Murder in the foothills
A son of tragedy and a daughter of violence confront a culture of honor killings and a history of broken justice
It was when he saw the girls’ eyes that Hafed Mohamed Thabet realized what he had become.
In the summer of 1993, a 23-year-old Thabet strutted into a nondescript courtroom 40 miles east of Sacramento to iron out what had spiraled into a gross cultural misunderstanding. Bound by tribal law and propelled by circumstance, Thabet had just killed the man who murdered his father and two others in a remote Yemen village two decades earlier.
Surely such retributive justice was permitted in a Christian nation like the United States, Thabet believed—a thought he maintained while stalking his prey cross-country to the foothills of Northern California, as he dispassionately recounted his deed to homicide detectives, and right up until he stepped into a Jackson courthouse like someone with a speeding ticket and a legitimate excuse.
But then, Thabet saw the eyes of his victim’s three daughters—sponged by a hurt he knew all too well. It was only then that Thabet realized he wasn’t the hero of his own tale.
“I saw these three little girls looking at me as I was a monster, just like I looked at their father,” he recalled. “I saw what I hated most.”
Days earlier, Thabet gunned down his father’s killer in broad daylight at a gas station in rural Amador County. The scene was a hazy reflection of one that unraveled in 1974, some 8,000 miles east, where a man named Ahmed Ali Alharsami sprayed bullets into Thabet’s family home over a marriage dispute.
Then, he’d set out to do what the courts back home permitted, what his culture ordered and what the legal system here apparently refused to do: avenge his father’s murder and reclaim honor for his ruined family. Thabet thought he got justice.
Instead, the Yemeni national sealed another bloody link in a chain of honor killings that creates martyrs out of victims and turns survivors into vigilantes.
This past summer—as his nation labored through fierce protests and a precarious revolution—Thabet sat before two parole commissioners and tried to articulate the cruel ironies that turned a grieving son into a convicted murderer.
This early September afternoon marked Thabet’s fourth appearance before the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Board of Parole Hearings. For the 42-year-old model prisoner, this cramped room inside Mule Creek State Prison was a stage for one actor telling a tale he’d told countless times before, a story about a son and a daughter: two Yemeni expatriates trying to escape a cycle of honor killings, only to be foiled by the unlikeliest of obstacles—the American justice system.
Thabet has known for a while now that he is not the hero of his incredible story. But he isn’t its only victim, either.
Slaughter in Yemen
Thabet grew up in Aldakalah, a small village in western Yemen. Its valley of wells and cisterns is tucked under terraced hillsides that fade from lush teal in the fall to sun-scorched, jagged blisters in the warmer months. Thabet’s family was among the most prominent in the community by virtue of his father, Mohamed, being the village sheik.
In this far-flung settlement of narrow buildings and ancient-faced stone huts—nestled in a divided nation with a feeble grafting government—Mohamed was mediator and judge to a handful of tribes that looked to him for wisdom. Respected as he was, though, there was one dispute he wouldn’t be able to calm.
This quiet existence unraveled when Thabet’s older sister Mahlia married Ahmed Alharsami, a hot-tempered young man who frequently made sojourns to the United States. As the union progressed, Mahlia revealed to her father that Alharsami was physically abusing her, beating her any time he flew into one of his signature fits of rage. By the time Thabet turned 4, his older sister worried about Alharsami’s plans to take her with him to the United States. Mahlia’s father agreed.
“No,” Mohamed told the family about the proposed move. “If he beats her in Yemen, then what will he do to her when she’s farther away from her dad?”
Mahlia moved back home. Her husband seethed. The episode tapped a venomous well inside a man who couldn’t abide refusal.
On February 13, 1974, Alharsami confronted his father-in-law to demand Mahlia’s return. Again, he was denied. Alharsami stalked away, but not before leveling an ominous threat at the sheik.
The next afternoon, after a long morning toiling on the farm, the sheik sipped tea at a table with his cousin and a friend. A few feet away, a 4-year-old Thabet lay on his stomach, playing with a homemade car he assembled from a tin can and shower shoes. Without a word, Alharsami appeared in an open doorway with his hands wrapped around the belly of an AK-47 assault rifle.
The next few seconds were a blur of shouting and the tin-driven drone of 33 smoking bullet shells raining on the floor. In the onslaught, the boy felt his father topple onto him, shielding him from the storm. It was the sheik’s final gift to his son.
Down the street, Thabet’s mother, Mooriah, was on a rooftop hanging laundry on a clothesline. When an approaching villager shouted out the news, she fainted, plummeting three stories onto the dusty street below.
Despite absorbing more than 20 rounds to his chest and stomach, Thabet’s father didn’t die immediately. That happened eight agonizing hours later, as four men carried him along an unpaved road to a hospital hundreds of miles away. The other two victims, also fathers, perished as well. Thabet’s mother was confined to intensive care with severe back and shoulder injuries. Thabet and his siblings were rushed to a grandparent’s home. Gunfights broke out across the village.
