing business matter. Somebody asked why Sheinbein didn't join the fun, but Needle said
his friend was busy doing his homework.
Needle asked Choi if she knew Sheinbein, as if he were somebody she might have heard of. She said no. He explained that he was an old friend and a wrestler at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring.
By now, Needle had rubbed Choi the wrong way, every way. Everything he said came out wrong, like when he invited her to an after-school workout sometime. Choi had already decided to drop the broadcasting class to avoid seeing him again. The incessant phone calls just added to her growing annoyance. "I thought it was ridiculous how a guy would call another guy every 10 minutes on his cell phone," she later said. "It's like, what the hell do you talk about?"
No one paid any attention to the mumbled phone conversations, but Choi thought to herself that this "mystery boy," this "Sam Sheinbein," was probably the only friend that Needle had in the world. Well, except for Tello, anyway.
A week later, on September 16, the tumultuous relationship between Freddy Tello and Aaron Needle came to an end. A bad, bad end.
Authorities believe that Needle and his friend on the phone, Sam Sheinbein, killed Tello in a brutal, premeditated attack. They picked up Tello after work one evening, and, after the group had switched into the same car, they allegedly launched a double-team ambush, probably taking Tello completely by surprise. After first immobilizing him with a
stun gun, they allegedly choked him, stabbed him, and beat him to death with a sawed-off shotgun.
An autopsy report showed that Tello, 19, had
died of "a combination of blunt force injuries to
the head, cutting wounds on the neck and chest, and ligature strangulation."
The murder itself, though by no means a quick and painless death, was fairly tidy compared with the degradation that followed. The two alleged murderers allegedly topped off their execution of Tello with a string of blood-simple bumblings and blunders. Authorities believe what seems hard to believe: that the boys managed to hide the body for two nights and methodically mutilate it in the garage of Sheinbein's Aspen Hill home in an oak-shaded subdivision that borders on the massive Gates of Heaven cemetery on Georgia Avenue. Throughout the clandestine operation, Sheinbein's parents were home, oblivious to the macabre bundle awaiting shipment from their garage.
According to authorities, they stuffed the body in a storage closet in the garage for the first night. The next day, after Needle finished classes at Montgomery College, they made some purchases at a nearby Home Depot. Then the pair allegedly got to work making sure the body couldn't be identified. Using a circular saw, they reportedly cut off Tello's long, bony limbs just above the elbows and the knees. (The severed arms and legs have never been found.)
But it wasn't enough to murder and dismember Freddy Tello, apparently. Spurred by some unquenchable anger or maybe just sheer panic, they allegedly decided to obliterate his remains, to give him a farewell barbecue right there in the Sheinbein family garage. They allegedly set the torso and head on a stack of prefab fire logs and torched the pile with propane until all that was left was a charred stump. Who could possibly identify a body after that?
But the lump of charred flesh couldn't just sit in the Sheinbeins' garage. Earlier that afternoon, Sam Sheinbein had already made some arrangements. According to charging documents, he had called the son of an absentee homeowner, a Kennedy High classmate who'd been using his parents' empty house to party with his friends all summer long. The house was over on Breeze Hill Lane, a block away from the Sheinbein home on Birchtree Lane, but there was a shortcut along a path. Sheinbein hadn't even hung out with this guy for years, but now he had a special favor to ask: He was on his cell phone standing in the back yard, he explained, and he had a girl he wanted to take inside. You know, for a little privacy. The guy understood his predicament, so he told Sheinbein the key was kept hidden above the sliding glass door.
Authorities surmise that the pair put Tello's remains in a garbage bag, loaded it into the back of Needle's Honda, and drove to the vacant house, pulling the car into the garage before unloading the cargo. (Police found tire tracks on the garage floor that matched those of the Honda.) Then they went back to Sheinbein's house. Instead of risking another conspicuous auto excursion, they allegedly put their tools of mutilation in a wheelbarrow and headed down a side path of the subdivision, leaving a trail of blood droplets. Witnesses recall the pair having trouble maneuvering the weighted-down cart, covered with a bulging blue tarp.
In the back yard of the vacant house was a large, freshly dug hole, where authorities believe the pair planned to bury Tello's remains, as well as the rest of the evidence. But they apparently never got the chance. The next morning, real estate agents came to prepare the house for a showing. Once inside, they noticed a foul smell and began scouring the house to track down its source. The overpowering stench led them to the garage, where they found a black plastic trash bag that contained the burnt, bloody torso, with another bag tied around the head.
The rest of the scene was neat and tidy, as if the guys who had done the work had been careful to put their tools in order before knocking off for the day. Fanned around what was left of Tello were the garden cart, blue tarp, and brand-new Makita circular saw. There were several pieces of duct tape, some rubber gloves, some propane cylinders, and a Home Depot sales bag with a receipt that showed the items had been purchased at 2:17 p.m. two days previously.
