At 17, Asabech Abayneh found herself raising three young boys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, cooking from scratch and washing laundry by hand. Their mother, her sister, had moved to Virginia. Over time, the children left to join their mother, and Abayneh followed about nine years ago.
In the United States, Abayneh found a job at an Ethiopian cafe and market in Falls Church, just a few months after it opened. Her co-workers became another family to nurture. She worked long hours, attended church daily and shared her sister’s one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria.
Abayneh was found dead in that apartment Friday, strangled in a crime that has mystified her relatives and co-workers. The 43-year-old had no enemies, they said, and nothing in her life seemed amiss.
“She was working on Thursday all day with us. Everything was fine and perfect,” said Birhan Awol, the owner of the cafe where Abayneh worked. A co-worker drove her home safely that evening, he said.
Awol described Abayneh as a “mother figure” who would always make sure the other employees had eaten breakfast and made time to feed themselves during busy lunch hours. She often worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, he said. In six years, she never took a vacation. When she wasn’t at the cafe, he said, she was at church.
“Her life was church and work, church and work,” Awol said. “She’s just a hardworking woman, the most wonderful woman I have ever known.”
Yonas Mekonen, Abayneh’s nephew, echoed that praise, saying his aunt was responsible for him and his brothers when his mother left Ethiopia for the United States.
“She pretty much took care of the whole family,” said Mekonen, 35. “She sacrificed all her life to take care of us.”
Friday was supposed to be Abayneh’s day off, but Awol asked her to come in at 10 a.m. in case the Fourth of July brought an influx of customers. At 10:40, the very punctual employee still had not arrived. Awol called her cellphone, and her sister answered. As they spoke on the phone, Awol said, Abayneh’s sister discovered the body.
Mekonen said his mother was sleeping in the bedroom of the shared apartment while Abayneh slept in the den. Two rooms separated them, he said, and his mother heard nothing. There were no signs of a break-in or a struggle.
Abayneh and her sister lived on Derby Court in Alexandria’s West End, in a large apartment complex that faces an elementary school and a recreation center.
“It’s kind of a mystery,” Mekonen said. Abayneh was married once but has been divorced for years, he said, and her ex-husband no longer lives in the area. As far as the family or her co-workers know she had no boyfriend. “We can’t think of anyone or anything who would do such a thing,” he said. “She was very humble and trustworthy, and all in all a good soul.”
Her death is the third unsolved killing in Alexandria this year.
Last month, Julio Caesar Urrutia-Erazo, 27, was shot in the Arlandia neighborhood and died several days later. Police said that the shooting occurred after an argument and that they are looking for a muscular, 5-foot-8 light-skinned Hispanic male, 18 to 30 years old, with a shaved head and tattooed arms. In February, Ruthanne Lodato was shot and killed in her North Ridge home. Police have said Charles Severance is the focus of their investigation into that death and two others, but he has not been charged. He is being held in Loudoun County on an unrelated firearm charge.