An Observer reporter travels to Texas to look for answers in the murder of a Katrina survivor.
By JULIA DAHL
DALLAS — I met Tyeisha Martin, 19, at a Red Cross shelter in McDonough, Ga., on a sunny September afternoon. She was barefoot, wearing a tank top and Capri jeans, waiting in line to get a tetanus shot.
I was on assignment for Seventeen magazine, and Tyeisha, whoâ€™d been driven from New Orleans by Katrina, agreed to be profiled. Over the next several days, as she waited for FEMA money and tried to decide where to go next, Tyeisha told me about her life. Sheâ€™d dropped out of high school in ninth grade, and had a baby at 17. She got a GED, and a job at a linen factory, and though she and her daughter, Daneisha, lived at home with her mom, Tyeisha told me she dreamed of getting her own place.
The evening before Katrina hit, Tyeisha took her daughter to her ex-boyfriendâ€™s apartment; he lived on the third floor and she thought Daneisha would be safer there. She spent the night with her sister, Quiana, and Quianaâ€™s boyfriend, Chuck. Before dawn, the water broke down their front door. Tyeisha was terrified as the water rose; she couldnâ€™t swim, and she started to think she was about to die. But Chuck and Quiana helped her, and together, the three of them climbed out the window, and found a door to float on. After several hours of paddling through the filthy water, they found a three-story house that had been abandoned, kicked in the window, and spent the night.
The next morning, the three refugees climbed up to the roof, and at the end of the day were lifted into the air by a soldier hanging by a rope from an Army helicopter. They spent several sweltering days in the gym at the University of New Orleans, and then finally boarded a bus to Atlanta, where Quiana had friends. Through Quianaâ€™s friends, and a serious of fortunate coincidences, Tyeisha got in touch with her mother, who had Daneisha, and was in Texas. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Ellis, was there, too. Tyeisha decided thatâ€™s where she should be.
On Friday, September 16, 2005, I dropped Tyeisha off at the Atlanta Greyhound station. She bought a ticket to Dallas and set off for the 15 hour ride.
Six months later, Tyeisha was dead. She was found, shot, off the side of a road in Fort Bend County, Texas. Her killer has never been found.
This is the story of how I, aided by the television show â€œAmericaâ€™s Most Wanted,â€ tried to find out what happened.
Friday, October 13
I meet Karen Daborowski and Sedg Eourison, the two producers from AMW, at the American Airlines terminal at BWI. Karen gives me the case file on Tyeisha to read on our flight to Dallas, where Tyeishaâ€™s mom, Cabrini, and her daughter, Daniesha, live. Tyeishaâ€™s sister, Quiana, is flying in from Atlanta. The police sketch of Tyeisha is photocopied on the front page of the file, and inside are notes Karen has taken from the sheriff investigating Tyeishaâ€™s murder. Some of the information is marked â€œoff the record.â€
I first heard about Tyeishaâ€™s murder from Quiana, who called me two days after her sisterâ€™s body was identified. I got online and found a small article in the Houston Chronicle with a sketch of Tyeisha and a number to call if you â€œhad any information.â€ I called and asked to speak to the detective in charge. He asked me to fax my Seventeen article about Tyeisha. The next day, a reporter from the Chronicle called and asked me what I remembered about Tyeisha.
â€œShe was beautiful,â€ I told him. â€œI mean, stunning.â€ And she was: 5 feet 8 inches tall, slim build, smooth skin, huge eyes, full lips. I remember thinking she should have tried out for “American’s Next Top Model.”
Karen must have seen the article he wrote about me and Tyeisha; how sheâ€™d survived Katrina, been stranded in Georgia, been featured in a national magazine, and then ended up dead in Texas.
â€œWeâ€™d like to interview you,â€ she said over the phone. â€œWe want to try to catch her killer.â€
â€œWhy do you need me?â€ I asked. â€œI donâ€™t know anything.â€
â€œI know this sounds crass,â€ she said, â€œbut girls are found dead in ditches every day. What makes her different is that she was in Seventeen.â€
I agreed to an interview, but the interview turned into a request to travel to Texas and film a whole segment starring me. I didnâ€™t want to do it. I hadnâ€™t watched it in years, but what I remembered about â€œAmericaâ€™s Most Wantedâ€ was that it was a mildly creepy combination of â€œCourt TVâ€ and â€œA Current Affair.â€ The show first aired in the 80s, hosted by a man named John Walsh whoâ€™d been thrust into the spotlight when his son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. Since then, though, theyâ€™ve caught more than 900 fugitives. Maybe theyâ€™d catch whoever killed Tyeisha. If I could help, I knew I had to.
We land in Dallas and take a shuttle bus to the rental car lot. Everything about the airport is big. It seems to have its own highway system, complete with overpasses, gas stations and toll plazas. There is a 30-foot wishbone at the security gate.
We meet the crew â€” David Barsotti, the sound guy, and Tom Overstreet, the cameraman â€” at a Whattaburger in Irving, Texas, about a mile outside the airport. David has me drop a mini-microphone down my blouse, and tapes it to my collar. I get in the driverâ€™s seat of our Jeep Cherokee. Sedg sits in back and Tom sits shotgun. Both men are pointing cameras at me.
â€œDrive,â€ they command. I do. But Iâ€™ve never driven anywhere with a camera on me, and I immediately try to go forward in park.
â€œYou boys scared?â€ I say, and peel out.
