Death on I-Drive 

Did the Orange Conuty Sherrif's Office overlook a murder? Moments after midnight on a rainy Feb. 23, 1993, a beautiful young Ethiopian woman named Almaz Andarge was found dead at the Clarion Plaza Hotel where, after morning classes at Mid-Florida Technical Institute, she worked as a maid. A security guard found her in Room 261, to which she had been assigned for turn-down service. He said she was kneeling, slumped, face down on the end of an air-conditioning unit, her body wedged into a small space between the unit and a corner table. Around her neck was wrapped a cord still attached to the vertical blinds that hung in the window above her. Responding to the 911 call, agents of the Orange County Sheriff's Office discovered the hotel staff had repositioned Almaz, contaminating the crime scene. But the room was not in disarray. And deputies saw no defensive wounds. The hotel manager and security chief both said that the electronic lock on the door, which allegedly had been engaged, could only be set from inside; though easily disproved, on-site investigators took the statement at face value. It also was learned that the girl had had a bad-hair day. It was quickly concluded that Almaz had hanged herself. Barely an hour later, Haile Andarge (An-DAR-gay), the older brother with whom Almaz lived, stood in the hotel's security office listening to lead investigator John Linnert, whose stunning words were like bullets. Haile's wife, Fozia, drew a short, sharp breath. "We were devastated `and` at the same time incredulous," says Haile. "I asked Detective Linnert, how could they say that my sister committed suicide? They had done no investigation! They knew nothing of her, who she was as a person, nothing about her culture. I did, and I knew that it was impossible." When Linnert leaned close to Andarge's face and firmly told him that Almaz had indeed killed herself and to accept it, a line was drawn. In the weeks that followed, as the sheriff's office stiff-armed Andarge's requests that they rethink the case as a possible murder, that line became indelible. Eleven days later, Linnert stapled together the statements he'd taken from three Clarion staff members, plus reports from deputies on the scene and his own narrative. He typed "suicide" in the space titled OFFENCE and closed Case No. 93-054113. Andarge was desperate, passionate and insistent. From Almaz's personality profile, to the strength of the hotel's window-blind casings, to the door lock's ability to be locked from both inside and out, he determined to dismantle the sheriff's department's conclusion. He found more than sympathy. He found more than sympathy. In workers' compensation court, a judge hearing Andarge's evidence ruled that a murder indeed had occurred. The medical examiner who said the door-lock information from the sheriff's office influenced his ruling of suicide has since testified that, if he'd known the door also could be locked from outside, his conclusion would have been affected. And last month, an edict from Gov. Lawton Chiles -- prodded, no doubt, by a recent inquiry from "Dateline" -- finally led to a sheriff's office investigator being assigned for a fresh look. Andarge, deeply distrustful of the sheriff, has reason to be skeptical. In July, the assigned investigator, Major John Stough, had signed off on a synopsis of the earlier sheriff's office investigation that ruled suicide. It's possible that a similar finding could result again. But if it doesn't, and if Almaz didn't kill herself, what does that say about the sheriff's inquiry, and its steely refusal, for more than four years, to let any other agency look into it? It must have seemed an open-and-shut case. But suicide is a high crime in Ethiopia; if guilty of it, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians like Almaz can never be buried. Driven to clear his sister's name, Haile Andarge launched an investigation of epic proportions, spoon-feeding his findings to the sheriff's office. The reply never varied: none of his evidence warranted a new inquiry. Meanwhile, Gov. Chiles was inundated with letters from people who had reviewed the case and urged its re-opening: diplomats, congressmen, even Southern Baptist patriarch Jim Henry. A petition with 5,000 signatures was sent to the U.S. Attorney General. A web page went up. Eventually, John Barr, of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement -- who, Andarge learned, previously had worked with the case's detectives -- reviewed and rubber-stamped the original finding, adding misinformation of his own: that Almaz was an illegal alien, that a rape examination had been made during an autopsy, and that she had been embalmed. Andarge feared collusion -- after all, Clarion owner Harris Rosen had been implicated in illegal contributions to Sheriff Kevin Beary's political campaigns; Clarion workers had said that deputies were extended employee discounts; and concern for crime impacting tourism was at an all-time high. Further, Linnert and his partner had made a visit to former Clarion manager Norman Jacks at Marion Correctional Center in Georgia, where he is now serving time for crimes unrelated to this case. They advised him to plead the Fifth Amendment should any investigators or representatives of Almaz' family request interviews regarding her death. "It was good advice," says Jacks. "The cops were telling me, 'Look, we've closed this. We don't think you did this.' They came up here to tell me to 'Shut up, cause look, you're just digging your grave.'" Dismayed