Eye for an eye
In the fluorescent-tube-lit confines of a motel bathroom in Jackson, California, a 23-year-old Thabet stared at himself in a wide, anonymous mirror. As manhood settled his features, he’d been able to see more of his father, whose gentle presence he scarcely recalled. But now that Thabet had cut his hair and shaved his mustache, the dead sheik no longer stared back.
After traveling 2,800 westward miles across the cracked plains of America, Thabet altered his appearance for one reason: So that the man he had come for would not realize that his reckoning had arrived until it was too late.
It was a long journey to that mirror: In 1974, a Yemeni court convicted Alharsami of triple homicide and sentenced him to death. The ruling, however, was made after the defendant escaped into the vast unknown of the United States. Meanwhile, Thabet’s mother was in and out of hospitals with the debilitating back injuries from her fall. With little money coming in, what remained of the Thabet clan dribbled to the bottom of the village’s social and economic castes.
In 1991, Thabet temporarily moved to the United States to earn money for his family. While he was with his brother in New York stocking shelves, members of the insular Yemeni community alerted Thabet that his father’s killer was a coast away, enjoying the spoils of a free man. For nearly a decade, relatives of the fallen sheik had petitioned the United States to extradite Alharsami back to Yemen, where he would have been put to death. But the government here never responded.
“It was like it wasn’t important enough,” Thabet noted years later. “That made me very resentful.”
But Thabet had one last option: In Yemen, the law afforded sons the right to mete out capital punishments its courts could not. The culture absolutely demanded it.
Back in Aldakalah, he’d witnessed firsthand what became of those who didn’t regain their families’ honor. One local man who elected not to avenge his father’s killing was ostracized and barred from taking a wife.
If word reached home that Thabet failed to avenge his father’s murder, an already tortured existence would become unbearable. Pressure mounted on Thabet to perform his sacred duty. The sheik’s cousins, especially, made their expectations known.
“It’s like the only thing they had was me,” Thabet explained through the static whisper of a prison pay phone. “I already hated the man for what he did to my father, and they nurtured that. I didn’t need a lot of encouragement, but I got a lot of it from them.”
As he wavered, those in the community provided him with a white, windowless Chevy van singed with orange and yellow stripes; a route to California; and a recent photograph of his father’s killer. A young Yemeni acquaintance named Tamin Hauter, who spent time with the Alharsami family some years earlier, was assigned to be Thabet’s driver.
Thabet met with an immigration attorney to extend his visa and see if there was any way to put off his grim decision. The answer came that he would be back in Yemen within months.
With time running out, Thabet bought a 9 mm pistol and .38-caliber revolver. Within weeks, he and the 19-year-old Hauter were skulking through the nearby foothills pursuing Alharsami. After a few half-hearted attempts, the pair set up an ambush at a tidy commercial square in Pine Grove in Amador County that Alharsami frequented. They waited in the parking lot near an Exxon service station and tire store for hours. A photo of the man formed a crooked crease in Thabet’s pants pocket. And on that Wednesday in May of 1993, Thabet saw Alharsami.
His father’s killer had pulled into the shopping center and stopped at the tire store before pumping gas 20 feet away from Thabet, who had concealed the pistol in his black leather jacket and stepped out of the van.
The air was warm. Cars milled in and out of the shopping center, idling under faded yellow business signs from the 1970s. Thabet kept walking.
Inside the Exxon, Alharsami urged its owner, Richard King, to tell him the quickest route to Reno. He purchased fuel and went back out to the pumps. In his rush, Alharsami scarcely noticed a young Yemeni man heading into the service station he’d just exited.
Thabet shuffled around inside for a moment and then asked for a pack of cigarettes. Pushing his money across the counter to King, he looked through the window at the man who had consumed his thoughts for so long. Did he look like much? With his wavy hair on a balding scalp, his blue polyester shirt and cream-colored shorts, his mismatched belt and striped socks pulled up to his knees?
Alharsami had convinced most people in these little mountain towns he was a kindly proprietor who worked in his garden on the weekends, two small children and a German shepherd trailing closely at his heels. Those closest to the man, however, described a paranoid figure who abused his daughters, intimidated his wives and cultivated multiple feuds within the Yemeni-American community. And Alharsami wouldn’t have thought twice about taking out additional members of the Thabet clan.
“If my father knew [Thabet] was in the country, he would have made sure he was going to be killed,” Sabah Algazali, Alharsami’s daughter, later told authorities.
On this particular day, however, a distracted Alharsami was caught off guard.