As we drive, Sedg asks me to talk about what weâ€™re doing.
â€œWell,â€ I say, â€œWe just landed in Dallas and weâ€™re on our way to Tyeishaâ€™s momâ€™s house.â€ Iâ€™m nervous, so Iâ€™m not really paying attention to my driving. The car in front of me, which happens to be Tomâ€™s (David and Karen are riding in it), slams on its brakes and I nearly hit it.
â€œPlease donâ€™t hit the Suburban,â€ says Tom, his camera still perched on his shoulder. â€œI havenâ€™t even made the first payment.â€
We pass through downtown Dallas; past the Crystal Palace and the American Airlines arena.
â€œYouâ€™re probably too young to remember,â€ says Tom, pointing to the sky, â€œbut the old TV show â€˜Dallasâ€™ started with an aerial view right here.â€
I ask him if he thinks Kinky Friedman is going to be the next governor, half jokingly. Most photographers and editors are lefties, but in Texas, well, you never know.
â€œIâ€™m voting for him,â€ says Tom.
As soon as we pull off the freeway, we are in a different part of town entirely. Downtown Dallas is glittering with glass buildings, but here, there are dilapidated used car part shops. We drive past a cemetery, a psychiatric facility, and a retirement village, then pull into a two-story apartment complex. As we load the camera equipment out of the cars, residents come out of their apartments and linger at the balconies.
â€œSomebody in trouble?â€ asks one man.
â€œNo,â€ says Sedg. â€œNo trouble.â€
They want to capture my reunion with Quiana so that itâ€™s real. There are two ways of doing reality-style TV: you can make it â€œreal,â€ or you can pretend. Throughout the weekend, we go back and forth.
I wait in the parking lot, checking my lipstick, pacing around the car, and generally trying to figure out how to greet Cabrini. The woman lost her daughter to a brutal murder not six months ago, and now Iâ€™m waltzing in with four people and two carloads worth of filming equipment. The point of all this is to find Tyeishaâ€™s killer; to convince somebody to come forward, to jog somebodyâ€™s memory. I agreed to being on camera because I donâ€™t think whoever murdered her should get away with it. I realize then that thatâ€™s probably why Cabrini agreed, too.
I knock on the door and thereâ€™s Quiana, looking gorgeousâ€”just liked I remember her.
â€œHey pretty girl,â€ I say. Iâ€™d been planning on saying something like, Hey sweetie. But sheâ€™s so pretty, and her smile is so wide and warm, thatâ€™s what comes out. We hug, and then I step in and see Cabrini. Iâ€™m not sure if I should hug her or shake her hand, I offer my hand first, tentatively, then step in and we hug. Sheâ€™s wearing a t-shirt with a photograph of Tyeisha and the dates she was born and died on it. Tyeisha never turned 20.
Behind Cabrini, three-year-old Daniesha is sitting on the sofa playing with Quianaâ€™s cell phone.
â€œHi sweetie,â€ I say, and kneel down to her level. She leans back, shy. I stick my tongue out at her and she smiles. I do it again.
â€œEw, nasty,â€ she says. I do it again and she laughs. She sticks her tongue out at me, and just like that, we are friends.
As the camera crew sets up lighting, I sit down and talk to Quiana and Cabrini. Cabrini tells me Daniesha is doing well in school, and that she immediately made friends with another little girl whose mother is dead. Cabrini shows me some pictures of Tyeisha when she was a little girl: Tyeisha in a red velvet party dress, a big white bow in her hair; Tyeisha in a jean skirt, posing; Tyeisha at the park by Lake Ponchetrain, three months pregnant with Daniesha.
Daniesha grabs one of the pictures.
â€œWhoâ€™s that Daniesha?â€ asks Quiana.
â€œThatâ€™s my mom.â€
The crew flips on the lights, mics everyone up, and we start talking on-camera, first about Katrina, then what Cabrini remembers about when Tyeisha first got to Texas. Tyeisha didnâ€™t want to stay in Dallas a day longer than she had to.
â€œShe was like, â€˜Mama itâ€™s all old people around here,â€™â€ says Cabrini.
So she took Daniesha and left for Houston, where her boyfriend lived. For the first time in her entire life, Tyeisha got her own apartment.
â€œShe was so excited,â€ says Cabrini. â€œShe said, â€˜Mama, thereâ€™s no rules. I can wake up when I want.â€™ I said, â€˜Lord, I wouldnâ€™t want to live where thereâ€™s no rules.â€™ â€
In February, Tyeisha stopped calling. On March 9, six months to the day after I met her, her body was found. Sheâ€™d been killed sometime the night before, left in a grassy ditch at the bend of a county road.
I am surprised that both women are calm in front of the camera. They donâ€™t seem comfortable, exactly, but neither cries until the very end of the evening, when Quiana says, exasperated, â€œWe survived Katrina, and then this. Itâ€™s just not right.â€
We stay in the little apartment for several hours. Cabrini and Quiana spread pictures of Tyeisha out on the kitchen table. There are several pictures of Tyeisha in her casket. Her face looks puffy. I canâ€™t imagine how they can look at those pictures. I canâ€™t even bring myself to think about what I would be like if something like this happened to my sister. But it is clear right away that Cabrini and Quiana are strong people. They will survive this. The question is, will Daniesha.
We check into the Hilton. I order room service, try to write, and at about midnight, fall asleep watching â€œLaw & Order.â€