The Ghosts of 808 Lewis Street
Wedad Omar was starting to worry. She hadn’t heard from her younger brother, 23-year-old Mohamedtaha, for hours. That morning, a frigid late- February day in 2016, he’d dropped their younger siblings off at school, then gone radio silent. It wasn’t like Taha, as he was known, to ignore her texts and calls. And besides, he had the family car, the only one to go around in their family of 10. Wedad borrowed a neighbor’s car to pick up their younger siblings from school and texted Taha again: Where are you? When are you coming home?
He was probably at the old Victorian house at 808 East Lewis Street with his friends, she figured. But still, he could at least respond. That house—three stories tall, with dingy white aluminum siding and chipped green trim—was one of the last ones standing on its block in the predominantly black east-central side of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and served as a makeshift hostel for Sudanese Muslim immigrant men like Taha. Taha’s cousins Muhannad and Mohamed Tairab lived there; friends and family stopped by at all hours to listen to music, send Snapchats, and record Facebook videos.
By dinnertime, there was still no sign of Taha. Wedad and her mother started to panic. What if the police had hassled him again? He’d already appeared in front of a judge, green card in hand, after a police officer stopped him on a day when he’d forgotten his driver’s license. Or what if he’d gotten in a fight? He wasn’t a fighter, but ever since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign, the subtle racism the Omars routinely dealt with—what Wedad thought of as “smile-in-your-face racism”—had grown into outright threats. One of their younger brothers was called a “nigger” at a nearby gas station; a passerby yelled “Go back to your country!” at their 8-year-old sister as she walked to school wearing her hijab. Wedad now felt simmering, low-level anxiety every time anyone left the house.
Around 6 P.M., a cousin of the Omars called with news: 808 was surrounded by police cars. Wedad’s stomach dropped. No matter what had gone on there—or whether Taha had been involved—she assumed he’d been arrested. That’s just what seemed to happen to young black men in Fort Wayne. And if he had, he might be deported back to Sudan.
Wedad and her mother asked a family friend to drive them across town to East Lewis Street, where they found a chaotic, taped-off crime scene, with an ambulance, police cruisers surrounding the house, and a crowd of people milling on the sidewalk. For hours the Omars stood in the freezing cold, begging officials for news, until a police officer finally approached them. Three young men had been found inside 808, he said. Taha, 17-year-old Muhannad, and another Sudanese friend, 20-year-old Adam Mekki. They’d been shot multiple times in the head, execution-style. Wedad fell to the ground, screaming.
Shootings and violent mix-ups are a regular occurrence in Fort Wayne. While the city’s population is less than 300,000, its murder rate is higher than those of Long Beach or Denver, according to the FBI. Between 2013 and 2015, nearly 100 people in Fort Wayne were killed. In 2016 alone, there were 43 homicides, mostly on the east-central and south sides of town. (By comparison, in 2016, there were 335 murders in New York City, a city of more than 8.5 million residents.)
This crime was Fort Wayne’s first triple homicide in more than a decade. Adam was Christian, so the police quickly ruled out the possibility of an anti-Muslim hate crime. But immigration, Muslim rights, and Black Lives Matter activists demanded a full police investigation, and for a few days, #ourthreeboys trended on Twitter.
I first heard about the murders on social media. The story immediately grabbed me, because I grew up on Fort Wayne’s south side. I knew those streets. I’d mourned several friends who’d been gunned down, sometimes for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While I’d moved away 15 years ago, and I didn’t know these men, the news of the deaths of Taha, Adam, and Muhannad hit me hard—more violent murders, just like the ones I’d become accustomed to as a teenager, and blocks away from where I grew up.
Then, once the news reported the address, I realized just how connected I was to the place where those murders had happened. It was our house.
My father was born at 808 East Lewis Street. My parents were married underneath the majestic pear trees in its backyard. As a young girl, I played under the canopy of those trees. And 60 years ago, my grandfather shot and killed my grandmother, then himself, in that house.
Every time I saw another mention of the murders, my heart mourned for the familes of Taha, Adam, and Muhannad. I thought of their devastating loss, and of the trauma I can still see in my father and his siblings. Growing up, I didn’t hear many stories about my grandparents; living with that type of tragedy numbs you, atrophying your emotions, and it was too painful for my family to talk about. My father was only 4 when he lost his parents. He can’t recall his mother’s face.
But despite our family’s attempts to keep our history at bay, those memories percolated just under the surface. And after details of the three murders filtered out, my dad and his siblings started to discuss the night my grandparents died. The motives weren’t directly connected: One was a grisly murder of three African immigrants, and the other a grim story of domestic violence. Still, my family noticed parallels. My grandparents’ generation fled the dusty plantations of Jim Crow Alabama for industrial jobs up north. Taha’s family survived daily bombings in Darfur, sometimes sleeping in ditches, to escape the genocide; they’d sold everything they had to come to the United States. For both families, Fort Wayne was supposed to be a place of refuge and new possibilities. Neither family knew that the price of freedom would be death.
