Lots of noise but little insight

I have not, until now, made mention in these pages of the murder of Hassan Farah, the bilingual-education teaching assistant/wire-transfer business operator/husband/father of three/weekend taxicab driver who was shot dead in his cab on Beacon Hill during the early morning of Jan. 31.

It wasn't that a murder in the district is something we would avoid reporting; it was that there was little if anything to report that our readers hadn't already read or heard somewhere else. The big daily papers and broadcast outlets covered it from just about every imaginable angle.

That's typically the way they do it-a person is murdered and they "flood the zone," wringing the tragedy for every lurid or and/or heartbreaking drop it has to offer until the next moral outrage rolls along, when they repeat the process. Unless the victim was a celebrity in life, or was made one by the unusually gruesome or scandalous circumstances of his or her death (think JonBenet Ramsey and James Bird), there is generally little attention paid to the prosecution of the suspect, unless he or she happens to be a celebrity (think O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake). In most cases, though, you can forget about reports on the lasting effects on the victim's loved ones, and on the killer's. Don't expect any insight into why these things happen, or how they might be prevented.

And a murder rarely prompts that throng of journalists to pose what would seem some pretty darned obvious questions, such as: Why do we continue to make handguns so readily available?

Hassan Farah was killed with a handgun-actually, it appears he was shot with bullets fired from two guns, according to charging documents-wielded by the two young men (ages 18 and 22) he picked up in his cab from the McDonald's at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Graham Street.

Police and prosecutors say that about an hour before Farah's murder, his killers had stolen a car at gunpoint from under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, near Pioneer Square. Two of them had approached the car, a Honda with three people inside, displayed guns and demanded the vehicle. A third young man stood lookout a few feet away, and, after the carjacking victims gave up the car and the three robbers were driving away, a fourth followed in another stolen car. In the Honda was a purse, and in the purse was a cellular telephone, which the carjackers used to make calls to acquaintances and, at 4:19 a.m., to the Yellow Cab dispatch office. (Records show the call to the taxicab company as the last one made from the phone before its rightful owner had her cellular company cancel service.) It appears that the robbers drove to West Seattle and abandoned the Honda before all four got into the other stolen car and made their way to Rainier Valley. Along the way, police say, they cooked up a scheme to rob a cab driver.

Police say an 18-year-old suspect identified himself by his middle name to the cab company's call-taker and provided a telephone number that differs by two digits from his former home number (The cab company routinely asks customers for a name and phone number.) At 4:23 a.m., charging documents say, Farah arrived in his cab and picked up the man who made the call, and the 22-year-old. The other half of the team (ages 17 and 18), awaited the cab's arrival from across the street and followed in the stolen car as the taxicab drove west up Graham Street and through the intersection with Beacon Avenue South before turning right a block or so down the hill. The cab company's Global Positioning System, which records a history of its vehicles' movements, showed that as the path the cab traveled.

At 4:30 a.m., neighbors called police to report what sounded like one or two gunshots and, after a short pause, a few more. One neighbor looked out a window and saw the taxi roll into bushes alongside Gould Avenue South. Others saw another car drive away southbound from the scene.

Police arrived to find Farah slumped and unresponsive. The cab's gear selector was in "drive" and the meter was running. An autopsy would show he was shot at close range five times, in the head, back and shoulder.

Detectives recovered one .40-caliber and one .380-caliber casing from the back seat area of the cab. Three more .380-caliber casings were found-on the ground near the cab's right front door, in that door's map pocket, and on the ground in the 6100 block of Gould Avenue South. One bullet was found in the front seat area and another on the ground. During the autopsy, two more bullets were recovered from Farah's body.

As the investigation zeroed-in on the suspects, one of them, the 18-year-old police say called for the cab, proved easy to locate. He was already in custody, charged with a robbery at a West Seattle jewelry store Feb. 20. He and an accomplice entered the store, police say, where the accomplice pointed two guns at the storeowner, who produced his own handgun and shot the 18-year-old in the chest. He arrived in a private car at Harborview soon thereafter, where he was treated for his wound and where police took his confession for the unsuccessful jewelry store heist. He was later booked into King County Jail.

As of this writing, three of the four suspects, including the two thought to have done the shooting, are in custody.

