- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

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.”

Fast rise

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.”

But Ayele’s outlook changed when she realized that investigators hadn’t forgotten about her after all.

‘She cooperated’

On Nov. 4, 2000, Ayele, then 28, was arrested once again. This time, the charges were far more serious than driving on a suspended license. Aside from a huge stash of cocaine, authorities found two guns and more than $20,000 in the van. Raids of Ayele’s home and relatives’ houses turned up another $200,000 in cash and other assets that investigators traced to Ayele’s drug dealing, including expensive jewelry, two cars and a pair of personal watercraft.

Facing decades in federal prison, Ayele soon decided to cooperate in hopes of getting prosecutors to persuade a judge to give her a break at sentencing.

A federal magistrate judge kept her court case off the public docket, saying Ayele’s “cooperation, due to the nature of the case, places the safety of the defendant and the officers and agents working with her at substantial risk.”

After her arrest, Ayele began a new life as a cooperating witness. She worked under cover for the FBI to set up a cocaine deal between an undercover agent and a drug dealer in Florida, court records show. She assisted in an investigation into a double homicide in Connecticut, and she testified in 2004 against a group of D.C. drug dealers facing murder and other charges in a massive federal conspiracy case.

When Ayele took the stand in the D.C. case in 2004, defense attorneys raised objections because they said they didn’t know enough about Ayele’s undercover work to cross-examine her effectively. It turned out that the prosecution didn’t know about all of her work for the FBI, either.

“At the time that Ms. Ayele hit the stand, I knew there were other investigations she had assisted in,” prosecutor Arvind K. Lal told the judge overseeing the case in which Ayele testified, according to transcripts.

“I asked her when I met with her, ‘Can you tell me about it?’ And she said, no. And I spoke to her agent, her controlling agent, who said yeah, it is national security terrorism-related stuff. … Since then I have found out … she cooperated with a group that investigates terrorism at the Washington Field Office.

“It was cooperation with the United States government, and when her controlling agent decided that she needed to cooperate in a national-security investigation, she cooperated.”

Officials declined to discuss Ayele’s work with the antiterrorism division. The defendants against whom she testified in the 2004 drug case were all convicted. However, while other cooperating witnesses in the same case entered the witness protection program, Ayele hardly went into hiding after the trial ended.

In June 2004, she was sentenced to time served. Within two years, Ayele had reinvented herself. She earned a real estate license and worked for a broker in Alexandria. She also had taken over the Ohio Restaurant. She was profiled in 2006 in the Washington City Paper, which reported, “Ayele takes pride in her soul cooking.” The article called the Ohio Restaurant under Ayele “a business striving to push the traditions of the past to new levels.”

But just two years earlier, while on the witness stand testifying for prosecutors about guns and drugs in Washington, Ayele’s dreams of running her own business seemed far off.

“I hoped that by the time I turned 30 that I would stop and have a family,” she said. “I don’t have any children. I’m 32 now and whatever I hoped for is just gone down the drain now.”