In the sloping green fields of Ethiopia, Mulugeta Seraw’s father sold off livestock so his son could be educated in America.
Honoring his father’s noble ambition, Mulugeta arrived in Portland, Oregon, studied business at a community college, worked as a janitor at a grade school – where he was adored by teachers and kids alike – and at a second job at a car rental company. He sent money back to his girlfriend and their 6-year-old son, Henock, in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
Mulugeta planned to bring them to the U.S. to live with him, but instead he met a brutal and deadly fate.
As a friend was dropping Mulugeta off at his apartment on Nov. 13, 1988, three skinheads in steel-toed boots and bomber jackets approached him on the sidewalk. The men – members of the East Side White Pride gang – were on the prowl for what they called “mud people.”
When they came across Mulugeta and saw that he was Black, they jumped him and knocked him to the ground. Their leader, who went by the street name of “Ken Death,” grabbed a baseball bat from his car and hit Mulugeta over the head, fracturing his skull. They left him there, bleeding to death on the sidewalk in front of his apartment.
Tom Metzger, the founder of White Aryan Resistance (WAR), was one of the most notorious white supremacist and skinhead leaders of the time. While he was not present at the murder of Mulugeta, the killers had requested help from him and WAR in the months just prior to the killing. He sent his top lieutenant to Portland to train and encourage them to “clash and bash” with people of color.
All three of the killers pleaded guilty to the murder and were sent to prison, even as Metzger praised them for doing what he called their “civic duty.”
In a landmark civil trial, the Southern Poverty Law Center used an innovative legal strategy to hold Metzger and WAR liable for the wrongful death of Mulugeta, winning a $12.5 million verdict that effectively put the racist hate group out of business.
The verdict, handed down 30 years ago on Oct. 25, 1990, directed the proceeds to Mulugeta’s family. Media came from all over the world to cover the tense proceedings. Police snipers were stationed on the roof of the courthouse, a surveillance helicopter hovered above, and bomb threats were made throughout the trial.
The murder – challenging the Northwest’s progressive reputation – horrified the citizens of Portland, led to a groundbreaking state law to monitor hate crimes and galvanized the city’s residents against racism.
Today, decades after the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, Portland has again become an epicenter in the national clarion calls for racial justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many others.
“The Mulugeta murder was kind of a watershed moment for Portland, was sort of like a George Floyd moment, in the sense that it wasn’t the first and it certainly wasn’t the last act of extreme violence in Portland against minorities,” said James McElroy, a former SPLC board chairman who worked as a lawyer on the case. “But for some reason it stuck with Portlanders – it really struck a nerve.”
The SPLC’s civil suit, Berhanu v. Metzger, asserted that Metzger, his son John, and WAR were as responsible in civil damages for the wrongful death of Mulugeta as were the Portland skinheads.
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Metzger’s final appeal, allowing SPLC attorneys to begin distributing funds from the sale of WAR’s assets. The principal beneficiary was Mulugeta’s son, Henock.
‘Hopes suddenly died’
Mulugeta’s violent death weighed heavily on Henock and his mother.
A month before his passing he told me by phone that he had a job and that his plan was to take me and Henock to America to live with him,” Aynalem Tilahun, Henock’s mother, said in her native Amharic for an interview with the SPLC that Henock translated into English.
During his phone conversations with Aynalem, Mulugeta had asked her to send photos as he began the process of bringing Henock and his mother to the U.S.
Mulugeta also asked Henock what he would like sent to him from America. The boy said he wanted Adidas sneakers and soccer jerseys. He was very excited to talk to his father.
In their last conversation, Mulugeta said he would call again in about two weeks.
“We were eagerly waiting for his call,” Aynalem said. “Instead, we heard the bad news that he had died. We were sickened and shocked by the way in which he died. Thus, all the hopes and dreams of both me and my son suddenly went into darkness and gloom. At a time when we both thought our lives were about to transform for the better, our hopes suddenly died with him.”
But Aynalem was pleased with the SPLC’s verdict because it brought justice for Mulugeta, including the $12.5 million verdict for the family.
“SPLC’s victory in the trial … was very good news,” she said. “His death was not in vain. Those responsible were held accountable.”
McElroy’s work was critical to the outcome. Before the trial had even started, he blocked Metzger, who lived in Southern California as did McElroy, from disposing of his assets, which could have robbed the family of any award a jury might order in the event of an SPLC victory.
During the three-week trial, McElroy assisted the SPLC legal team from the sidelines, including witness preparation, jury selection and even carrying boxes to the courtroom.
Henock, then a young boy, and his grandfather traveled to America to attend the court proceedings.
“I remember the trial being somber, as I began to understand the crime that took place and seeing the pain on my grandfather’s face as graphic exhibits were displayed in court,” said Henock, who now lives in the Middle East, where he is raising his own family and working as a pilot and captain for a major commercial airline. “As the years went by and I was able to process it more, I remember feeling more sorry for these young individuals who committed this heinous crime, knowing that they wake up every morning with hate and malice towards people they’ve never met.”