A detective's reports indicate that the suspects are pointing fingers at one another. He quotes one (the 17-year-old) as saying that the 18-year-old who rode in the taxicab announced to the others, while they awaited the cab's arrival, that "I'm just going to smoke him." The detective also reported that the youngest suspect said that the two who rode in the cab were laughing as they ran from the murder scene to the getaway car. The 22-year-old gave a statement saying that the 18-year-old did the shooting, the detective wrote, but the 17-year-old told him that the 18-year-old began the shooting and the 22-year-old "finished him."

I never knew Hassan Farah, but I know people who did. In what now seems like another life, I had worked as a cab driver, and as a dispatcher, and in management at Yellow Cab. Among my duties there, I was a spokesperson of sorts (the roughest day on the job was the day a cab driver was murdered) and I trained new drivers, many of whom, like Farah, were immigrants.

On a visit to the cab lot last week, I bumped into my old friend Karl Porter, the fellow who now trains the new drivers. Some things have changed, he said, as he led me around the office. The cabs are now dispatched with a mobile data system, which does not require the drivers to speak with the dispatchers and which can handle a much higher volume of calls than the old radio system ever could. The Global Positioning System makes it much more certain that the dispatched cabs are within reasonable proximity of the calls and (obviously) discourages drivers from fibbing as to their whereabouts.

The new technology provides some degree of protection to the drivers, it would seem. By pushing a couple of buttons, he or she can tell the dispatcher to send the cops, and the GPS tells the dispatcher right where to send them. And, my friend said, incoming telephone calls are recorded. (Police have the recording of the call made from Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Graham Street at 4:19 a.m. Jan. 31.)

Some things haven't changed much, though. New arrivals to these shores are disproportionately well represented among the cab-driving fraternity. Back in my day, an influx of fellows from the Middle East gradually made way to guys from East Africa. These days, I was told, it's East Indians and East Africans.

So how are the guys taking things, now that suspects are in custody? I asked Karl.

"The impression I got was that there was a lot of confusion, a lot of doubt, until they got the suspects," he said. " The rumor was that is was gang related, that it was a challenge ... There was confusion, there was anger. Since the news broke that they got these guys, the mood has eased. Before that, there was some tension in the air."

I chatted with Adam Ismael, a man who, coincidentally, I had trained all those years ago. He now works as a superintendent. Before we addressed the matter that had brought me to the lot, he good-naturedly commented on how it appears that I hadn't missed many meals since we had last seen each other.

"They were kind of scared to work in the neighborhood where the guy got killed," he said. "Now that they've captured somebody, it's getting a little better."

Some drivers had staged a demonstration in the weeks after the murder, asking for greater security measures, such as shields between the front and back seats and video monitoring of the cab interiors.

That's what Abdulkadir Husen wants. But doesn't knowing that the alleged killers are locked up make things a little better? I asked.

"In one way, yes. In another way, no," he said. "There's always other guys out there. We need bulletproof shields or cameras in the cars."

Husen was a friend of Farah's.

"I knew him for nine years," he said. "It was very tough. The whole community was hurt."

I wasn't convinced, back in my cab days, that bulletproof shields were the answer. I figured that a killer could always shoot me through the driver's door window, if killing was his aim. Now I'm not so sure.

The cameras seem like a good idea, though. Knowing their images were being captured would seem enough to discourage most would-be killers. But then, if what law enforcers say about the murder of Hassan Farah is any indication, there is more than a little bit of hubris, and stupidity, on display here. Didn't the killers know that there is a record made of cellular phone calls? Wasn't the caller told that his voice may be recorded? Did they really think that it is easy to get away with murder?

While I imagine that close examinations of the killers' backgrounds could provide some insight into how they turned out as they did, it's unlikely we will ever know why some people find it acceptable to "smoke" an innocent person, or to laugh about it.

But we can do something about the proliferation of handguns, if we have the will. I am sometimes taken aback, as I make my weekly reading of police reports, at the number of guns out there, at how many are confiscated during searches incident to arrests and at how many are pointed at people during the commission of other crimes. "Shots fired" calls to 911 seem almost routine.

We can, if we have the will, gradually get those handguns out of circulation. We can ban their sale. We can see to it that confiscated guns are melted down.

To be effective, such measures would have to take place at the federal level. Otherwise, guns would just flood in from states with looser controls.

But our federal policymakers seem more interested in addressing the threat posed by Howard Stern and Janet Jackson. That's what they talk about, when they aren't busy talking about granting immunity from lawsuits to handgun manufacturers.

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