Katalin Szabo had been in the United States only seven months when she became a victim. Pushed to the parking lot of a Suitland apartment building by a group of armed attackers, she watched helplessly as two of her friends were shot to death in November.
"I heard the shots," said Szabo, who moved to Maryland from Hungary to work as an au pair. "At that moment I didn't think it was real."
Her friends, Sair Butt, 26, and Hammad Chaudry, 22, both of whom had emigrated from Pakistan, were among the 128 people killed in Prince George's County last year. Five men were arrested and charged in connection with their deaths. One of those men was to be sentenced yesterday. The others are scheduled to be sentenced this year for crimes ranging from armed robbery to felony murder.
Szabo, 26, said she was satisfied that her attackers had been convicted, but the satisfaction has done little to ease her sadness over the deaths of her friends. Butt and Chaudry, she said, were among the nicest of people she has ever known. They shared similarities, she said, but, more important, they enjoyed a common enthusiasm for everyday life in the United States.
"We were all sad, because our families were in other countries, but they wanted to take advantage of all of the opportunities here," she said. "They lived life to the fullest and they loved it."
Butt and Chaudry were killed shortly after 3 a.m. on July 14, 2003, moments after Butt proudly showed to Chaudry and Szabo, the interior of his new Honda Civic, parked in the parking lot at the Oakcrest Towers apartments in the 2000 block of Brooks Drive. They had all just returned from a night out, Szabo said, and they didn't feel unsafe outside the high-rise apartment building.
Szabo said they were about to walk away when a group of young men approached them.
County authorities said the situation unfolded quickly, with the suspects demanding their wallets and other belongings. Court testimony included details that the suspects had driven to the apartment complex in a stolen car, that they spotted the three victims and the attack ensued.
Isaiah K. Willis, 21, who was convicted of felony murder and was scheduled to be sentenced yesterday, shot Butt first and then Hammad, seconds after Hammad handed over his wallet. The attackers also took Hammad's cell phone.
Szabo, watching the situation unfold from the ground, said she feared for her own life but reacted with rage.
"I realized they were dead and then I realized I could do something and so I hit one of them and kept yelling at them," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I did it for myself, also. Then I started running to the building to get help and to call the police."
Szabo said police responded within minutes, but that it was already too late. Her friends were dead.
"Before it happened, we were laughing and talking," she said. "We did a lot of things together. America is so beautiful and we had a great time together."
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey called the deaths of Butt and Chaudry "tragic."
"It was a sad situation where two lives were taken for no reason," he said. "There is nothing we can do to bring them back, but I really believe that this is a step in the right direction, that justice is being done and that it is helping the families move on with their lives."
Willis's sentencing was scheduled for yesterday; Ivey said his office would urge the court to impose a sentence of life without parole.
Three other suspects pleaded guilty to armed robbery. Andre Stewart, 16, John B. Young, 17, and Cordell Lesesny, 17, are scheduled to be sentenced in December. They are all expected to testify against a fifth suspect, Alonzo Tyler, whose trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 10.
Szabo said she has moved on, but that the frightening deaths of Butt and Chaudry have remained with her.
"It is just very sad," she said. "They loved life and they loved people."