Later that night, Montgomery County police detectives searched the Sheinbein home. In the garage, they found the fire log container, matches, an empty Makita saw box, boxes of rubber gloves, and trash bags—all matching those left at the house on Breeze Hill Lane. On the floor was a pile of ashes. There was also a portable radio scanner, and police scanner codes were found in Sam Sheinbein's bedroom. Sheinbein's parents and his brother Robert told police that Sam had called and said he'd gone to Ocean City for the weekend.
Instead, Sheinbein and Needle were already on their way to New York City, where Sheinbein obtained a passport and a plane ticket to Israel. He remains there today. Needle subsequently took a train back to Washington, where he was arrested in the parking lot of his lawyer's office. (Authorities had already found Needle's Honda and Sheinbein's car in the parking lot of the Plaza del Mercado shopping center in Aspen Hill, where Tello, Needle, and Sheinbein were supposed to meet some girls the night of Sept. 16. Tello's car was found Sept. 27, several miles away in Wheaton.)
After fleeing to Israel, Sheinbein found his very own Promised Land, a potential sanctuary from prosecution by American authorities. He invoked an Israeli law that protects its citizens from being sent abroad to stand trial. Though he reportedly doesn't know Hebrew from Farsi, he claimed citizenship through his father Sol Sheinbein, who was born in pre-state Palestine in 1944 and came to the U.S. in 1950. Endless hearings continue to determine the status of the Sheinbeins' citizenship and whether or not Sam Sheinbein will be extradited.
The perpetrators had done a decent job destroying Tello's body, and the initial police report listed the paltry identifying characteristics that remained. "The victim wore a diamond stud earring in each ear and a blue shirt over a ribbed white tank top. His Guess jeans were size 36, covering gray Nike gym shorts." It took nearly a week before authorities, using dental records, positively identified the body as that of Alfredo Enrique Tello Jr.
Immediately, Sheinbein's lawyers were busy doing family spin, with the help of an accommodating Washington Post. The lawyers hired a team of investigators to delve into Tello's past, and it didn't take long for their "findings" to make headlines. An Oct. 2 Post article featured unsubstantiated reports that neatly set up a defense argument for self-defense: "A Sheinbein lawyer in Israel said the investigators have uncovered information that Tello was involved in marijuana and cocaine trafficking and was seen brandishing a sawed-off shotgun the night he died. Montgomery County authorities have not corroborated the allegations...."
The article also quoted unnamed "sources" who "[said] Sheinbein's parents told a Montgomery County judge that Tello was killed after trying to rob their son and Aaron Needle."
In a convoluted attribution that would take a forensics expert to track, the Post's Jerusalem correspondent wrote, "Avi Leitner, a U.S-born lawyer who is married to Sheinbein's Israeli attorney and was speaking on her behalf, said the private investigators were hired by the Sheinbein family and their Montgomery attorney Paul T. Stein, and were 'coming up with all kinds of stuff on Tello' related to various illegal activities...'drug-dealing, certainly marijuana and I'm told doing business with some kind of cocaine in the Baltimore area.'"
As what was left of Tello was further flayed, the media focused on the accused's affluent backgrounds, as if nice houses and family incomes somehow rendered their alleged crime more inexplicable (absent some sort of self-defense motive) than it already was. Other newspapers interviewed shocked friends and relatives, quoting little old ladies in Sheinbein's neighborhood who recalled polite, shy Sam shovelling snow and mowing lawns. None of them mentioned his alleged handiness with a power saw.
For weeks it seemed there was round-the-clock-with-the-Sheinbeins coverage. Up close and personal. First came Mrs. Sheinbein's tearful assessment that this was a terrible thing to happen to a good kid—not the victim, but her son. Tello's mother, a professional raised in the U.S., was not speaking to the press. Articles described Sol Sheinbein as a decent, "sweet" man and successful patent lawyer always ready to collect neighbors' mail when they went on vacation. (The elder Sheinbein doesn't miss a detail planning his family's extended vacation: As his son was fleeing the country, he dropped by the local Fitness World and canceled his son's $30-a-month membership.) Then there was Sam Sheinbein's alleged suicide attempt in Tel Aviv, when he swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
Media coverage of the case, combined with the legal stalemate that kept Sheinbein sheltered in Israel, angered many observers, especially in Washington's Hispanic community. They claimed that Tello, whose grandmother was Costa Rican, was being vilified as a stereotypical scapegoat, the Latino troublemaker who had it coming to him. Reverse the situation with some Latino chopping up rich white boys, they said, and things would be different.
"That would have never been tolerated," says Ana Sol Gutiérrez, a member of CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit Hispanic activist group that organized a protest rally in October in front of the Israeli Embassy. "We got involved when we saw this incredible onslaught of misinformation and lies. There was a double standard being applied in this case that was just so obvious....If you're Jewish or Israeli, a certain law gets applied. There was a huge rush to judgment about the innocence of Sheinbein, and then this rush to judgment of the guilt of the victim, trying to make him the criminal."
For a while, it appeared the public outcry might have an effect, as the case attracted international attention. Prominent politicians had already started to cry foul. U.S. Rep. Robert Livingston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, threatened to withhold aid to Israel if Sheinbein weren't returned pronto. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent a letter requesting "maximum cooperation" from Israel on the matter, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that the case "has appalled the government and the people of Israel." Then he foreshadowed the hedging that has since happened, adding that if Sheinbein were to stand trial and be convicted in Israel, he would "be punished according to the severity of the crime." In fact, imprisonment in Israel would likely be a cakewalk compared with incarceration in the U.S.
