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A Cry for Justice : Was their son a ‘precious and innocent human being’? Or a gang member killed because he threatened rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Quintanilla is a Times staff writer. Philips is a free-lance writer

Sophia Woldemariam sits within view of rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, one of her brother’s accused murderers. With pen in hand, she documents the March morning hearing, her brown eyes darting from lawyer to rapper to Superior Court Judge Paul G. Flynn.

Her parents listen to the stinging claims about their son: the gang member. The stalker. The guy with a gun.

“Lies, nothing but lies,” is all she says she thinks about as defense attorneys talk about Philip Woldemariam, the 20-year-old brother she will remember as a young man who fought diabetes, not other young men.

Woldemariam was shot dead in Palms’ Woodbine Park on Aug. 25, 1993. The rap star and two associates face trial on murder charges this fall.

Members of Woldemariam’s family say he was a sickly, innocent victim. They have filed a $25-million wrongful death suit against the rapper--real name Calvin Broadus--and Time Warner, whose affiliated record companies released “DOGGYSTYLE” last November.

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The album has generated more than $40 million in sales, and the Woldemariams, a tightly knit family of Ethiopian emigres, claim Broadus is cashing in on publicity associated with the case.

Broadus’ lawyers say Woldemariam was a gun-toting gang member who threatened their client and his friends. They assert that the shooting was in self-defense.

Records show that Woldemariam dropped out of high school, temporarily lived in two foster homes and served time briefly for two gun incidents--records the family says do not tell the full story.

All the characters are in place, then, for what is likely to be Los Angeles’ next sensational murder trial--the international superstar and his fans, the grieving family, the high-profile lawyers.

Everyone, that is, but the victim.

So as Snoop Doggy Dogg segues from MTV to Court TV, the question arises: Who was Philip Woldemariam?

*

Outside the courtroom, Woldemariam’s mother, 51-year-old Kudsan H. Michael, is comforted by Sophia, 22, and her sister, Zeman, 30. They console her with whispers in Amharic, their native language.

They recall happier times. Like when Woldemariam was a skinny 5-year-old and he and Sophia would sneak into a resort’s swimming pool and race each other. Philip, known for his spirited independence, always won.

They remember his love for basketball, especially a challenge against much larger players despite his illness, which gave him violent headaches and seizures that often immobilized him for up to three days.

For her parents, Sophia revives the memory of the son who never left home without hugging and kissing his mother, the son who crafted wooden jewelry boxes and drew calligraphy cards for the small, quiet woman who now finds herself taking sedatives to cope with her grief.

Woldemariam Ghilamariam and his family immigrated in 1979 to the United States from Eritrea--then a region of Ethiopia on the Red Sea--fleeing a 30-year civil war for better opportunities. They settled in Idaho for a year before moving to Palms, where they lived for almost nine years before moving to Long Beach. Ghilamariam, a Long Beach building contractor, soon started Asmara Construction, named for his hometown capital, where he had a similar business.

“We were middle-class Eritreans who enjoyed the best life in my country,” says Ghilamariam, 54. “When we came here we actually lost that life.”

But Ghilamariam says he has no regrets because the move to America also made it possible for his son, who was found to have diabetes at age 5, to receive the best medical treatment. He says that when they fled Ethiopia, insulin was becoming scarce and health care inferior.

He also had other dreams for his children: to get the best education.

“The motto in our house,” Sophia says, “is ‘If you don’t have an education, you have nothing.’ ”

Woldemariam attended Palms Elementary and Palms Junior High, where his interest in basketball began.

“He loved it,” says Zeman, adding that her brother gave up soccer for the sport.

“He got trophies in the sixth and seventh grade for playing,” Sophia adds. “He was small and skinny, but he played good. He was passionate about the game.”

After junior high, Woldemariam went to Hamilton High School, where David Uyeshima, Hamilton’s head basketball coach, remembers Woldemariam as an “average kid you don’t have a problem with.”

“He was there for all the practices except for when he got sick. He always called when he was sick. If he was a gang member, he wouldn’t have done that. Gang kids don’t come out for athletics,” Uyeshima says.

Woldemariam’s family says he dropped out of high school because of health reasons. But he didn’t remain idle. He helped his father with the family business.

Woldemariam worked at various construction sites in Long Beach and Los Angeles, delivering building materials, helping supervise jobs and driving his father’s truck.

Ghilamariam says his son’s health greatly improved in the last year after his medication was changed. He wasn’t falling. He wasn’t having headaches. And he had gained weight, reaching 115 pounds.