But while the verdict produced justice for the family, it did not provide the $12.5 million windfall awarded by the jury. Metzger and WAR did not have assets totaling anywhere near that amount.
So McElroy used the civil court judgment to take Metzger’s house, which was then sold to a Latinx family. He also collected money in small amounts every month from Metzger and WAR over the course of 20 years.
All told, McElroy said, about $200,000 was collected from Metzger and WAR. Because Mulugeta Seraw was not married at the time of his death, his father and son were the only legal heirs under Oregon law. Henock’s grandfather received about $20,000, a significant amount for a farmer in Ethiopia at that time. The rest went to Henock.
Both Henock and McElroy have regularly sent money to Henock’s mother over the years. She has since remarried and now has two daughters.
‘A better future’
Soon after the verdict, McElroy volunteered to go to Ethiopia for a meeting with the family to discuss how the money would be distributed.
There, he saw Henock again. He was captivated by the 10-year-old boy who bravely attended portions of the trial. At the time, Henock lived in a small room with his mother, who was earning about $1 a day working for a bus company, and his opportunities were limited given the stark circumstances in his home country.
McElroy asked the boy’s mother if he could bring him back to the United States for a summer vacation, and she agreed.
When the summer ended, McElroy had another request: He asked if Henock could stay with him in the U.S. to attend school. Again, she agreed.
Eventually, McElroy had an even greater request: He wanted to adopt Henock. Again, she agreed.
“I didn’t put any pressure on Aynalem (or at least I didn’t intend to), and she was naturally reluctant at first, because legally it meant she was giving up her parental rights,” McElroy said, adding that immigration authorities were hassling him about Henock’s student visa in the U.S.
“I was growing more and more concerned that because of the immigration laws in effect at the time, if I didn’t adopt him before his 16th birthday, he might not be able to remain in the country to finish his education and become a citizen if he chose to do so,” McElroy said. “As [Aynalem] later told me, she finally realized that this would be the best thing for Henock, as far as opening many doors to good colleges and job opportunities and U.S. citizenship. So, because she is a loving and wonderful mom who wanted the best for Henock, she agreed.”
It was a heart-wrenching decision similar to the one Henock’s grandfather made for his son years earlier, when he sent Mulugeta off to college in Portland.
“I told Jim [McElroy] it was my wish and that Henock would be better off if he were to live and get his education in America,” Aynalem said.
Henock attended schools in the U.S., where he excelled and eventually earned a degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara. But he always wanted to be a pilot.
Upon graduation from college and unable to get a flying job with a U.S. airline, he leveraged his native Ethiopian background, his language skills in both Amharic and English, and his years of flight school into a job as a pilot with Ethiopian Airlines.
“All Henock ever wanted to do from the time he was 14 was fly airplanes,” said McElroy, who never spent any of the money from Henock’s jury award to raise him.
“I put every penny we collected from Metzger and WAR in a trust account for Henock. I paid all of his expenses with one notable exception. I let him spend his money on flying lessons,” McElroy said. “I thought it was poetic justice that Metzger’s money was being used to help Henock start his career.”
Adopting Henock was one of the best things that has happened in McElroy’s life, he said.
“And I have the SPLC to thank for that,” he said. “Had they not decided to take on this very difficult case thousands of miles from Montgomery, Henock would not be in my life today. As an added bonus, I also now have a lovely daughter-in-law and two magnificent grandkids in my life.”
A lasting legacy
Today, McElroy is also helping to raise one of Henock’s half-sisters, who attended high school and is now attending college in the U.S.
“I’d like to thank Jim and God very much for raising Henock to be successful and to have a family of his own,” Aynalem said. “I’d like to thank Jim again for also taking care of my daughter Gelila, who is living with him at the moment.
“Jim is a gift from God. There is no way anything or anyone can repay him for what he’s done for us. Seeing [my children] succeed is the only reward that can be of comfort for all his efforts.”
Portland has also made significant efforts to honor Mulugeta Seraw in the decades since his death.
Every 10 years, the city sponsors a big ceremony and daylong events in remembrance of Mulugeta. The street where Mulugeta lived and where he was murdered has been named after him in Portland, with signs in English on one side and Amharic on the other. In the wake of his murder, the state passed a law requiring police to report hate crimes to a database, underscoring his legacy.
When McElroy visited Portland two years ago to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the murder, he was reminded of an incident that happened one year earlier on the city’s rapid transit system.
A white supremacist had stabbed two men to death on a train after the men intervened on behalf of two young Muslim women. The white supremacist had been harassing the women because they were wearing hijabs.
After McElroy spoke at the Mulugeta commemoration event, a young woman who could not have been more than a child when Mulugeta was killed – but who obviously knew about the murder – approached McElroy and showed him a photograph taken at the transit stop where the good Samaritans had been murdered.
The photo depicted two simple words spray-painted on the stark white wall on the back of the transit stop shelter.
“Remember Mulugeta,” the words said.
Lead photo illustration by SPLC.