In early November, two months after the murder, someone broke into the Sheinbein home and spray-painted a memorial of sorts to Tello on the floor of the garage where police had found ashes from a doused fire and materials allegedly used in the killing. That message simply said "TELLO" in the vibrant colors and flamboyant tagging style used by graffiti artists. (Recently, another tribute to Tello, a bright mural, appeared on the side of a gas station on East-West Highway in Hyattsville.) Police never made an arrest for the vandalism, which was reported by Sheinbein's older brother Robert, who had recently returned from Israel. (Robert Sheinbein, who lives in Rockville, has received immunity from prosecution in the case in exchange for testimony, according to authorities.)
Half a year later, the house on Breeze Hill Lane, now cleansed of bloodstains and the stench of a murder most foul, has been sold. Israel has received its usual few billion in U.S. aid, and Sheinbein is still fighting extradition. An Israeli judge is scheduled to rule on the case in July, but appeals could drag on for years. It doesn't look as if Sheinbein will be coming back to Montgomery County any time soon. In the meantime, he is in a detention center outside Tel Aviv; he has been joined by his parents, who live with a grandmother in a nearby suburb while he awaits his next hearing. On TV news reports, a handsome, well-groomed Sheinbein often appears in a clip that shows him chewing gum, smiling, holding a soda, and generally behaving as if he hadn't a care in the world. He looks more like a Gap poster boy than an alleged torturer and murderer.
If Sheinbein seems not to have any moral dilemmas vexing him, Aaron Needle apparently did. Last month, two days before his trial for first-degree murder was to begin, he tied his bedsheet to a ceiling pipe in his jail cell and hanged himself.
A venerated burial ground for the Washington Jewish community, Mt. Lebanon Cemetery rests on some rolling acres along Riggs Road, just inside the Beltway and not far from where Aaron and Freddy met up with Hannah and her friends in the days before the murder.
The afternoon that Aaron was buried at Mt. Lebanon was a sunny, blustery Monday. More than a hundred mourners attended the graveside service; many were members of the Magen David Beit Eliahu Sephardic Congregation, a synagogue about a mile from the Needles' spacious home in a Rockville suburb. (The Sheinbeins also reportedly worshipped at Magen David.)
All sorts of luxury cars—Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals—lined the paved driveway that wound to the knoll where the ceremony took place. The wind was whipping around in mini-twisters through the tombstones, occasionally blowing the yarmulkes off the heads of men and ruffling the black dresses of the women—but it couldn't budge the spotted scarf that Roslyn Needle had wrapped tightly around her head, almost obscuring her long, pale, gaunt face. "I wanted everyone to know that Aaron came home," she shouted to the throng that had gathered near the back of the hearse as morticians unloaded the plain pine coffin carrying the body of her only son.
Under the dark tents set up beside the open grave, the rabbi offered prayers of comfort to the grieving family, then announced that Aaron's parents had a few words to say to the mourners.
Mrs. Needle stood up and delivered moving testimony about her son, an accused murderer and a victim of suicide. Given the occasion at hand, she skirted most of the issues that had brought them to this day and this place. She said she feared for her son because he had disobeyed the Torah, which forbids suicide. But all was not lost, because there was a hidden meaning in his final act: Aaron had chosen to deliver himself on the last day of Passover, she said, just as the Old Testament Aaron had helped Moses deliver the Jews from bondage in Egypt.
The long months in solitary confinement had only made her son stronger in his Jewish faith, she told them. In letters and conversations, he'd taken to quoting Israeli leader Netanyahu's declaration, "No power on Earth can rob a Jew of his identity."
Mrs. Needle spoke of her son's endearing qualities, his sense of humor and ready smile, and his fondness for the elderly. His first phone call after the incident, she said with a hint of pride, had been to his grandparents. She mentioned that he had often doted on his kid sisters: "Last July, he gave a surprise birthday party for his sisters in the backyard, and let me tell you, it was quite a show-stopper."
And she talked about a troubled person who rarely felt at peace during his time on earth. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, she said, Aaron had wrestled with marijuana, which he had used to calm his anxieties, and he had suffered pain and failure he could not overcome. "When Aaron got back from boot camp, he told me, 'Mom, I don't have any friends.'" Then Mrs. Needle paused and surveyed the crowd, which included some but not many teenagers. "But all of you here today show that he was wrong."
She listed all the new friends Needle had made in the last six months: his team of lawyers, including his defense attorney Michael Statham, who stood nearby; those who had called the family or written letters; and even the corrections employees at Montgomery County Detention Center. "Like the woman at the jail who made sure that Aaron got kosher meals three times a day, even taking the trouble to rotate his meals so he didn't always have to eat the same rubber chicken."
