By Adam Fresco, Fiona Hamilton and Rajeev Syal
Only four days ago Arsema Dawit was surrounded by those she loved most – her friends, her younger brother and sister and her mother – as she blew out 15 candles on her birthday cake. Yesterday those same friends streamed into the family’s neat three-bedroom flat in Waterloo, South London, struggling to explain why this sweet-natured choirgirl has become the latest victim of London’s knife crime.
Some chose to criticise the Metropolitan Police, which they say failed to take seriously a complaint that her alleged murderer had harassed and assaulted her in the weeks leading up to her death. But most were too overcome with grief to speak. Women covered their heads with white shawls out of respect for the family, some wailing as they entered the building. Arsema’s mother, Tsehay, surrounded by women, sat in one room of the flat with her son Robel, 13, and daughter Feruz, 12.
She was too distraught to speak to visitors, able only to acknowledge them with a nod. Berekati Asfeday, a family friend, said that Arsema’s mother was so upset that she “can’t talk, just cry, cry, cry, non-stop cry”.
The men sat in a separate room of the family home, which was was decorated with religious icons. “Everyone is so upset. It is a deep grief,” one male visitor said.
Those who had the strength to talk described a happy and deeply religious teenager who had fought against the odds since arriving in Britain from Eritrea more than four years ago.
The family had moved to at least three homes across South London before settling within sight of the Houses of Parliament. Friends said that the children’s father had not lived with the family for some time.
Arsema had learnt English and was busy preparing for her GCSEs at the nearby Harris Academy, with dreams of university and a career.
Simon Tesfaghiorgish, a family friend, said: “Arsema’s life was maths, history, reading and reading the Bible.”
She was determined not to forget her African heritage and was an enthusiastic member of the Eritrean community church, singing in its 20-strong choir. Most members of the congregation at St Michael’s Community Church in Camberwell were Eritreans fleeing the fighting against
Ethiopian Woyanne soldiers in the East African region.
Father Yohannes Sibhatu, the parish priest, said: “She worshipped in this church and used to sing in the choir. She used to be very active, but in the last two years, for some reason, she was quite quiet.
“She was a nice girl, very likeable, and she may have had quite a few friends in the church. I am really shocked and really sorry for the family that this has happened. As a priest and as a member of the community – like everyone else – I am feeling very sad.”
One schoolfriend said: “She loved her church, and she doted over her brother and sister. She was loved, and loved others. We cannot believe it.”
Tragically, it appears that the church was at the centre of the cycle of events that led to Arsema’s death. Friends said that an older male worshipper had begun to take an unhealthy interest in her and as a result she had missed three recent Sunday services.
Mr Tesfaghiorgish said: “He wanted to marry her – he wanted her. But the family were not interested.”
Arsema and her mother complained to the police about the man on April 30. But 12 days later, when police tried to interview Arsema, she apparently failed to substantiate the accusations.
Mr Tesfaghiorgish said that he could not believe that the police had failed to act sooner after complaints had been filed. “The mother and the girl told the police a number of times that he had been harassing her. The police said they couldn’t take any action,” he said. “We are going to complain about this.”
Wayne Fort, a neighbour, said that he had seen a man arguing with one of Arsema’s female relatives two months ago. He said that the woman had been warning him to stay away.
“There was a chap who seemed to be infatuated with her. He seemed to have met her at the church,” he said. “I could see from the efforts of the elders of the family they were trying to get rid of the man.”
On Monday afternoon Arsema, dressed in her school uniform, stepped into the lift of her block of flats. It is believed that her attacker had lain in wait until she returned home from school.
Another neighbour, Cosima Paniza, heard Arsema arguing with a man on the staircase. “I went to put my rubbish in the chute and I heard the man and the girl arguing. I couldn’t get the words of the girl because she was shouting so loud. It sounded like he was threatening her,” she said.
Mr Fort’s partner and daughter found the teenager’s body. He said that his daughter had called him, screaming: “Daddy, Daddy, quick, come! The girl’s in the lift, she’s on the floor, there’s lots of blood.”
