Vasile Ilies traveled from Romania to personally deliver a message to his son-in-law yesterday: "A greeting from the bottom of my heart," he told him in an angry voice. "Go to hell."
The son-in-law, Joseph Ngbokoto, confessed to killing his wife while one of their four children begged him to stop swinging a bloody crowbar at her head. The attack took place March 11, after Diana Ilies Ngbokoto, 33, who worked on behalf of domestic violence victims, began speaking of a separation from her husband.
Joseph Ngbokoto, 38, stood in D.C. Superior Court yesterday, his gaze cast firmly forward as his in-laws unloaded months of grieving and anguish. Ngbokoto pleaded guilty to second-degree murder just six weeks after the killing, and yesterday he was sentenced to a 24-year prison term.
Judge Judith E. Retchin did not stop the Ilieses when their impassioned pleas for a maximum sentence turned into a verbal lashing of Ngbokoto, who began to quietly cry when his mother-in-law asked him why he turned to murder.
"What did you to do your children?" Emilia Ilies asked Ngbokoto as she leaned closer to him in the courtroom. "They will live all their lives with this trauma . . . with blood on their eyes."
The courtroom was packed with relatives and friends of the victim. Diana Ngbokoto spoke four languages and worked for the International Association of Women Judges, coordinating their Jurisprudence of Equality Program in Africa and Central America. Her friends held on to the arms and shoulders of the family members as the court proceedings began and Joseph Ngbokoto was led into the room.
Defense attorney Clarence Powell tried to delay the sentencing, seeking more time to find people who could write letters to the court on behalf of his client. Some were the defendant's peers in Switzerland, where he met Diana Ilies while she was working on an economics degree, and Powell said he had been unable to locate them.
Retchin denied the request. "Given the particularly heinous nature of the crime," the judge said, statements from character witnesses would not affect the sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines said the attack was unprovoked by the wife and premeditated by the husband. In interviews with police, Joseph Ngbokoto said the marriage was in trouble because his wife couldn't keep up with her household chores, Sines said. "Joseph Ngbokoto didn't have a job," Sines said.
Authorities said Ngbokoto began beating his wife as she lay in bed at their home in the unit block of Adams Street NW, steps away from the four children. Then he went downstairs to turn off the power in the house and returned to tie her up and resume the attack, leaving 15 distinct impressions from a crowbar in her skull.
When police arrived, they found Joseph Ngbokoto unconscious and choking on his vomit after he tried to kill himself. One of the children used a butter knife to slide open a lock and let police inside, Sines said.
Victoria Ilies, the slain woman's sister-in-law, said she had tried for months to counsel the victim and listen to her marital woes. She asked Retchin to make the sentencing an example for other domestic violence cases.
"Please give some peace to Diana's grave and to all of us," she said.
The judge called the attack "one of the most sickening, harrowing, devastating cases I have had in front of me." She sentenced Ngbokoto to the 24-year term because he pleaded guilty so soon after the murder; he could have faced up to 40 years. Ngbokoto will be 62 when he is released, and he then will be deported to his native Central African Republic.
"It's not enough," Victoria Ilies said afterward. "Nothing will be enough. But only 24 years?"
The children, ages 2 to 8, remain in foster care, Victoria Ilies said.