She made no mention of the murder or Sam Sheinbein or Freddy Tello, only a brief allusion to her son's having made the mistake of hanging around with the wrong crowd. "No matter what psychiatric evaluations they gave to him," she said, "they all showed that Aaron had a conscience and that he felt great pain." She quoted from a letter Aaron had written her while in prison: "Life surely didn't go as I expected it. How did I get here? Where are my dreams?"
"All of us here pray for you today, that you will be in a better place," she said. "That you will see ha-Shem and He will take care of you."
Sheldon Needle's eulogy was much briefer than his wife's. The stubble on his unshaven, tired face matched the color of his graying curls. He made scant mention of theology as he directly addressed his deceased son. "You were intelligent, you were athletic, you were good-looking," he said. "You had all the talents and assets to make a success in life. But there were some limitations preventing you from using your talents.
"You tried," he said. "And we tried. And everything we did, we did because we love you. We wish you could be here today."
The rabbi told the mourners that the mysteries of human existence can never be fully understood, and all one can do is try to grow stronger in faith. "Life is not perfect; it is instead a crazy quilt of extremes and everything in between," he said. "Aaron walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and he stumbled, and he fell." He offered a prayer in Hebrew, and then they lowered the pine coffin into the grave.
Needle's trial had been supposed to help solve—or at the very least, illuminate—the mystery that was on everyone's mind that day, the mystery surrounding why two kids in the suburbs had managed to turn on one of their companions and take him apart, bit by bit. Now there was only one person left who knew what had really happened, and he was in Israel.
Prosecutors had been intent on proving that the murder was a "two-man job," carried out by Needle and Sheinbein together. They had planned to call more than 50 witnesses to testify in the trial, which had been expected to last several weeks. Nearly 300 jurors had been scheduled to be considered for Montgomery County's most publicized murder case in years. Though prosecutors had claimed to have a slew of evidence linking both suspects to the crime, they hadn't been able to pin down a clear-cut motive. Why had these conflicted but fairly average suburban kids allegedly committed such a gruesome, sadistic act?
"We were going to provide a combination of possible motives," says Montgomery County Assistant State's Attorney James Trusty. "It's in the category of the unknowable, ultimately. Nobody can pretend to crawl into Aaron Needle's mind and say this is absolutely what motivated him or this is what absolutely motivated Sam Sheinbein."
Trusty says he wouldn't have needed a motive to hand the jury; the evidence would have been enough. "We felt we had a strong circumstantial case against Needle," he says. "We were very excited about our prospects. We felt that there was a combination of forensic evidence and motive evidence and common sense that would make it clear that this was a two-man job."
Deputy State's Attorney John McCarthy hints that the prosecution intended to focus on the volatile relationship between Needle and Tello: "Obviously, it was significant to us that there had been racially charged exchanges between Aaron Needle and Freddy Tello," he says. "This stuff went on. Needle would start it off and Tello would respond in kind, but Needle was invariably the initiator."
Needle's defense lawyer Michael Statham says he too was confident as his client's day in court approached. Despite all sorts of late-breaking discoveries, the defense remained strong, he says. All along—even in a bizarre series of jail-house conversations with a fellow inmate who took notes and went to the authorities and the Post—Needle had stayed consistent in denying that he had participated in Tello's slaying. Statham says the prosecution would have had a hard time proving the charges of first-degree murder against Needle, precisely because no obvious motive had been established. There was no DNA or fingerprint evidence linking Needle to the crime scene, according to Statham. "The prosecution's case against my client was totally circumstantial," he says. "To fill in those circumstances, you've got to give something for people to hang their hats on."
Statham says Needle's suicide substantiates Statham's position back when he requested a psychiatric evaluation for his client shortly before the trial was to begin: namely, that Needle was a disturbed and sensitive young man who felt the weight of the world on his shoulders—and maybe the troubling memory of Tello on his mind. In separate exams, neither state nor defense doctors diagnosed any suicidal tendencies or mental problems that would have made Needle unfit to stand trial. Guilty of the crime as accused? No, asserts Statham. But feeling a little guilty about what had happened. Maybe something like that, or something closer to the suffering of an anguished soul.
"I think he considered Tello a good friend of his, period," says Statham. "And to the extent that his own conscience may have had an impact on his decision to commit suicide, I believe that was his feelings—his conscience bothering him—for being involved in any way with Tello's [death], not because he particularly did it....I still don't believe [Needle] was physically involved."
Statham says that his client's trial wouldn't have provided any magical answers to fully explain the details of how Freddy Tello died, much less why: "No one to this day can tell you what happened, in what order it happened, and who did what—except Sam Sheinbein."
There was a big funeral for Freddy Tello more than a week after the murder. There was no rush, given the state of the remains. More than 200 people came to pay their final respects at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Silver Spring. The hordes of teenagers, many of them former classmates from Springbrook High School, offered ready contrast to the throng of solemn adults who later put Needle in the ground.
It was a motley crowd of all sorts of cliques from jocks to preps to hiphoppers to street thugs. The flora of mourners were a vivid testament to Tello's ability to move with ease in any number of circles.