A blade was still sticking out of her side. The attack was so violent that part of the handle had snapped off.
An hour later officers arrested a man on suspicion of murder on the pedestrianised Hungerford Bridge in London, about half a mile from the crime scene. He had been spotted previously by passers-by apparently washing blood from his hands in a public lavatory next to the County Hall hotel.
He was later seen on the bridge, clinging to its side and talking into a mobile phone. He was arrested by two plainclothes officers wearing stab vests.
Yesterday, as postmortem examination on the schoolgirl took place, her fellow pupils were told of her death at a series of special assemblies. Many were left in tears at the announcement that their classmate was the 16th teenager to be murdered in London this year.
One schoolfriend said: “She was a very bubbly person. Almost kind of an angel. She was smiling all the time. I’ve heard a lot of things from different people but I don’t think she had a boyfriend. I never saw her with anyone.”
Cathy Loxton, the principal at Arsema’s school, the Harris Academy in Bermondsey, said “Arsema was a popular, friendly and well-behaved girl who had much to contribute to our school community.”
Arsema’s future had been considered so bright that to help to fulfil her potential she was being helped by a school mentor. Tirzah Bright, 22, overcome with emotion, could only say: “She was a very hard worker – she worked very hard. She was a nice girl. She didn’t deserve this to happen to her.”
12 day wait for police after complaint about stalker
Arsema had to wait 12 days for police to make contact after complaining that an alleged stalker had threatened to kill her.
Scotland Yard yesterday ordered an internal investigation into the actions of officers in the weeks leading up to the stabbing of the schoolgirl as she returned home on Monday.
The inquiry will focus on whether officers could have saved Arsema, who was found stabbed to death in a lift at the flats where she lived near Waterloo station, Central London.
The Times has learnt that Arsema and her mother gave police the name of a suspect who had assaulted and threatened to kill her, although it is not known whether she gave them the correct one.
The teenager, who sang in the choir at her local Eritrean church and celebrated her 15th birthday on Saturday, described the suspect as being aged 29 or 30. A man was arrested shortly after the killing in “an agitated state”. Although he is 21, police are confident that he is the suspect from the original inquiry.
The schoolgirl had gone to Kennington police station with her mother on April 30. She told officers that a man had assaulted her and threatened to kill her at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant on April 16.
The matter should have been dealt with quickly because it involved a young person, categorised by the police as being vulnerable.
The case was given to Southwark CID but it was not until May 12 that a Safer Schools officer spoke to the victim at her school, Harris Academy. However, Arsema denied any knowledge of the incident. A week later police contacted her mother and the inquiry was continuing when Arsema was killed.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: “The victim was unaware of the incident and had no knowledge of it. Despite this we continued to investigate the circumstances of the incident and Arsema’s mother was subsequently contacted on May 19.
“The investigation was being progressed when Arsema was tragically killed.”
He added: “It has been established that Arsema and the suspect knew each other but the exact nature of their relationship is unclear at this stage.”
Detectives from the Territorial Policing Violent Crime Directorate have started an internal review and part of their investigation will focus on what officers were doing for the 12 days before they visited the schoolgirl.
A source told The Times: “They will want to know what officers did and when. If they were given a name of a suspect, what did they do to try to trace him?”
It may be that officers went to the suspect’s address but he was not there or they did nothing. Investigators will want to know if the fact that the alleged victim was not cooperating influenced their actions.
A police officer said: “If it was an older man involved in the complaint you would hope that it would have raised flags with officers – he could have been a predatory paedophile.
“If officers knew where he was I would have hoped that they had gone round to speak to him. If they have not I would say they have been negligent in their duty of care to the victim.”
Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode, of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command, is investigating what happened in the weeks before Arsema was killed.
She said: “I am trying to establish the true nature of the relationship between Arsema and the man in custody. We are speaking to her family and friends to help to build a picture of events leading up to the murder.”