but not deterred, Andarge turned to the worker's compensation court. In July 1996, attorney Monte Shoemaker presented nearly four years' worth of Andarge's evidence to Judge Richard Thompson. When it was over, Thompson ruled that "`E`vidence is overwhelming that the employee was the victim of homicide." His sister was exonerated, his family in Ethiopia was awarded $25,000 which went into a trust fund, and Andarge won the satisfaction of the judge's proclamation. Had the sheriff's office and the medical examiner followed suit and removed the word "suicide" from Almaz" death certificate, allowing for a hallowed burial, there would have at last been closure. The sheriff's office did not budge. For the first time in his travail, Andarge turned to the media. In February, Scott Hansen, then an investigative reporter for WESH-Channel 2, aired a two-part report on Almaz' death that incensed the sheriff's office. In July, Sentinel columnist David Porter twice wrote about the case. The sheriff's office still was not moved. July brought another twist -- a confidential informant alleging to have information about who killed Almaz. Andarge wanted to deal directly with the person. Attorney Shoemaker said he feared repercussions from the Bar if he kept the informant under wraps. Against Andarge's wishes, Shoemaker made a fateful call. Reportedly, the sheriff's office whisked the person into protective custody. Neither the Andarges nor their new attorney -- South Florida's sometimes notorious, always feisty, love-him-or-hate-him Ellis Rubin -- have had access to verify the informant's statements. Word of the informant did seem to galvanize the whole lot -- Chiles, FDLE, Beary, et al. That, and a phone call from a "Dateline" producer who had received a detailed letter from Andarge. Chiles ordered FDLE to re-examine the case; the agency handed off to its Orlando office, which returned the case to the sheriff's office. Major Stough met with the Andarges and Rubin in mid-September, offering a deal: cease talking to the media and hand over all their documents. In exchange, Stough pledged a new investigation. Meanwhile, lost in the nomenclature of law enforcement that variously calls her "the body," "the victim," "the decedent" and "the deceased" is Almaz, who was accused, tried and found guilty of self murder in three-hours time. Almaz Andarge was a molasses-skinned slip of a girl, 5-foot-3-inches tall and 96 pounds. Her smile was fabulous. It greeted you, encouraged conversation, responded to compliments and mended spirits. Even in death, her brown eyes remained luminous -- until some medicinal finger forced them forever shut. Transplanted for 20 months, Almaz was taking all she could from the academic soil of America. Her adjustment to this country had been remarkably smooth, thanks to her doting brother, her helpful sister-in-law -- whose idea it was to bring Almaz here to study -- her American sponsor and numerous classmates, co-workers and the local Ethiopian community. There were no indications, as a suicide expert would suggest, of a life that was being shut down. Wrote Dr. Harvey Hester, of the American Society of Suicidology: "When an untimely death is being considered a possible suicide, there are standard guidelines for investigation, such as: the personality profile of the victim; whether the victim was actively making plans for the future; notable change in behavior or habits." December and January had been terrific months for Almaz: a holiday in California with a friend; her 23rd birthday; a certificate of English competency; acceptance into Valencia Community College's nursing program. Her goal: become a nurse, work through medical school and return to Ethiopia as a physician."It is good to help each other," she had written. On Valentine's Day, eight days before her death, at work Almaz received a bouquet from a platonic-but-admiring friend. What she did with it gives insight into her nature. After work, housekeeping supervisor Debbi Dixon gave Almaz a ride home. "She sat there with that beautiful bunch of flowers, smiling, amazed. I said how lucky she was ... nobody had sent me flowers. When she got out of the car she said, 'Here, I want you to have these.' I protested, but she was insistent." On Thursday, Feb. 19, Almaz withdrew $150 from her bank, had her hair cut, then went home, saving the remaining money for a new outfit and a present for Haile, who was due to graduate from the University of Central Florida with a degree in management information systems. Friday was an unremarkable day at work. Saturday morning, she prepared kita -- a traditional Ethiopian bread -- for a family breakfast. Sunday was a day of shopping with a best friend. That Monday, her last day on earth, Almaz awoke to a cloudy, winter sky. On the wall above her bed, the Virgin Mary's benign countenance smiled down. She dressed in slacks and a favorite sweater. A big toe peeked from a hole in each sock as she slipped into her size three white work shoes, each with six tiny rhinestones glittering on top. She took her favorite sheer black scarf and, with a skill learned in childhood, created a turban about her head. At 6:30 a.m., Almaz left for the Lynx stop, strolling through the neighborhood, past the remains of summer roses and bare-limbed golden rain trees and bougainvillaea, until boarding a bus for her ride to classes. Teachers say she was an inquisitive student, one who went the extra mile, sometimes borrowing old story books to take home for a weekend read. Almaz' assignment that day was to read