"Freddy got along with everybody," says his former teacher Louise Runion, who attended the funeral and who'd taught Tello for three years of art classes at Springbrook. "He was lighthearted and laid-back and goofy, but he was very protective of his friends and his mother."
Tello possessed a rare and distinctive talent, according to Runion. She remembers that, no matter what sort of assignment she gave him, Tello would somehow make it his own. Once, he was asked to paint a still life of a fruit arrangement, and he shunned the academic examples and depicted the scene in Day-Glo vibrancy. "He had a lot of ability, and he had a mind of his own," recalls Runion. "He was only happy with his way of doing art, because he was so creative in his own style. It would always have his own flair, his own signature to it. Freddy was just really different that way."
Tello's manners impressed her more still. They had their share of run-ins concerning projects that Tello didn't want to do, but he never treated her badly. "Even when he knew I was mad at him, he never used profanity or cussed me out," she says. "He was never disrespectful to me. I never heard Freddy say anything bad about anyone, unless it was in a joking kind of way."
Runion has made a memorial of a classroom mural that Tello was working on before he quit school. She has hung his portrait nearby, and she says of the painting, "It will always be unfinished, like his life was." She says Tello told her that someday he was going to open a commercial art studio, and she says there was little reason to doubt that he would.
Art was one of the few things—besides meeting girls—that Tello enjoyed about school. In the middle of his senior year, in December '96, he dropped out for good. He worked various jobs, including a stint at a video store in Rockville. He had always been attracted to the Rockville Pike strip, where he could hang out and meet with friends. But he also ran with a faster, rougher crowd, a group of older guys who hailed from the Oakview area, near the subdivision by New Hampshire Avenue where he grew up. An altogether different world, that.
Though Tello lived with his mom in a nice house in a nice neighborhood (the "Woods of Amberleigh"), he counted himself as something of a street hood—that was the persona friends affectionately called Bubblehead. Tello was mostly a part-timer and wannabe tough guy, "totally harmless," says Randy Butts of the Oakview crew, one of the boys who was really running the streets and pulling capers.
"Freddy was the type of person who could go to school and work and still find time to party," says Butts, 21. "Most of the people he hung around with like me just wanted to smoke weed and hustle all day, but he wasn't about that. And so then all his friends, see, most of us got locked up or went away to Job Corps. So he was the big man now, and he had all his little people."
During the summer, Butts was relaxing at his Silver Spring house, fresh out of jail and busy working two jobs, finally getting his shit together, he says. Butts was home from his Job Corps gig one afternoon when who should show up but Bubblehead, along with some clean-cut guy he introduced as Aaron. "He seemed like he had a head on his shoulders," recalls Butts of his brief impression of Needle. "He was talking about wanting to go in the Army and thinking about the future. He was talking like we were at a turning point in our life when we had to get a trade and earn some money....He was kicking some serious knowledge....Bubblehead—I mean Freddy—he didn't usually hang out with people like that, so I said, 'This kid's good for you, man. Listen to what he's saying.'"
Always one to play it cool around his older buds, who didn't know a fraction of the other geeky or strait-laced friends he'd made through the years, Tello just laughed in his good-natured way: "OK, Preacher Man."
As it turned out, Tello and Needle had already been tight for months, ever since Needle had gotten back from boot camp that spring. They had first met at a cellular phone place where Needle reportedly worked briefly on Rockville Pike; they'd smoke a few blunts together and were soon socializing all the time.
Butts didn't know it, but Tello had been in far less trouble with authorities than his clean-cut companion. Ever since he was a kid, Needle had bounced in and out of every type of educational and reformatory institution around, public and private, whatever. He and his childhood friend Sam Sheinbein had been getting in trouble together ever since
they were classmates at the Charles E. Smith
Jewish Day School in Rockville. According to reports, they pulled all sorts of stunts, mostly thefts and burglaries.
In the spring of '95, Needle had gotten so out of control that his father petitioned county authorities for help. In neat handwriting, Sheldon Needle explained that he wanted his 15-year-old son committed for an emergency psychiatric examination: "Child was hospitalized for evaluation. Threatened suicide and ran away from hospital. Is addicted to marijuana and alcohol. Is a danger to himself. Needs immediate evaluation, medication." It was just another stop on the endless teen-rehab circuit. Later, Needle was sent to the Mark Twain School, the county's special facility for disruptive and emotionally disturbed students; he never graduated, but he eventually earned his GED. He wasn't dumb, just not able to make his way in the world he found himself in.
That summer, Tello and Needle become almost inseparable; they even went to New York together a few times to catch some hiphop shows. A routine had taken hold: Needle, who wasn't the type to hold down a job, would drive by and pick up Tello after he finished work. During this stretch, some of Tello's other friends met Needle a few times, getting to know him better than Butts did.
To them, Needle was a strange newcomer, not so much in how he looked as in how he behaved, sometimes shy and reserved but sometimes a neurotic extrovert, depending on his mood. "Aaron was a timid guy, not the type who hangs out with a crew of people all the time," says Andy Perez, 23, a longtime buddy of Tello's. "Most of the time he didn't say all that much, and other times, he'd seem really hyper and just talk and talk. He was an odd kid."