Thabet willed himself into the descending daylight. The sky lit the blanched red gas pumps as he approached Alharsami. An adolescent boy ate candy by the ice machine. A man at the farthest pump lowered soft drinks into the bed of a truck, his wife and child inside the cab. Thabet saw none of them.
Step by step, Thabet watched Alharsami fill his field of vision. The .38-caliber floated into the air. Years later, when Thabet was asked how long he’d been waiting for this moment, he would respond, “For all my life.”
Inside the Exxon, King was startled by the crack of a gunshot. He froze. Four more shots followed in rapid succession. He went outside to find Alharsami lying on his side in a fetal position, dressed in a widening cloak of blood.
A gas hose dangled from his Toyota.
The miracle child
Inside the gray walls of a prison so far from their homeland, Sabah Algazali studied the face of the man she’d been raised to kill.
Alharsami’s eldest daughter waited a decade before summoning the courage to sit down with her father’s killer in 2003. She had seen him once before; Algazali was one of the three little girls in that Jackson courtroom during a brief preliminary hearing in the days after her father’s death. Then, Algazali knew that the defendant was her mother’s little brother and, thus, her uncle. But it was a name-only relation at the time.
“I had no feeling that he was my blood,” Algazali said. “Our intention was to prosecute him and make sure he got life.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Thabet swallowed a second-degree murder plea that brought with it a 15-years-to-life sentence. Alharsami’s ghost, meanwhile, clamored for the same violent retribution that befell him—a burden that pressed the slight, steady shoulders of a daughter bent on escaping her father’s unforgiving coda.
After growing up with her grandmother in the village of Dakhla, Algazali was summoned by her outlaw father to these shores in 1983. At the age of 10, Alharsami marched his daughter into a swell of sugar-beet fields, shoved a gun into her small hands and taught her to direct its flashing muzzle. He told her to be on guard for his enemies and to avenge him if one succeeded.
“If you ever see one come near me or anything, make sure you protect me and revenge me,” he instructed.
By the age of 13, Algazali carried her own loaded weapon wherever she went. Instead of attending school, Alharsami made her work the counter of his general store in West Point in Calaveras County, selling milk and hard liquor across a cash register she barely cleared. On one occasion, she watched her father violently pummel a customer for trying to pass a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill. She then helped tie up the unconscious man.
From her father’s own lips, she learned of the murders he committed and the retribution he escaped. Alharsami told these stories like folk tales, comparing himself to Rambo and demonizing Algazali’s mother in the process. For a long time, she accepted the fiction.
Seven years later, however, everything changed. Her 41-year-old father died beside his truck. Thabet went to prison and life trundled on. Years passed, but Algazali couldn’t subdue her curiosity.
So she launched her own investigation, journeying to the isolated valley town in Yemen where a scorned husband authored his own death warrant with the rocking cadence of a spitting rifle. From initially reluctant townsfolk, she learned how that act created a deep schism in the tribal community. Much of the Alharsami clan scattered in shame. The Thabet family never fully healed.
While in Yemen, Algazali also debunked a tall tale: That those loyal to the murdered sheik hurled an 8-month-old out of a third-story window. The story went that the infant miraculously survived, took a new name and was smuggled into her grandmother’s care. That little girl was Algazali.
She chuckles now at the fables she believed for so long. Finding out she wasn’t the victim of an attempted infanticide didn’t mean she couldn’t take a lesson from that particular fairy tale, however.
“If I was really a miracle child, I should do something positive,” she decided. “I want to be a hero by saving a life.”
The life she chose to save was her uncle’s.
When she finally came face to face with Thabet, her dad’s executioner, in 2003, Algazali expected someone like the man who raised her: unrepentant and cold. Instead, looking at her stranger-kin seated before her with hooded, downcast eyes, she saw a lost soul, a fellow cultural orphan.
“I know more than anybody [the pressures Thabet felt], because my father always dreamed that I would be the one to revenge for him,” she recounted. “It could’ve been me in prison if I listened to my father.”
Dreams and justice
At a little past 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in
September, according to the dragging hands of a clock inside one of Mule Creek State Prison’s nondescript offices, inmate J-30663, resident of the upper bunk in housing unit 10-235, entered with little fanfare, escorted by a bulldog-shaped correction officer with a sweet disposition.
Except for the giveaway prison-issue denims hanging baggily on his sloped frame, Thabet could have been mistaken for anyone other than a killer. Years of confinement packed on the stress pounds, scaled back a wavy, sable hairline, and flecked his speech with a subtle NorCal prison drawl. He wore dentist’s glasses over sad, inky eyes, and took pills for acid reflux and cholesterol medication.
Thabet briefly scanned the room, politely acknowledged two commissioners and cast a grateful look at his niece.
In short order, the meat of the hearing had arrived.
“My partner and I have about two hours or so to get to know you,” presiding commissioner John Peck said lightly, “so let’s start at the beginning.”