My great-uncle Ollis Perry bought the house at 808 after World War II, when he moved from Brent, Alabama, to Fort Wayne for a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, making him one of the first black homeowners on the block and a legend back in Alabama. Ollis divided up the 12-room house into one- and two-room “apartments” and rented them to other black migrant families. Fort Wayne’s black community more than doubled in size between 1940 and 1950, during the Second Great Migration—the massive wave of 5 million black migrants who left the South for northern and western cities.
A few years later, my grandmother, Ora Dee, left Alabama to move in with Ollis, in part to get away from my grandfather, who’d spent more than a decade in prison on a first-degree murder charge and had been paroled on good behavior. My grandfather was the son of sharecroppers and grew up in abject poverty to become a tough street guy who carried a pistol, liked flashy cars, and was rumored to be a bootlegger. Nicknamed “Buddy” by his friends and “Spicy” by his siblings, he could be warm and loving to Ora Dee and their five children, but he also had a quick and explosive temper. Ora Dee often bore the brunt of his anger, and hoped the move to Fort Wayne would allow some space between the two. But Buddy jumped parole and followed her north, where they had three more children—my father, then another son, and a daughter.
For four years, Buddy traveled back and forth between Brent and Fort Wayne, violating his parole under the radar and providing very little for his wife and kids. Although my grandmother was basically a single parent trying to feed and clothe eight kids on little money, she couldn’t qualify for welfare because she was legally married. (The U.S. government assumed that husbands would provide for their families, but this was rarely possible among poor black families. Many black mothers were denied welfare benefits.) So in December 1957, Ora Dee decided to do something unheard of among her Christian family in Alabama: She filed for divorce.
Buddy tried to convince Ora Dee to change her mind. But my grandmother was resolute, and his wooing turned into violent threats. Twice he called the house at 808, threatening to kill her. His sister lived a few blocks away, and pleaded with Buddy to leave, even giving him money for a bus ticket. Instead, Buddy used that money to purchase a 12-gauge shotgun. Three days later, he crept over to the house on East Lewis Street around 8 P.M. and snuck in the back door.
Ora Dee grabbed a pink quilt off her bed and tried to dart into the sitting room where the kids were sleeping, but before she could escape, Buddy pointed the shotgun at her. The first shot whizzed past her, lodging in the headboard of the bed. Then he fired another shot, piercing the back of Ora Dee’s skull, and she dropped to the floor between the beds. Buddy lay down next to his wife’s lifeless body and fired a final shot into his chin.
My father, who had taken cover behind a dresser with his siblings, says he doesn’t remember that night. But the feelings of terror and loss that lingered in the house tormented him nonetheless. The kids were so afraid of the spot where their parents had died that they developed elaborate rituals to avoid it, easing into the back of the bedroom and jumping from the bed to the other furniture, never touching the floor. The murder-suicide that left behind eight orphans made the local paper—and while I can’t find a record of it, my uncle has always said that Jet magazine covered the crime, too.
For the next 20 years, my family stayed at 808, while the neighborhood around them crumbled. White families fled to the suburbs; once-thriving black-owned businesses were forced to close up shop; and by the late 1980s, the so-called crack cocaine “epidemic” turned the grand old houses into drug dens. But 808 never went unoccupied. My family owned it until 2004, when it was purchased by a Sudanese Muslim immigrant; he sold it to another Sudanese Muslim man, who then sold it to another, named Saleh Mahamat. When Mahamat moved to Indianapolis, he left the house with his son and their cousins—who were also cousins of the Omars.
Many of the Sudanese families who settled in Fort Wayne’s east-central neighborhood were accustomed to living middle-class lives in Sudan, and found their new accommodations less than ideal. But it was one of the few neighborhoods with houses large and cheap enough for extended families, and the Islamic Center of Fort Wayne, one of the most diverse mosques in the city, was right down the street.
“When we came here, we had a lot of hopes and dreams, like, Oh, we’re going to get a good education,” Wedad told me. “We didn’t know how hard it was for African-Americans in this country if you’re not rich.” Education came second, since everyone of legal age in the Omar household had to find jobs to help pay bills. Wedad, now 31, aspired to become a doctor; she’d graduated from high school in Darfur and spent her first three years in the U.S. in an ESL class to learn English, delaying college. Taha was an honors student in Sudan, but in Indiana his grades dropped as he spent more time with his friends than studying. I wasn’t shocked to hear that new immigrant families like the Omars would replicate the experience of my own family; I knew the harsh economic realities of Fort Wayne far too well.
Just before 5 P.M. on that February 2016 evening, two 19-year-old acquaintances of Adam Mekki, Darrell McDaniel and Artavius Richards, saw Adam walk into 808 East Lewis Street. Assuming he might have some cash and some marijuana, they ran down the alley and snuck in through the back door. Adam and Muhannad were in the front room when Darrell confronted Adam, pulling out a semi-automatic handgun. According to the trial transcripts, Darrell accidentally fired off a round, shooting Adam.