Perez accompanied Tello several times when he visited Needle's house, a contemporary mansion crowned by skylights set back on a wooded lot in a cul-de-sac in an upscale subdivision off Old Georgetown Road. Each time featured its own little psychodrama, as Needle butted heads with his mom. It was always the same. Everybody would sneak like cat burglars into Needle's upstairs room, where they'd sit around and get high and stare at the Bob Marley poster on the wall, just as half of the teenage population in America has done at one time or another.
At some point in the smoking session, Mrs. Needle would always break up the fun. "She'd just be screaming at Aaron, 'You're sick in the head, sick! You need help! You're a drug addict! You're going to hell!'" recalls Perez. "And Aaron would be screaming back, 'Shut the fuck up, Mom! Leave us alone!'" Sometimes Mrs. Needle would take her harangue outside, following them to their cars. Though she sometimes yelled at the others, the main target was always Aaron. And in these shouting matches, Mrs. Needle always seemed to win, if there is such a thing as winning in this sort of familial spat. Needle just wanted to get the hell out of there.
His mom won another battle as well, talking Needle into enrolling at Montgomery College. Needle was still hellbent on joining the Marines, which had become a goal after his stint in boot camp got him pumped up in more ways than one. Still, a visit to a recruiting office in Rockville—accompanied by Sam Sheinbein, with whom he'd hooked up again—had proved discouraging when he was told they don't just accept anybody who walks in. Needle realized that he had to get some good behavior under his belt before he could become a leather-neck. So the college thing would be OK, at least on a short-term basis.
By the end of the summer, Tello had settled into a new job at a tropical fish store, Congressional Aquarium, in a strip mall on Rockville Pike. Except for cleaning the tanks, it was the perfect gig for a stoner like Tello—everything percolating and glowing and all-out mellow. He liked to arrange the tank displays and talk to customers. Of course, he also spent a lot of time taking calls on his pager from his friends. Tello was talking about buying a car and maybe even renting an apartment, going out on his own for the first time in his life. Needle would
regularly stop by the fish store in his Honda,
and they'd high-five each other and smoke a
cigarette outside. Then Needle would hang out
and watch some whacked-out neon-colored fish eat each other for dinner and bide his time until they could go have some fun.
It wasn't all blunts and good grooves between the two. Earlier that summer, they'd gotten in a big showdown over some weed that Needle said Tello had laced with PCP, unbeknownst to him. The nasty spat happened at a buddy's house over in Hyattsville. "Aaron was freaking out,"' recalls Randy Butts, who witnessed the incident. "He was like, 'You snuck fucking boat on me?!' Nobody there really knew Aaron. They're just like, 'Hey buddy, calm the fuck down, if you freak yourself and panic you're going to give yourself an anxiety attack and you're gonna lose it. If you tell yourself, "I'm OK," you'll calm down fine.' Then I said to Freddy, 'What, are you sneaking boat on people?' He's like, 'Man, he knew, he's just wigging out and he can't remember that he's smoked it with me. How the fuck can you sneak boat on someone? You know how bad that shit stinks—he smokes it all the time.'"
The incident had apparently blown over, because the pair stayed thick as the summer dragged on. Still, some of Tello's friends noticed that he would put Needle down, teasing and riding him in a way that they'd never treated Tello. Not with insults so much as steady arrogance: Slick Freddy and his geeky sidekick Aaron. "He'd be driving Aaron's car, just pushing him around like it was his, like, 'Shut up man, I'm driving,'" recalls Perez. "I told Freddy, 'Chill out, you are driving the kid's car.' But Freddy wanted to seem like the big man."
Mostly, he was trying to keep his distance and to show his old crew that he was hard, that baby brother Bubblehead was growing up. Needle would just keep quiet and save his ammo for another time—he was on foreign territory around Tello's friends. (During one heated exchange, Tello had warned he would get his Oakview crew to kick Needle's ass if he didn't shut up.) Needle respected and feared these guys, and he also knew that compared with them, Tello was just as much of a putz as he was.
Whatever the source of their running dispute, Tello and Needle were taking serious chances with each other. Whether they realized it or not, these novice punks were slinging shit on shaky ground.
"If I called Bubblehead a Spic and he called me a honky, it wouldn't even hurt 'cause we've known each other for so long," says Butts, who didn't see much of the feuding the few times he saw Aaron and Freddy. "But they had really just started hanging out, and they were probably like, 'Fuck you, Jew-boy,' and 'Fuck you, Spic' and it's fun and games but it's really hitting inside, 'cause they don't really love each other. They're hanging out, they're cool, but there's a difference between associates and friends. And there are some people you just get high with and they're not really your friends."
Still, nobody around the two dreamed that there was anything really dangerous going on; all the trash-talking just made them seem like a couple of morons. In general, their relationship was not unlike countless others' at that age. They may have been using each other, says Butts, but it was
a pretty equal deal. Butts says he was keen on Needle because he could be a positive influence on his friend, who always seemed too damn naive and trustful to be trying to run with real street dudes. "I remember the last thing I ever said to Freddy was, 'That Aaron dude is good for you, man,'" Butts says.