Peck, considered a seasoned pro in the parole game, coaxed Thabet to unfurl his life story, confirming that this is the most important tale Thabet would ever tell. This is something Thabet had already learned during the course of three previous hearings over seven agonizing, self-scrutinizing years.
In 2005, his first time before this two-person board, commissioners rightly zeroed in on his wobbly retelling of the crime, in which an armed Thabet just so happened to encounter his prey at an up-country gas station on a summery afternoon.
Two years later, Thabet encountered a board that relied on a dated evaluation by a prison psychologist who was unfamiliar with “Islamic issues.” At one point, deputy commissioner Dennis Smith even asked the foreign-born inmate whether he would “be received as a hero” if he were sent back to Yemen.
But if there’s one date that reflects how arbitrary the correctional system’s proxy courts can be, it’s September 16, 2009.
This was the hearing where the stars aligned for Thabet. He finally admitted the degree to which he plotted Alharsami’s murder. Amador County’s twin legal authorities pointedly rescinded their opposition to his parole. Algazali, as she had at the previous two hearings, pleaded for her uncle’s release. Thabet’s central file brimmed with favorable psychological evaluations, glowing testimonies from an army of vocational instructors and self-help counselors, impeccable parole plans, and too many letters of support to be recorded. The inmate—a model prisoner who, while incarcerated, learned to speak English, earned a high-school diploma and an automotive-repair certification—had everything going for him.
And it all came to naught. The panel issued Thabet a three-year denial, its longest yet.
“They denied him because of his credibility, because he told the truth,” Algazali recounted in disbelief.
This is not a biased view, by the way; it’s also the assessment of someone who has every political reason to oppose Thabet’s release.
“He was denied parole for what I believe to be the wrong reasons,” explained Todd Riebe, elected district attorney of conservative Amador County. “His remorse wasn’t long enough? Remorse is remorse. That’s not even against the law.”
At that parole hearing, Algazali stumbled to her feet during the middle of the presiding commissioner’s statement and knocked over a chair on her way to the bathroom, where she became sick. In between heaving groans, she cried and screamed. Her daughter, who’d read her own letter of support, was equally disgusted, telling Algazali she wished she never came.
“He told the truth and got punished for it,” she seethed. “I guess you got to lie in order to live.”
Three long years later, Thabet was once again accounting for a life gone wrong.
The September 2012 parole board—Thabet’s fourth in seven years—listened closely as the inmate recounted the gritty details of growing up fatherless in an ardently paternalistic community.
“I grew up in a society where you don’t express anger. You don’t express fear. And you can’t laugh too loud, because people will think that you have forgotten that your father was murdered,” Thabet told commissioners.
He shared the same story he’d told for decades, hoping for a different ending. But the panel before him—created by the state and appointed by favor-doling governors—would decide whether it was good enough.
Later, inside an Ione prison conference room, both Thabet and Algazali cried uncontrollably.
A short while ago—as she had at every hearing—Algazali offered an impassioned statement on behalf of an uncle she came to know only after he gunned down her father.
Related by blood, enemies according to their culture, the two expatriates grew close over the past decade. For Algazali’s younger sisters and two daughters, Thabet became an unlikely voice of female empowerment, encouraging them to pursue an education, fall in love and break with some of their culture’s more restrictive traditions.
Algazali already has. She became her uncle’s most tireless advocate, speaking at parole hearings, hiring attorneys and papering every elected official, even President Barack Obama, with pleas for assistance.
Few listened. Those around her insisted she spare herself the heartache of these wonderland tribunals and stop going.
“You’re just putting fuel in my body,” she replied, defiantly.
Thirty-eight years after the murder of Thabet’s father, 19 years after Thabet shot down Alharsami and three years since his last rejection, the American justice system finally listened.
At 4:05 p.m. on September 6, the panel agreed to grant Thabet a parole date.
The decision is buried in boilerplate legalese and qualified “ifs”: The governor has until the new year to make an improbable veto, and Thabet’s release would be immediately followed by federal detention and likely deportation to Yemen. Thabet has months of anxious waiting ahead.
“I know it happened. People told me it happened. I believe it,” Thabet said from a prison weeks later. “I’m afraid to even be hopeful.”
He dreams of one day opening an auto shop in his native land and spreading his niece’s message of forgiveness and love back home. But right now, the boy from Yemen just wants to see his mother.
Days after the hearing, from inside the maternity ward of a Stockton hospital, Algazali empathized. Despite attempts to reconnect as an adult, this family saga left Algazali estranged from her own mom, Thabet’s sister. At this moment, though, Algazali could only count the blessings.
“I feel like a newborn person. I feel like I’m alive,” she effused.
The 39-year-old should know from newborns. Her grandson Khalil just entered a world with infant peace in his family but stubborn, flaring conflict in his young grandmother’s homeland.
It’s a start.