At the trial, there was testimony that—since Darrell had wounded Adam—Artavius shot Adam several more times, and also turned his gun on Muhannad. Taha had been napping in one of the upstairs bedrooms. His body was found downstairs. According to the transcript, he was shot by Artavius.
After the murders, the men dashed out of the house and into a silver Honda in a nearby alleyway. The driver would later testify that Darrell was visibly shaken; he kept saying he didn’t mean to shoot Adam. Artavius was shouting, “I sprayed them niggas.”
Fort Wayne residents inundated Twitter and Facebook with speculations as to what really happened. Some believed the murders were in retaliation for Adam snitching on a local drug dealer. Others flipped through the boys’ Facebook pages and saw black teens with sagging pants, expensive sneakers, and air-soft guns (toy guns), and spread rumors that they were gang members and drug dealers. “Once [the police] said, ‘It’s not a hate crime,’ people thought, Those were just three black thugs; they got what they deserved,” says Paula Booth, Adam’s youth group leader at St. Augustine’s Church. “And then nobody cared.”
Wedad tried to stay away from social media, but her younger family members constantly updated her on the rumors. Taha wasn’t into drugs and gangs, Wedad told me. But she knew he was too naïve: “He trusted everybody,” she says. “Doesn’t matter what you say, he will trust people.”
Hamzah Sharif, the Yemeni-born imam at the Islamic Center of Fort Wayne at the time, understood Taha’s and his cousins’ predicament. “[Young immigrants] come here and live in these areas that aren’t as safe as other areas,” Sharif says. “You want to mix in. You want to look cool, look street. If I met them in the street I’d think they were African-American. If I met them in the mosque they’d look Muslim.” The connection between economic inequality and violent crime is well-documented; just trying to survive in a tough neighborhood could mean being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and that could be fatal, as it was for Taha, and as it was for some of my friends growing up. And while it might’ve been in a tough neighborhood, that old house allowed for a sense of community among those decaying, hyper-segregated streets.
The assaults on her brother’s character made grieving for him even more painful, Wedad said. The family name in her community was “really important, especially when you come to the United States,” she says. “You destroy that reputation, and you destroy the whole family. After all the terrible things we lived through during the war, the fact that [Taha] would die here seemed impossible.” Once they made it to Fort Wayne, they assumed the worst was behind them. “We came to the United States, so we thought, We are safe now,” she says. “To the world Taha may be another black man, but to our family, he is our whole world.”
Now, nearly two years after her brother’s death, Wedad still hasn’t found a sense of normalcy. “I los[t] weight like crazy. I couldn’t eat. Nothing’s satisfying anymore,” she says. “All of the hopes and dreams I had. . .When I think about [Taha]—if I concentrate on the positive stuff that he said—that gives me a little bit of peace.”
Talking to Wedad reminded me of talking with my father and his family. Both our families paid a steep price to escape their homeland in the hopes of a better life, and both experienced the kind of extreme trauma that leaves wounds that never fully heal. But it felt like Wedad and I both found comfort—if only temporary—in speaking of our loved ones as full human beings, instead of the subjects of sensationalized crime stories.
After I heard about the murders of the three boys, I returned to the house at 808 East Lewis Street for the first time since I was a little girl. The front door was boarded up, the blinds tattered and bent. Pink floral curtains hung in the front window, the same room in which my grandparents and the three young men died. The curtains were familiar; I’d seen them in a Facebook video Taha had posted the day before he was killed. My heart pounded wildly as I walked up to the door, and an eerie thought crept into my mind: My grandparents’ blood is a part of this house’s DNA. And now Taha’s, Adam’s and Muhannad’s is, too.
Once I was up close, the house didn’t feel haunted. Instead, it felt old and weary, ready to be put down after years of benign neglect. The roof was worn and discolored from sun exposure and not enough maintenance work. The back steps sagged. In his teens, my father helped a construction crew cover the dated asphalt with a more modern white aluminum siding. Now, decades later, strips of that siding had peeled off, exposing the old asphalt beneath.
I wondered if the pear trees were still there. The trees whose sour fruit I used to eat, the trees under which my parents were married in the mid-1970s. They weren’t. With its lifeblood uprooted, the house at 808 East Lewis had given up the ghost.
Seven months after the deaths of Taha, Adam, and Muhannad, Darrell McDaniel and Artavius Richards were arrested for their murders. Darrell maintained that he entered the house solely to rob Adam. The murder charges against Darrell were dropped, and he accepted a plea-deal conviction on a second-degree robbery charge. After a four-day trial and a three-hour deliberation, Artavius was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 190 years in prison—60 years for each murder and 10 years for a handgun charge. In December 2017, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Artavius’ conviction. He is now appealing to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Tanisha C Ford Tanisha C. Ford is an award-winning writer and history professor. Her work centers on social movements, youth culture, urban history, and the built environment. She is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Politics of Global Soul.