After a young couple was killed, the alleged gunman fled to Ethiopia. He may never face trial
The former college soccer player was gunned down in his own home, shell casings scattered around his body, police said. His friend’s body was found a couple of miles away, slumped against a tree with a bullet through her head.
Authorities are confident they know who carried out the brutal double slaying in Northern Virginia last December. A witness places an aspiring rapper at the scenes of the killings. A Fairfax grand jury indicted him for murder. Detectives know where he lives.
Yet, nearly 10 months later, Yohannes Nessibu remains a free man. He was spotted strolling down a street in recent months. On Twitter, he still promotes a mixtape that features him rapping about shooting a woman.
Nessibu, 23, is out of reach because he boarded a flight to his native Ethiopia, just before police closed in on him, the victims’ families say. The families say he’s now the subject of an international tug of war: The United States wants him returned to stand trial, but Ethiopia refuses because it bars the extradition of its own citizens.
Nessibu’s case is among dozens in which citizens of foreign countries have allegedly committed crimes in the United States and then sought refuge in their homelands. The United States will extradite its nationals, but a number of countries, including Brazil, Germany and China refuse to turn over their citizens to face charges abroad, even in murder cases.
The State Department declined to comment on Nessibu’s case, but it has previously said such policies are one of the largest stumbling blocks in cases involving international extradition. It has long pushed for countries to drop the bans.
Caught in the middle are grieving families such as those of Henok Yohannes and Kedest Simeneh, both 22, of Fairfax County. With the criminal proceedings frozen, the families are in an agonizing limbo.
“We just want justice,” said Kedest’s father, Sileshi Simeneh.
Simeneh said his family has been in direct talks with the Ethiopian embassy in recent days about possible solutions and he is cautiously optimistic something might be worked out. The Ethiopian Embassy in D.C. did not respond to requests for comment.
The families of the victims agreed to speak about the killings in the hopes that publicity will help bring about a resolution. At the very least, they want to make Nessibu’s life in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa less comfortable.
Nessibu did not respond to a request for comment through email and social media, his family couldn’t be reached, and no attorney is listed for him in court records.
Christina Simeneh, 12, began the story of her sister’s killing in a quiet voice: “I was the last person to see her.”
Still wearing her crossing guard belt after arriving home from elementary school on a recent afternoon, Christina described how Kedest walked through the door of the family’s Springfield home shortly before 7 p.m. on Dec. 22, 2016. She was with three people. One was the man who would allegedly end her life.
Nothing seemed amiss. Her sister briefly popped into a bathroom or bedroom to get something and called her boyfriend, Henok Yohannes. Christina chatted with the men.
Then, Kedest headed back out into the night.
The encounter was so ordinary it might have been forgotten, if Christina had seen her sister again.
At the time, Kedest was working in health care and had attended Northern Virginia Community College. Her family said she did not appear to be in any kind of trouble.
Instead, they remember a young woman who was quick to give hugs, funny and generous. They recalled that Kedest once came across a homeless woman and her kids begging one day and took the family out to eat at Panda Express.
After leaving home on Dec. 22, Kedest’s family said she and the men headed to Henok’s house. According to a search warrant filed in the case, Simeneh posted a video on social media, showing the car ride.
The brief video shows the group laughing and joking. There were no signs of what was to come.
Waiting inside was Henok, who had been a soccer star at West Springfield High School, before winning a sports scholarship to attend Virginia’s University of Mary Washington in 2012, his family said.
Henok dropped out his sophomore year to attend Northern Virginia Community College He also took jobs with a moving company and a restaurant to make money, the family said. He eventually wanted to open his own business.
“He was humble, loving, full of life and had a big smile,” said his sister, Elsabeth Yohannes.
A second search warrant filed by Fairfax County police said a family member told detectives that Henok had a history of dealing drugs, mostly marijuana. Family members said in an interview that detectives told them the meeting on the evening of Dec. 22 was arranged so Nessibu could purchase drugs from Henok.
But the deal went awry somehow. Henok’s family said he was shot in the neck and head as he lay on the floor in the home. The second search warrant said police found a backpack that contained what they believed was marijuana and a scale at the scene.
Kedest’s family said Nessibu ushered her out of the house, according to witness accounts given to police. Nessibu then allegedly forced the men with him to drive to a residential neighborhood a little more than two miles away in Burke.
It was there that Kedest’s family said police told them she was shot execution-style in the backyard of a home on Cordwood Court around 8 p.m. A neighbor found her body the next morning.
Kedest’s family said detectives told them Nessibu paid about $3,000 in cash for a one-way plane ticket from Dulles International Airport to Addis Ababa, leaving the same day Kedest’s body was found.
Detectives had begun piecing together evidence they believed would link Nessibu to the killings, but they were just a step behind.
The first search warrant states one of the men who was in the car with Nessibu and Kedest told detectives on Dec. 29 that Nessibu killed Henok and was seen holding the murder weapon in the area where Kedest’s body was found.
By March, prosecutors felt they had enough evidence to pursue charges. A Fairfax County grand jury indicted Nessibu for murder and a weapons charge in both killings. Prosecutors began efforts to have Nessibu returned to the United States.
In a typical extradition, prosecutors work with the Department of Justice and State Department to formally request a suspect’s return to the United States. The United States maintains extradition treaties with more than 100 countries that govern the process, which can take months or even years.
The families said prosecutors hit a roadblock in Nessibu’s case, because the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Ethiopia and the country bars the extradition of its citizens. The families said Ethiopian officials offered to try Nessibu in that country’s courts, but they balked saying they doubt it would be a fair trial.
Similar issues with extradition have played a role in other high-profile cases. In 1997, Samuel Sheinbein, then 17, and a friend killed and gruesomely dismembered a fellow high school student in Montgomery County, Md.
Sheinbein fled to Israel, where he claimed Israeli citizenship. The United States sought Sheinbein’s extradition, but the Israeli courts blocked it, saying the nation’s law at the time banned the extradition of its citizens. The move caused an international row and eventually led Israel to change its law.
“There has been in the past, not just in Ethiopia, but in other countries resistance to turning over natives,” said Joshua Dratel, an attorney who specializes in extradition cases.
That battle is one the families plan to keep fighting.
The killings occurred as the families were preparing for the holidays. Kedest’s family recalled having to remove her unopened presents from beneath the Christmas tree. Without an end to their ordeal in sight, the wounds remain as raw as they did that day.
“We are devastated,” said Elsabeth Yohannes. “We need justice for Kedest and Henok.”