aloud a prepared speech entitled, "A Frightening and Dangerous Experience." Hers told the true, slap-stick tale of a snake loose in her sister-in-law's bedroom. "I thought ... that was not a snake ... it was a shoe lace. Close to it I saw his tail moving. O! `sic` God! We were scared." The presentation drew howls of laughter. A funny girl, her sense of humor was unusual for her culture. To her, nationality or age mattered not. She liked everybody. She was a toucher who dispensed hugs. She told jokes, made wishes. Above all, her teachers say she was a joy. Instructor Shirlee Patrick had a ritual. As her students left for the day, she'd always say, "See you later, alligator." That day, after scurrying out, Almaz stuck her head back in to finish the farewell: "After a while crocodile." Gashaw Wubie, a long-time family friend, also attended Mid-Florida Tech. That day he offered to drop Almaz at the Clarion, since he was going that way. On the drive, Almaz chattered about her brother, how wonderful he was -- working hard, taking care of her and Fozia, and the importance of his up-coming graduation. "She wanted to buy a special gift for Haile. She said, 'Please, can we go shopping together? I have never bought anything for a man.' I was telling her that next week we'd go ahead and get it." Gashaw knew Almaz' ambition. "Her plan was the future. Sometimes she'd just say to us, 'Hey, guys, I am so lucky.' "Can you ever be more than happy?" he says. "Happy is happy, and Almaz was happy." Because of the rain then falling, Gashaw snugged his car up to the hotel's employee entrance. "It was a very nice good-bye. A smile. A wave. 'I'll see you tomorrow,' she told me." Gashaw watched as the back door of the Clarion closed behind Almaz. Major Stough need look no further than page one of the sheriff's office manual for the first problem in the handling of Almaz' death: "Deputies must avoid developing preconceived theories. Evaluations must be based upon facts." Consider: Consider: Although initially told that the privacy lock on the door to Room 261 could only be engaged from within, investigating officers did not corroborate the information that was later debunked. An emergency key can lock the door from the hallway, and "`S`omebody at the front desk can cut any key they want," says Jacks, the former manager. Sheriff's officers also didn't verify when Jacks and hotel security chief Ken Lehman told them that a computerized history of the electronic lock was unimpeachable. In fact, a key can lock the door from outside and not be traced at all. Eventually Lehman also testified that it was possible for the computerized record to be forged, manufactured or manipulated. Regardless, Lehman said, "leaving the doors `held open with the deadbolt extended` is common practice among hotel employees working in the rooms." Thus, any number of people could have followed Almaz into Room 261, assuming she did enter with her key. Again, the sheriff's department manual states: "The general rule of crime scene protection is not to touch, move, or disturb any object until the scene has been ... processed for latent fingerprints; Do not use the telephone." At the death scene, no fingerprints were taken but from Almaz, not even from the two large handprints clearly visible on the window above her head. Investigators explained away the oversight by blaming moisture on the glass, despite standard procedures that exist for obtaining handprints from wet surfaces. No fiber samples were obtained. Records show the telephone was used 10 times while the room was classified as a crime scene. "I did let the deputies know I made a couple of calls to my boss; they said it was no big deal," Jacks recalls. John Fields, the guard who found Almaz, told investigators that he "ripped the blinds down and pulled the cord from around her neck and checked for a pulse `and` found none." And yet, according to investigators, when manager Jacks appeared -- apparently within seconds -- he "went over to her and pulled her away from the air conditioner ... unwrapped the cord from her neck and laid `sic` her down." Just which of the men actually unwound the cord or moved Almaz remains in dispute, as not only do their original statements conflict, but subsequent ones became more elaborate, contentious and contradictory. Jacks, with a degree in criminal justice including 70 hours of crime investigation courses, knew better than to contaminate the scene. But it was only the third day on the job for Fields. Previously he'd worked in an office where he monitored a desk-top security camera and checked for locked doors; contrary to Clarion's hiring guidelines, he had no Florida driver's license or security license. His prior work experience in a hotel was as a busboy. If the initial inquiry was sloppy, the most recent paperwork in case No. 93-054113 is downright insulting. The latest case document generated by the sheriff's office is Detective Linnert's supplemental report dated March 18, 1997. In it he compares Almaz' case to "Diary of a Murder," a New Yorker magazine article about an Ethiopian student at Harvard who killed herself and her roommate. "The article has many similarities to this case and offers insight into the Ethiopian culture," Linnert wrote. Tsehai Selassie, a Tufts University professor of anthropology, foremost expert on that culture and an Ethiopian herself, knows both cases and had, in a telephone conversation, told Linnert quite the opposite. "There are no similarities beyond country of origin. Unless he was an investigator in