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.