Bethlehem Ayele figured she would quit selling cocaine at age 30, take her money and start a legitimate business. By all appearances, things seemed to be going according to plan.
At 34, Ayele ran a popular restaurant on H Street that was getting good reviews. She also obtained her real estate license and worked for a broker in Virginia. But Ayele’s past caught up with her one night nearly five years ago. Stopped in her car at an intersection in Alexandria, she was fatally shot. The case remains unsolved.
In the weeks that followed, speculation focused on Ayele’s cocaine ties and how she testified for prosecutors in a big federal drug conspiracy case in the District. But transcripts recently reviewed by The Washington Times reveal that Ayele’s cooperation as an undercover informant extended beyond drug cases. She also had worked with the counterterrorism division of the FBI’s Washington field office.
The FBI declined to comment on Ayele’s role in any national security cases. Officials said that while the FBI had been consulted about her shooting, federal authorities are not investigating the slaying of the onetime federal witness. They referred questions to Alexandria police instead.
“As we do every day, the FBI works with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to determine the best course of an investigation and the potential for prosecution,” FBI spokeswoman Lindsay Godwin said. “That is what occurred here.”
While confirming early on that Ayele was a targeted victim, Alexandria police have said little about the case in recent years. Spokesman Jody Donaldson said the Ayele killing is a “current ongoing investigation,” but declined further comment.
The whereabouts of Ayele’s family remain unclear. Born in Ethiopia, she was in the U.S. legally, records show. The Ohio Restaurant, which she ran on H Street in Northeast Washington, closed soon after she was killed. It has remained boarded up ever since. A lawyer who represented her after her arrest on drug charges declined to comment this week.
Still, Ayele’s own words remain. Taken from 7-year-old court transcripts, they reveal the story of her rise and fall in the D.C. criminal underworld and her hopes to one day “go legit.”
When she was 16, Ayele, known to her friends as “Betty,” earned extra money on the weekends as a lookout for drug dealers. Before long, she was selling $20 bags of crack cocaine. But Ayele rose fast after she began dating a drug dealer from New York. There, she would make direct connections with drug suppliers that allowed her to get off the streets and into the wholesale side of the business.
By the mid-1990s, she was brokering drug deals for tens of thousands of dollars and making trips two or three times a month to New York, Miami or Los Angeles to bring cocaine back into Washington. She drove a conversion van with a television, a video game set, a cooler and a small bar — and a secret compartment for hiding drugs. In March 2000, she was pulled over by police and charged with driving on a suspended license.
She wasn’t sure whether the police knew about the 9 kilos of powder cocaine hidden in the van, though. After her arrest, Ayele paid a $75 fine and was released. She felt lucky. Still, she worried. She wasn’t sure whether to expect another arrest.
So Ayele left the U.S. for Ethiopia, where she stayed until the end of July. Figuring she was safe, Ayele started selling cocaine again. Through it all, she never saw herself as part of the drug culture.
“The drug lifestyle to me, I was involved in meeting a person, selling drugs, getting the money and going back home or going about my daily business, whether it was college I was attending or working,” Ayele said in a 2004 court case.
“If things are not going smoothly … if I’m not satisfied with my suppliers — then I have to think about finding another supplier, so I’ll be … scheming or thinking about getting another supplier. But if everything is fine, no, I didn’t sleep and breathe drugs or drug dealing or that culture or that all of the time.”View Entire Story
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Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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