the Harvard case, he has no right to use an article to bolster his point of view. The detective should have read the Boston police report instead of the magazine, which has its problems, as the writer does not know Ethiopian culture. To say the Harvard incident was an isolated one is understatement: Ethiopian women, because of their culture, do not kill themselves." Linnert's supplemental report attempts to challenge, point by point, Judge Thompson's ruling in the worker's compensation case. Yet contradictions of Linnert's own previous statements are confounding, and dislodge his premise. In 1994 he stated, "You could climb up on the air conditioner, wrap the cord around your neck and simply step off." But now Linnert states: "It has never been indicated in the investigation that the victim stood on the air conditioning unit and stepped off." In 1994, during a deposition taken for the worker's compensation trial, Linnert was asked, "What is it, from the medical examiner's report, that substantiates that this was a suicide?" He replied, "The fact that the ligature `binding` marks were consistent with the `cord` that came from the blinds." Yet in 1997, his summary quotes an FDLE crime lab report that states, "... `N`o conclusion could be reached as to whether or not the injuries could have been produced by the blind cord." Of the three other reasons he cited for his finding of suicide, only one is viable: the windows to Room 261 were sealed, meaning that no one could have entered or exited through that route. But the fact that the door may have been dead-bolted has been proven irrelevant. And the thoroughness of Almaz' autopsy can be called into question. The medical examiner's report shows that, although he weighed Almaz' heart, liver, spleen, kidneys and pancreas, and weighed and sectioned her brain, Dr. Thomas Hegert did not determine when she ate a meal of meat and vegetables, 400 ccs of which were in her stomach only partially digested. Almaz' blood tested negative for substances. However, while Hegert did swab her nose for cocaine, he only looked at, but did not swab, her vagina or anus for seminal fluids. Office memos show repeated requests from the family for a rape exam, the first by an attorney-friend on the day of the autopsy. They asked about fiber evidence on her neck and about physical evidence beneath her fingernails. Hegert's records show that he did cut Almaz' fingernails -- a standard repository for relevant evidence -- but there was "none saved per `Orange County Sheriff's Department`"; likewise, evidentiary bags from her hands, and her body shroud, were discarded. No attempt was made to collect microscopic evidence from her neck. On Feb. 24, 1993, Hegert signed the death certificate. Cause: asphyxia due to hanging. Probable manner: suicide. A second autopsy arranged for by the family, to be conducted by then Seminole County Medical Examiner Dr. Shashi Gore, was fouled; although intended to be conducted independent of input from Orange County, records show steady contact between Gore and Hegert. "Dr. Gore needs info on case," reads one Hegert memo. (In 1996, Gore resigned to accept an offer to fill Hegert's position when Hegert retired.) Linnert claimed, in his supplemental investigation, that Gore not only performed a sexual assault exam on Almaz, but that his autopsy findings were consistent with Hegert's. However, Gore denied it to the Andarges, telling them there was little he could do at the time of the second autopsy. "He told us, 'The nails were clipped and gone, the vagina was flushed and the body was embalmed.' He did photograph the body," says Haile Andarge. Gore later would retract that the body had been embalmed. He also assured the Andarges, as recently as Sept. 4, that he never reached a conclusion of suicide. And Hegert has since testified that the door-lock information given to him by the sheriff's office influenced his own finding of suicide. Had that factor been removed, he says, his conclusion would have been affected. Life in the Clarion Plaza's Room 261 was back to normal within five hours of the time that detectives closed its door. There was no yellow police tape, no discreet vase of flowers, no day of vacancy out of respect. By 10 a.m. on Feb. 23, Frank Kroses had settled in for the pizza expo that was in town and was using the room phone to call his pizzeria back in Buffalo, N.Y. But nearly five years later, life is far from normal for the Andarges. In Almaz' old room a family picture has replaced the Virgin Mary. Although the space is now an office crowded with uncountable case files and materials, her little French Provincial study desk still sits beneath the window. Outside, stakes she once tied with flowers still stand, empty and faded. Her brother does not have the heart to remove them. From jail, Norman Jacks complains that the only reason he's the focus of the family's suspicion is because he's already behind bars, and John Fields, who has since moved out of state, is nervous that that's where he might be heading. "With the bungling by Orange County that I've been hearing about," Fields says, "I'm concerned that I'm gonna be brought up on charges of murder, with somebody manufacturing evidence." Asked about the case's status, Major Stough says, "I am investigating all new information and reviewing all old information. I expect my review and report to be completed within the next several weeks." Meanwhile, the warm earth of Ethiopia awaits her daughter.

More by Dee Rivers


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