Ever since that fateful day in 1998 when Mustafa Mohamed was violently attacked in California, things didn’t seem right. Court documents show that after he emerged from a three-week coma, Mohamed’s behavior became increasingly erratic. His speech was slurred. His thoughts were clouded by paranoia. Then he began hearing voices.
“We will kill you,” one said, he later reported. “Your life is over,” said another.
His condition went untreated for years, and Mohamed became a housekeeper at Goodwin House in December 2003. His employers at the west-end retirement community described him as a reliable worker, a friendly man willing to follow instructions and see a job through to completion. Until Jan. 9, 2005. That was the day when Jeannie Hobbs asked him not to put a bag of trash on a carpeted floor.
“Oh boy, I hope my tires don’t get slashed,” she testified that she remembered thinking to herself after he glared at her.
But Hobbs had more than her tires to worry about. A few moments after their initial confrontation, Mohamed appeared at her door wielding a knife. He moved toward her, initiating an assault that would leave five others injured before the Alexandria Police Department took him into custody. The violent attack initiated a series of legal proceedings, culminating in a 20-minute hearing on Monday when Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock ruled that Mohamed was not guilty by reason of insanity.
“I never meant to harm no one,” Mohamed said in a high-pitched voice barely audible in the fourth-floor courtroom.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys signed a four-page stipulation of facts stating that “if this case were to proceed to trial, the evidence presented by the commonwealth would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity of these offenses.” The document sited the evaluations of two doctors who examined Mohamed and concluded that he was incapable of knowing right from wrong when the crime was committed. Judge Haddock ordered that Mohamed be sent to Central State Hospital in Petersburg, and that the court review his case after 45 days.
“It’s an appropriate outcome, given the findings of experts,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel in the hallway after the ruling. Defense attorney Pleasant Brodnax declined to comment.
A NATIVE OF Somalia, Mohamed came to America when he was 17 years old in the early 1990s — a time when the east African country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. He graduated from high school at West Mennonite High School in Oregon and attended some college classes but dropped out to help his family pay the bills. According to court papers, the 1998 attack that permanently altered his mental state happened while he was selling marijuana in San Jose, Calif., on May 13, 1998. After recovering, he moved to Virginia to be with his mother.
“He forgot everything — his name, how to walk, speak, eat, shaving, and he had memory problems,” said Zehira Saeed, Mohamed’s mother, according to one forensic evaluation. “At one point, he said he had a wife and four kids.”
He began hearing threatening voices, yet his mother was determined to get him back into a relatively normal life. She pleaded with him to try to find a job or go back to school.
“He would say ‘I’ll do it,’ but he was just sleeping a lot,” she said. “He was probably more depressed than I realize.”
Eventually, Mohamed was able to find work. He assembled computers, carried luggage, sold party supplies. By the time he applied to Goodwin House in December 2004, he had a resume full of solid jobs and good references. One notation from a previous employer described Mohamed as “full of energy, easygoing, nice to customers and fixes problems.” His employment record at Goodwin House contains one repremand on May 15, 2004 for not carrying a walkie-talkie radio and not cleaning a stairwell.
“I will follow the instructions you have given me and understand about my job,” Mohamed responded.
THE ATTACK on Jan. 9, 2005 began unexpectedly. After Hobbs confronted Mohamed about leaving a bag of trash on a carpeted floor, he attacked her with a knife — slashing her face several times as she struggled against the 190-pound man. Recounting the painful details of the January 2005 attack during a preliminary hearing, she testified she sustained injuries to her face, cheek, chin, neck, scalp and torso.
“He was slicing and stabbing,” she said, adding that he became distracted by a man’s voice during the attack. “I was pulled out.”
John Spencer was visiting his mother in the Cardinal wing on the second floor of Goodwin House when he heard a commotion. He reacted quickly, dashing down the hall toward the source of the screaming. There, outside a small office on the second floor, he saw Mohamed attacking Hobbs.
“He was cutting her face,” said Springer, a law firm administrator. “I yelled at him to stop.”
He testified how he pushed Mohamed toward the back of the office, freeing Hobbs — who was taken to the safety of an empty conference room. Springer said that Mohamed forced him down and began attacking him.
“I was on my back facing up,” he testified. “I was trying to grab and parry the knife with my hands.”
Springer pointed to a deep gash on the left side of his face, a lasting scar from the attack. He told General District Court Judge E. Robert Giammittorio that the attack left him with 48 stitches and several bruises.
“I was bleeding profusely,” he said. “I grabbed a trash can so I could bleed into that.”
AFTER BEING ARRESTED, Mohamed was taken to Central State Hospital for evaluation. Court documents show that after his arrival, he engaged in a number of psychotic episodes — drinking from the toilet and slamming his head into a television. He expressed fears that other inmates could read his mind, telling nurses that the voices in his head were threatening him.
“Everybody is celebrating my death,” he told one nurse, according to a psychological evaluation.
Court records show that Mohamed embarked on a plan for treatment that included Haldol and Ativan, antipsychotic medications that seemed to improve his condition. But his behavior continued to exhibit symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and depression.
“I want this to end,” he said during an examination in the summer of 2005. “I want to die.”
By January 2006, after an adjustment in his medication, Mohamed’s condition began to change. He became more lucid, and he was able to speak rationally about the court process. He demonstrated an understanding of the role of defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. On Feb. 3, General District Court Judge Becky Moore ruled that he was competent to stand trial.
“The issue for the court isn’t whether you are a mentally healthy individual but whether you understand what is happening in the courtroom,” said David Wilson, a George Mason professor who studies the administration of justice. “Just because he was found competent doesn’t mean that his schizophrenia has disappeared.”
In court on Monday, Mohamed seemed barely able to understand what was happening. Judge Haddock asked him several questions about his right to a jury and the nature of a trial. Each time, he responded by telling the judge that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Eventually, the judge accepted the plea as “freely, intelligently and knowingly made.”
Haddock ordered Mohamed to be remanded to the custody of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. At the agency’s Petersburg facility, Mohamed will be evaluated to determine what should happen next. After a 45-day-review the facility could either recommend further hospitalization or suggest that he no longer poses a threat to himself and others. The Alexandria Circuit Court is set to review that report later this year.