By Tom McGhee and Joey Bunch
The Denver Post
For nearly 10 years, Habteab Berhe Temanu surrounded himself with fellow Ethiopian immigrants in the Denver area, sharing meals, swapping jokes and immersing himself in the ways of the old country. It took another immigrant, Kiflu Ketema, just five words to expose the terrible truth that Temanu had been hiding in plain sight from his former countrymen.
“I think I know you,” Ketema told him in a chance encounter while smoking a cigarette outside an Ethiopian restaurant in Aurora.
Those who knew Temanu say he never spoke of the past. This week, it became clear why: He was living under an assumed name, with a buried past and secrets that could send him to the gallows in Ethiopia.
After 11 months of denials, Temanu finally admitted what a shocked Ketema had discovered. Temanu told a federal judge that he is Kefelegne Alemu Worku, a notorious guard accused of torturing and killing dozens of political prisoners during Ethiopia’s Red Terror in the 1970s.
Worku is now in federal custody in Denver, accused of falsifying immigration documents and using another man’s identification to gain citizenship in the United States.
“My name is Kefelegne-Alemu-Worku. … I lied to U.S. gov’t officials and I accepted documents that were not rightfully mine,” Worku said in a handwritten note to the judge. “This was wrong and I apologize for my errors I simpley wanted to live in America.”
Senior U.S. District Judge John Kane told Worku in court on Thursday that he could face up to 20 years in prison, prompting Worku to withdraw an offer to plead guilty and to say he wants to go to trial instead.
Kane told him that if he pleaded guilty, the judge would have to revoke his citizenship and he would be subject to deportation to Ethiopia, where he has been tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
Worku, believed to be in his 60s, told the judge that although he now admitted his true identity, he would never admit to atrocities. “Whatever I did, I did because of a difficult situation I was in,” he said.
He was not an official of the government, he said, and as far as his conduct during the 1970s goes, “I am only a very small fish.”
“What is going on here now is a pattern of revenge of what we did to each other at that time,” he said through an interpreter.
The past that Worku has tried so hard to forget confronted him on May 6, 2011, outside the Cozy Cafe, one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in the Denver area.
Ketema’s brother had summoned him to the restaurant after seeing what looked like a familiar face.
“I think I know you,” Ketema told Worku.
“No,” replied Worku.
When Ketema told his former jailer he had been a prisoner at Kefetegna 15, a makeshift prison in Addis Ababa during Ethiopia’s Red Terror, Worku insisted he was mistaken.
“No, maybe it could have been my brother,” Ketema recalls him saying.
“I said, ‘You were there,’ ” and the man Ketema calls a “monster” began to tremble, the 58-year-old Ketema said Thursday.
When he was 22, Ketema spent 19 months in the prison. He said many of his friends died at the hands of the Marxist government.
More than three decades after Ketema escaped the prison, he said, Worku was instantly recognizable. He hadn’t changed, and even his voice sounded the same, he said.
Ketema eventually brought his suspicions to the FBI and federal prosecutors, who showed him pictures of Worku.
“Yes, that is him,” he recalled telling them.
People who knew Worku in Denver under the different name said he was funny and social, hanging out in Ethiopian restaurants, attending cultural events and inviting guests to his apartment.
Girma Baye, manager of the Cozy Cafe, said Worku came in several times a week starting about 2003 or 2004. Baye still thinks of the friendly old man by his assumed name.
“I still know him as Tufa,” he said, seated by the door in the strip-mall restaurant. “To me that’s who he is. You’re only a witness if you saw something. All we really know for sure is that there was a civil war and lots of people died.”
“His personality was the best,” Baye said. “He was always playing, always friendly, always having fun. We didn’t even think of him as an old man. He was just Tufa.”
But, Baye said, “He never told me anything that happened in his past.”
Those who encountered Worku at the infamous prison in Ethiopia say they will never forget him. They say Worku was known as a guard to avoid, a man with a temper and what one of his former prisoners called a “thirst for blood.”
The younger brother of Berye H. Mariam, a 14-year-old allegedly tortured and shot by Worku at the prison 36 years ago, spoke to The Denver Post on condition of anonymity because of “old political grudges” that survive even here in Denver.
He vividly recalls the day he said Worku was drunk and ordered his brother removed from the cinder-block, windowless prison where 50 men and boys slept on the floor and lived in squalor. He soon learned that his brother had been beaten and shot to death.
“In that prison, you could see things every day that you couldn’t believe humans could do to other humans,” the man said.
Does he wish for justice for his brother and fellow inmates?
“The most important thing is not revenge, but a person like this, who killed so many people like my brother, is not rewarded with being able to live in the greatest country in the world,” he said. “Closure, however, is that he gets the justice he deserves.”
Nebiyu Asfaw, an Ethiopian community organizer, said Worku’s capture has symbolic meaning for those who lived through the times.
“It shows justice always prevails,” he said. “After killing so many people, it catches up with you and that you can’t hide from the truth, and you can’t hide from justice. It’s really symbolic for a whole lot of people.”
He estimated there are more than 30,000 people of Ethiopian descent in the Denver area. He said there are 17 Ethiopian restaurants in the region, a testament to the depth of the culture.
“There’s not an Ethiopian family who lived there in the ’70s who isn’t affected by this,” said Asfaw, who was born in Ethiopia. “His capture and ultimate justice being served should be seen as justice being served around the world, in Africa and especially in Ethiopia.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global human-rights organization named for the famous hunter of Nazi war criminals, said it’s critically important to victims, their loved ones and society to bring war criminals to justice.
“It’s important not just for what happened yesterday but for what might happen tomorrow,” he said. “It sends a message that if you’re going to be a mass murderer or a war criminal, people are never going to forget. If you’re smart enough to hide out for a few decades, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t coming for you.”
He laughed at the notion that Worku might be claiming he was just following orders in the heat of war.
“That’s what they all say, that’s the oldest excuse,” he said. “In prosecuting Nazis, they were all following orders or they were in the kitchen. I’ve never seen so many short-order cooks.”
Worku, who has been in custody for nearly a year under the name John Doe, still wants to avoid discussion of the past, said his federal public defender, Matthew Golla. He is concerned about witnesses who could come forward at his sentencing to talk about brutality he allegedly engaged in as a prison guard.
“Mr. Doe wants to plead guilty and get sentenced without the government bringing witnesses,” Golla said Thursday. But those witnesses will be heard either at his sentencing if he pleads or at trial, Golla said. “I can’t prevent that.”
Worku is scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 7.