And his family says Woldemariam was enthusiastic about returning to school. They say he had a plan: move in with his brother, Daniel, 25, in New Mexico, enroll at a technical and vocational school where he would earn his general equivalency diploma, and go on to college to pursue a dream he had often discussed with his mother--becoming a doctor.

Two weeks before his death, Woldemariam had visited Daniel to prepare for his move. While he was there, he celebrated his 20th birthday, one he wouldn’t soon forget because his brothers surprised him with a white 1978 Buick Regal. The brothers drove the car back to Long Beach only days before Woldemariam was shot.

The car remains parked in the driveway.

“I want the murderers to get what they deserve: the maximum punishment,” Ghilamariam says. “They murdered a young man whose life was ahead of him, a precious and innocent human being.”

All they want, Ghilamariam says, is justice. And not even alleged threats against their lives will keep them from seeing that Woldemariam’s accused murderers get their just due.

Since last summer, the Woldemariams have attended numerous court hearings. Quietly, they sit in a row and listen to the onslaught of allegations against Woldemariam. They cry. They shake their heads in disgust.

On the other side of the room they see their son’s alleged murderers: Broadus is charged with driving the vehicle from which his bodyguard, McKinley Lee, has admitted shooting Woldemariam. Both men and another companion, Shawn Abrams, have pleaded not guilty and claim self-defense. Broadus and his co-defendants were not available for an interview because of the upcoming trial, their lawyers said.

Ghilamariam says each hearing is filled with painful claims about his son.

“Our lives are on hold,” says Sophia, who has temporarily dropped out of UCLA. Gradually, her father has returned to work. Her brother Yonas, 29, has moved home from Oregon to help with the business. Zeman, a registered nurse, works sporadically now because she spends time at home caring for her mother.

“In our country we were seeing children dying from the civil war,” Ghilamariam says in an interview at his Long Beach home.

But never, he says, did he imagine that one of his children would be murdered. Never did he think that his boy’s memory would be tarnished as it is now, he says.

“The boy the lawyers are painting is not a member of our family. They are saying something entirely different from the nature of Philip’s character. That’s not the Philip that we know,” Ghilamariam says.

Adds Sophia: “I feel very violated all the time by trying to justify what Philip was and what he was not. . . . We’re not saying that Philip was an angel. He had problems, but who does not have problems?”

Woldemariam’s troubles with the law go back to 1989, when he was attacked by a police dog, according to county medical records. Later that year, behavioral problems landed him briefly in two foster homes. In 1990, he was sent to Juvenile Hall after run-ins with the law, county records indicate.

“He wasn’t really behaving,” Zeman says about her brother’s detainment in foster homes and Juvenile Hall, adding that he was taken out of the family home by authorities because he refused to take his medication. Woldemariam’s mother was living in Northern California and his father was working in Arizona. “We were having hard times,” she says.

It was about this time that Woldemariam--all of 97 pounds on his 5-foot, 7-inch frame--was experiencing severe health problems caused by diabetes and dropped out of high school.

In February, 1992, he was arrested for possession of a loaded weapon after being caught trying to avoid paying a fare for public transportation. After pleading no contest to the charges, he spent two days in jail and was given one year of probation.

According to medical records, Woldemariam also was taken to County-USC Medical Center in April, 1992, after being shot in the leg during an altercation at the same park where he was killed. An examination at the time indicated that he had been shot twice previously, records show.

Woldemariam’s family acknowledges the April, 1992, shooting incident, but says Philip was a hero because he was trying to prevent another man from shooting a gun where children were playing. “Philip ran to (the man) and held his hand down so that the gun would shoot down,” Sophia says. Family members say they had no knowledge of Woldemariam’s earlier two gunshot wounds until authorities told them.

Woldemariam had been out of jail only a few months on the day he was gunned down, according to police records. Besides jail, he received probation for discharging a firearm with gross negligence in October, 1992, at Palms Junior High School, the records show. His family says that even though they had moved away from Palms, Woldemariam frequently returned there to hang out and play basketball with his old friends. Broadus moved there last summer to be closer to a recording studio.

The family strongly contests county records and police reports about Woldemariam’s actions. “They twist things around. They’ve been butchering Philip,” Zeman says.

Adds Sophia: “Philip is being blamed for dying.”

If her brother should be faulted for anything, Sophia says it should be for being at “the wrong place, wrong time.”

“Philip,” Zeman says, “was not street smart.”

Police records also show that Woldemariam was a member of the By Yerself Hustlers, a gang founded in Palms, where he grew up. The gang, police say, is now based in Miracle Mile.

“I know Philip has been portrayed as a gang member,” says Marc Catto, 31, who had known him for almost 10 years. Catto and his younger brother used to play basketball with Woldemariam at Woodbine Park.

