It’s been some 17 months since Gugsa Abraham Dabela was found dead by a Redding, Conn., roadside. By all accounts, just hours before his body was found, Dabela was hanging out with friends, having a good time and handing out business cards for his new law practice.
His family has been reeling in the aftermath; questions don’t seem to have straightforward answers, and facts don’t add up. In a heartfelt appeal to the public, last month the “Justice 4 Abe” website was launched, hoping to get people, especially people in Redding, thinking.
“We’re hoping that putting the information online on a website where, perhaps most importantly, people in Redding know what happened … will get people thinking and remembering back to that night," Dabela’s older sister Albab tells The Root. “So that we can get more facts in front of the authorities that are trying to figure out what happened to my brother.”
Some five hours after Gugsa Dabela, a charismatic Ethiopian-American private attorney, was found the early morning of April 5, 2014, in his overturned vehicle with a gunshot wound to his head, Redding investigators ruled the death a suicide. The family is not certain, however, if that is the case.
“The information that’s been processed by the various crime labs and the police etc., they just raise more questions than actually bring answers,” Albab Dabela says. “The classification of his death as a suicide happened five hours after he was allegedly found by the police, and they’ve conducted a suicide investigation almost to confirm their assumption, but the actual facts … don’t seem to support a suicide conclusion.”
Albab Dabela remembers a fun-loving younger brother who lived on his own terms and was an outspoken person who wouldn’t back down in conversations. Gugsa Dabela loved his motorcycle and built close friends around the hobby. He strongly believed in the Second Amendment and was licensed to carry a gun. He had a girlfriend and knew how to treat women, being the middle child of five siblings consisting of four girls, all of whom were extremely close. That’s why, Albab Dabela says, it hurts to think that Redding police would suggest that the vibrant young man would kill himself.
The family is using the website as a means of listing as many points of questioning as it can, given that the case remains an open investigation, along with providing the documentation it has to support the framework of its questions.
One example, Albab Dabela offers, was that last year, the state crime lab excluded her brother as a contributor to the DNA recovered from the gun, particularly the trigger of the gun. That means there is no physical evidence to support that “Abe,” as Gugsa Dabela was affectionately called, was the last person who fired his gun or that it was his gun that actually ended his life.
There is also the fact that after talking to experts on suicide and thinking back on the 35-year-old’s life and behavior, the family can find no indication that he was suicidal or had a history of having been suicidal.
“My brother, I know, died of a gunshot wound to the backside of his head, in his overturned car. No one has been able to explain how his car overturned, and no one’s been able to explain who or how or why he was shot. But I know he died of a gunshot wound. We’re trying to get the whole story,” Albab Dabela says.
“No one has been able to connect all the dots, and I think that that’s in large part because of the presumption of suicide, which doesn’t seem to be supported by the facts,” she says.
To top it off, a few months before his death, Gugsa Dabela started to express discomfort while he was about town, she says. He started carrying his gun more frequently. However, family never really had a chance to pin down what unsettled the promising young lawyer.
“No one really focused on it. We didn’t think that he’d end up dead in six weeks so we didn’t … ,” Albab Dabela recalls before her voice trails off.
She adds: “I find it particularly painful that the Redding police have been telling people that he killed himself because our family was going to be ashamed of him for crashing. To think that his last memory was of us and that he decided to put a gun to the back of his head and kill himself because of us is just outrageous, and anyone who knows him or us and our relationship I think would agree with that.”
Of course, Gugsa Dabela’s death happened before the seeming proliferation of black deaths, before Michael Brown and Lennon Lacy, before Sandra Bland and Natasha McKenna.
When asked, Albab Dabela is careful not to link her brother’s death to those deaths. She notes that while there is no evidence that suggests her brother’s death was a race killing, the inadequacy of the investigation and the victim-blaming seems to fit the pattern.
“I think it’s alarming. It seems to be a pattern of trying to shove down people’s throat [that] yet another black person has randomly committed suicide. I think we need to question all of it,” she says.
“Until the general public is outraged that this is happening in their own communities, things will not change,” she says. “The powers that be will continue to control whose death is properly investigated, whose killers are brought to justice and who can be killed without consequence.”
In the end, Albab Dabela says it’s not about politicizing the conversation or derailing the investigation. The family just wants the whole truth, whatever that may be, which may also help the next family struggling with a similar situation to find its truth.
“I would hope that people can learn from his situation. There have been a lot of doubtful people until we got the DNA evidence and we got other hard scientific proof that our questioning and our doubting is based on something,” she says. “The website is just a sampling of our questions and our evidence. It’s not everything we have, but this is an open investigation, and so we have to sort of be mindful of that. … We’re really asking for the public’s assistance in raising awareness and following this, and if [the] time comes where we have to put pressure on anyone through a petition or something, and we want people to know what’s going on.”
But Albab Dabela can’t deny the impact that the loss of her brother has had on her.
“My sister says that we’re trapped in a nightmare. It almost feels like we’re still at day one. I think that no one has really had a chance to process all of it. It still remains unbelievable. Every time I have a problem with my car, my instinct is to call him still,” she adds. “It’s just shocking. It’s changed how we understand how this country works; it’s just changed everything.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.