Bahta condemns ‘the enemy’ in slayings of daughter and her mother

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Psychosis may have consumed Simon Bahta when he entered a West End apartment and slit the throats of his 3-year-old daughter and her mother last April, but prosecutors contend the murders were the deliberate actions of a jealous man.

A thin-voiced Bahta pled not guilty by reason of insanity to killing 27-year-old Seble Tessema and the former couple’s daughter, Eden, at Alexandria’s courthouse Monday. An Ethiopian refugee, he portrayed himself as an outsider; a victim of American cultural norms provoked by the meddling courts and Child Protective Services “the enemy” that wanted to take his daughter away.

“I don’t think I would have killed my daughter if not for intervention of the court,” Bahta told Judge Lisa Kemler and the jury Tuesday. “You take my child and I don’t know why.”

Alexandria police arrived to a bloodied South Reynolds Street apartment where Tessema and Eden lay dead in the living room about 10 a.m., April 11. Eden, still wearing a pink backpack, had been cut on her throat “almost to the bone,” according to deputy prosecutor Krista Boucher. Tessema suffered more than 40 stab wounds, including on her hands from defending herself.

Bahta’s history of domestic abuse prompted a custody battle over Eden, according to court records. His absence from her life was too much to handle, he said. Even on the day of her murder Bahta’s relationship with his daughter was strong, he said.

“I stabbed them … [Eden] was excited by seeing me … but she didn’t see what comes next for her.”

“He was committed to the proposition that if he couldn’t have them nobody could,” Boucher said.

The prosecution maintained hard evidence and several witnesses would prove Bahta deliberately planned and carried out the double murder. 

Mahlat Samual, Bahta’s friend and possible lover, was with him in the days before he killed his family. She remembered him arguing with Tessema on the phone.

“I’m either going to die or you guys are going to die, but somebody’s got to die,” a teary Samual remembered him saying.

Eden and Tessema were dead two days later.

Before the killings Bahta scanned Tessema’s phone records, looking for unfamiliar numbers. He had Samual call one and make up a story. When a man answered, she fibbed about knowing him and hung up. Bahta thought she was cheating on him, Samual said.

“He seemed really sad and angry,” she said.

Bahta fled to New York after the murders, where he was arrested in Chinatown on April 29 after his story aired on America’s Most Wanted. Police officers found him with three forms of fake identification, proving he was unremorseful and ready to start a new life, Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel said.

“In the end you were a big winner. No one else had [Eden],” Sengal told Bahta, repeating testimony he gave a year ago. 

The defense’s case rests not on whether Bahta killed his family, but if he was sane at the time. Public defender Melinda Douglas used the gruesome crime scene as evidence of her client’s innocence.

“The degree of violence … especially to that child raises the question of insanity,” Douglas told the jury in her opening statement. “There wasn’t really a reason for it and that’s why it’s insanity.”

Bahta was in and out of hospitals for mental issues for several years, Douglas said, and was not taking his medication at the time of the murders.

Hunched over on the witness stand, the defendant rubbed his head incessantly while recounting his hospital trips, both court-ordered and voluntary. The courts were the bad guys, he said, and Tessema was the only one that could calm him down.

“I have a tsunami feeling in my head, very troubling that I cannot erase,” Bahta recounted. “[Tessema] says something nice and I calm down.”

Bahta admitted to hitting Tessema multiple times. Douglas indicated Bahta’s “patriarchal” culture and family values, rooted in his native Ethiopia, contributed to his insanity in a country that did not understand him.

“I’ve been a POW in the hand of the enemy and this is way, way, way [beyond that], because the enemy has mercy,” Bahta said. “The court has no mercy.”

The trial is expected to go at least until Friday, Kemler said. Several doctors who have treated Bahta will be called as witnesses.

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