“But Philip’s group was a group of guys who were friends, who went to school together, who kept in contact with each other,” says Catto, disputing its characterization as a gang. “He wasn’t the type of guy who would go out and look for trouble. Trouble would find Phil.”

Woldemariam’s family says he wasn’t a gang member and refuses to believe that he owned a gun, much less injured anyone with one. They say his friends were guys he grew up with and with whom he played basketball on the weekends.

“He didn’t live two lives,” his father says. “Because of his seizures and health condition, we were the ones to take care of his bedroom, his closet, to sometimes even change his clothes. Where in the world can Philip hide a gun? I never saw anything with my own eyes, not even a knife.”

“I can’t tell you what this has done to my parents and family,” Sophia says, sitting across from her father. “Nothing can bring Philip back, which is why we have decided to take up the lawsuit and fight back. We haven’t had time to mourn, that’s how caught up we have been in all of this. Philip, the victim, doesn’t have a voice.”

Sophia says she and her brother were best friends: “Philip would tell me everything.” But Philip never got the chance to tell her what happened on Aug. 25.

*

According to testimony given in the Los Angeles County grand jury’s investigation, which was obtained by The Times, Woldemariam and two friends were on their way to the park about 6:30 that evening to eat dinner and buy marijuana.

Duchaum Lee Joseph and Jason London--Woldemariam’s friends since the late ‘80s when they joined the By Yerself Hustlers--told the grand jury that Woldemariam had stashed a loaded handgun in Joseph’s car door earlier that afternoon.

As the three headed to the park in Joseph’s car, Woldemariam demanded that Joseph stop in the street after Abrams, who was standing in front of Broadus’ apartment, and Woldemariam engaged in a gang-related dispute. The three then sped away.

Witnesses told the grand jury that Broadus’ Jeep, with Broadus, Lee and Abrams inside it, briefly chased Joseph’s car. About 20 minutes later, Broadus’ Jeep showed up at the park.

More angry words were exchanged between Woldemariam and the men in the Jeep as Woldemariam approached the vehicle and opened his shirt displaying a .380 automatic handgun tucked in his waistband, witnesses testified. Joseph told the grand jury that Woldemariam reached for the gun before Broadus’ bodyguard fired his weapon. One of the bullets entered Woldemariam’s back as he ran; he later collapsed in an alley. The Jeep sped off.

Joseph and London told the grand jury that they hid Woldemariam’s gun before police arrived. In August, they originally told detectives that Woldemariam had been unarmed. Three months later, the men changed their story during the grand jury’s investigation.

Woldemariam’s family says Joseph and London altered their accounts because they were intimidated by gang members associated with Broadus. Police say there is no evidence the two were threatened.

“Most of what has been said about Philip is high-paid defense attorney talk,” Sophia says. “Now they are saying that Philip knew (Snoop) and he went and threatened him before. We’ve heard everything.”

The rapper’s attorney has told The Times that a month before the fatal shooting, Woldemariam had pointed a gun at Broadus when the two crossed paths at a gas station a block from the park. The prosecutor says there is no evidence to verify the alleged threat, adding that Broadus’ lawyer has not responded to his requests to provide such verification.

Broadus--who served a brief jail sentence in 1990 for cocaine dealing--and Abrams are listed in police files as members of the Long Beach Insane Crips, according to Long Beach police. Broadus--who last year was arrested for possession of marijuana and a concealed weapon--has said in interviews that he stopped associating with the gang in high school.

Law enforcement sources have said that Woldemariam and several Palms residents resented Broadus and his Long Beach friends for moving into the neighborhood.

The family says the accusations simply don’t ring true.

“Philip is not the villain,” Sophia says. “He is the victim.”

While her family is trying to “pick up the pieces” of their lives, Sophia says they are angry that “Snoop Doggy Dogg is out there making millions of dollars off his gangsta music, cashing in on the notoriety of the crime.”

She says her brother was not “some dangerous criminal. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The truth, she says, is that he was “a gentle soul who was ruthlessly shot in the back.”

She reaches for photos of him: the little boy in a family portrait that couldn’t be taken until he had his jockey hat on; a youngster showing off cowboy boots, and a kid tumbling in leaves he had just raked at a stable where he helped for the chance to ride, groom and feed the horses.

“I called him ‘knucklehead,’ ” Sophia recalls fondly, pointing to the last photograph she took of her brother, a month before his death. “He was laying there talking to me. I told him to look up,” she says holding the picture, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I hoped for my brother to have everything he ever wanted. Now, one day I’ll have to tell my children about their uncle in pictures,” she says. “That’s what it means with Philip gone. I lost my history.”


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