The evening after Hannah Choi first met Aaron Needle, she drove over to her friend's house, the same place they'd hung out that strange night before. They were going to lie around and maybe catch the season premiere of Beverly Hills 90210. Turning in to the driveway, though, she had a sinking feeling: Parked in the driveway was the gold Honda Accord. Tello was at the wheel again, and in the back seat sat Needle, hardly a welcome sight.
In fact, Choi had skipped school that day to avoid running into him; she had decided to definitely drop broadcasting class, despite the fact that she wanted to be a journalist. Undaunted by Needle's presence, she tried to simply walk around the car and head straight for the house. As she passed by, the back passenger door swung open and Needle was right in her face, screaming like a madman.
"Where the fuck were you?" he bellowed. "I was fucking looking for you."
The outburst was so exaggerated that it struck Hannah's two girlfriends as comical, and they wore matching O-my-God expressions as they tried to keep from laughing in sheer disbelief. But Hannah, all of 4-foot-11 and 110 pounds, simply braced herself as he berated her nose to nose, "gleeking" on her. This kid was a freak.
"Why didn't you come to class?" Needle continued. "I got all dressed up for you. I put on my contacts and put cologne on, and you didn't fucking show up."
From the car, Tello tried to calm him down. "Man, she's been dodging you all day," he said, as if explaining the obvious to a dolt. "Leave her alone; she's not your girlfriend."
After a cooling-down period, everyone piled into the car to go on another search for cigarettes. This time the passengers included one of Tello's Oakview buddies, who sat in the front passenger seat. Needle sulked for a little while, and they drove in an unpleasant silence. Hannah's girlfriend tapped her on the arm, as if to tell her, say something to him. The only thing she could think of was to compliment him on the wristwatch
he was wearing.
"How much do you think I paid for it?" he asked.
"I don't know," she replied, then realized that she now had to guess. "Seventy-five?"
He proudly told her that he'd bought it for $15 at some stand at Wheaton Plaza. She wasn't impressed, and the little glow of sympathy he had sparked in her was replaced by aggravation. It deepened when he started flipping through a skiing and snowboarding fashion catalog, asking her to tell him what type of guy she liked in the ads. Then, mere minutes after his tantrum, he had the nerve to ask her about the rest of her school schedule. Fed up, she said he reminded her of serial killer Andrew Cunanan. As he
had the night before, he took her comment dead
seriously. "What makes you think that?"
She was almost relieved when Needle turned his attention to Tello, ragging on him with a vigor he had never shown before.
"Man, I have never seen places more ghetto than where Freddy's taken me."
Instead of responding, Tello just kept singing along to his tunes on the stereo. He was apparently tired of playing this game. His failure to respond was infuriating Needle, who started slinging all the old slurs. But Tello wasn't doing his part, and his coolness was worse than any insult.
Undaunted, Needle kept talking his trash—he just wouldn't shut up. After a while, the situation was getting ridiculous, and a sullen Tello grew even more quiet as they pulled into a gas station at the intersection of Cherry Hill and Randolph Roads in Silver Spring. Suddenly, Tello spun around from the driver's seat and, with his foot still on the gas pedal, starting punching Needle in the face. In the first flurry, he knocked Needle's glasses off and kept punching. Only then did Needle hold his arms up defensively, all the while repeating, "What are you doing? You're my boy!"
The car lurched forward, the girls shrieked, and Tello spun back around and managed to get the Honda in park. Then he got out of the car, calmly walked to the back, opened the door, and launched another attack. This time, Needle simply grabbed Tello's skinny fists with one hand to effectively end the "fight," telling him they were friends and didn't need to do this.
The brief, one-sided scuffle wasn't much, at least physically. Needle hadn't thrown a single punch to defend himself in either assault. Though he was obviously stunned, the only thing hurt was his pride. While Tello went to get some cigarettes, Needle got on the cell phone. He glared out the window. Then his expression brightened, and he laughed at some private joke. He talked for a while and then hung up.
"Who was that?" asked Choi, mostly to try to make conversation and end the awkward silence.
"My friend Sam Sheinbein," said Needle.
During the next few days, Tello and Needlecontinued to socialize as usual, and by all accounts they behaved as if the blow-up had never happened. The following evening, they picked up Choi's girlfriends for some nightclubbing in Washington; Choi herself had declined the invitation.
The only rough spot during the ride happened when one of the girls told Needle that Choi had been going steady with the same guy for four years.
"Why didn't you tell me she had a boyfriend?" Needle said to Tello.
"Uh, I don't know," replied Tello lazily. "I forgot."
After dropping the girls off at Coco Loco (Needle was too young to get in), they went driving around town and drinking beer with Andy Perez, who recalls nothing out of the ordinary, except the fact that Needle was sitting in the front passenger seat instead of the back of the car. "It didn't look like any tension at all between them," says Perez. "It was a cool night."
Maybe the big fracas, ugly as it had been, had finally cleared the air for good.
That weekend, Tello celebrated his 19th birthday with a Georgetown shopping spree courtesy of his mom. He bought some Guess jeans and other accessories; he had his favorite gold chain polished at a jeweler's. Needle wasn't around for once; this occasion was strictly for him and his Oakview boys. As usual, he was generous with his loot, according to the buddies he brought along for the day. "He had some birthday money," recalls Butts. "So we went to some shops, got some food, flirted with some girls."
On Monday, Tello showed off his new apartment to one of his oldest friends, Danny Ross, another Oakview buddy. "He was so happy with his new crib," says Ross. Tello already had put up some of his artwork and set up his stereo equipment. With help from his mom, he could finally afford his own place, a basement efficiency in Silver Spring. He was extremely close with his mom; they were almost like best friends. Before he left home for the last time, he had told her not be sad about her boy leaving the nest. "Aw, Mom, I'm only gonna be 20 minutes away," he said, promising to visit often. "It's not like I'm gonna be dead or something."
That night, Tello and Ross went to meet up with Choi and her friends for a quiet celebration. He was driving a beat-up '78 Chevy Impala he'd just bought for $500. A real junker, boasting a multi-hued blue paint job, it didn't even have a radio; Tello kept a boom box in the front seat so he could listen to his reggae and rap cassettes. Choi and her friends followed in their car as Tello led them to Hillandale, near his old stomping grounds with his Oakview crew. He wanted to show them a favorite new "cut," his term for any out-of-the-way nook he'd discovered—a place to chill out and smoke a blunt or two and get away from it all.
They parked their cars, and Tello took them through the woods to a clearing, illuminated by a full harvest moon. Choi had never seen Tello quite this mellow before. His usual infectious energy was gone, and the gregarious, outgoing clown was reflective. He even told Choi that he was thinking about taking some art classes at Montgomery College; he said he wanted to be a commercial artist some day. The future—that was something Choi had never heard him talk about before.
But for the most part, Tello stayed silent as everybody in the group began taking turns ragging on Needle, who was conspicuously absent. Even the laid-back Ross said he didn't like the guy, dissing him as a pothead who craved weed like a crackhead wanted rock. "That dude is mental," said Ross. "He's sick, man."
"Why do you hang out with Aaron?" asked Choi. "He's crazy, and I have a weird feeling about him."
Tello wasn't going for it. He never talked about Needle behind his back—only when he was around. Tello looked at her disapprovingly, as if she were too immature to understand the ways of the world. "Oh Hannah, that's messed up," he said softly. "Don't talk about him like that."
She decided it wasn't the time to pursue his reasons why. He clammed back up, while the others began to talk about people who screw you over. Tello hated this kind of negative talk: He was superstitious that way. He was a devout practitioner of Santería, the syncretic Catholic-based Afro-Hispanic religion, which he had learned under the guidance of a relative. He believed that he had his own protection from his pantheon of saints. His fate was in their hands. He even had
his personal saint and guardian, Shangó, tattooed on his arm.
His only contribution to the discussion was something he had said many times before on such occasions: "Well, if something happens to me, I know my saints will take care of it. I'm not worried about revenge."
The next day, Tello was cleaning fish tanks at Congressional Aquarium. Store employee Adam Moore was working the same shift, and he recalls Tello being excited about his new place and his new set of wheels. As always, Tello spent a lot of time calling friends and making plans for the night. Around 4:30 p.m., he called Choi to tell her about a party. He was going over to Sam Sheinbein's place after work; Sheinbein's parents were out of town. It would be a blast, drink some beer and chill.
"Oh, is he your friend?" asked Choi, who was ever more curious about the "mystery boy" she had never met but had heard so much about. She had even begun to wonder if Sam Sheinbein really existed, or if he was some imaginary friend that Needle had made up.
"No, he's Aaron's boy," said Tello. He told her they were going to meet up at the Taco Bell some time after 6 p.m. at the Plaza del Mercado off Bel Pre Road, near Sheinbein's place. Hannah said she didn't want to go if Needle was going to be there—the boy was just too much—but she would call her friends and see if they wanted to check it out. Tello tried again to convince her to come, but she said no.
Choi phoned her friends, who agreed to meet everybody at the Taco Bell. In the meantime, Tello apparently called Needle to tell him he had invited some girls.
At 5:30 p.m., Needle and Sheinbein pulled up to the Congressional Aquarium in Sheinbein's new 1997 Pontiac Firebird. Moore says he had never seen Sheinbein drop by the store before, but they all behaved like old buddies. The three chatted for a while—there had been some change of plans or something. Then, at 6 p.m., Tello got into his Impala and pulled out of the parking lot, followed by Needle and Sheinbein in the Firebird. Moore had also just gotten off work, and he was headed the same way, east on Norbeck Road (Route 28) in the direction of Sheinbein's house.
At an intersection, Moore watched the Firebird pull up next to the Impala, and Tello and his cohorts conversed through open windows until the light turned green. It looked as if they were giving Tello directions somewhere. Moore took his left to head home, as the two cars—the Impala tailed by the Firebird—roared off down Route 28 toward Aspen Hill. Except for Needle and Sheinbein, that's the last time anybody saw Freddy Tello alive.