Family of murdered girl had complained to police about obsessive stalker

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The Independent Online

The family of a teenager murdered in a frenzied knife attack had complained to police about an obsessive stalker who threatened to kill her just weeks before she died, it emerged yesterday.

Friends of Arsema Dawit said she had been an assaulted by a man who she had first met at an Eritrean church where she was a member of the choir. They said officers told them there was nothing they could do.

Arsema, who was described as a polite and well-behaved teenager who had celebrated her 15th birthday just three days earlier, was found stabbed up to 10 times in an attack in the lift of the block of flats where she lived with her family in south London.

"The mother told the police a number of times. The police said they couldn't take any action," said Simon Tesfaghiorgish, a friend of the family. "We are going to complain about this."

Scotland Yard confirmed yesterday that the teenager had complained of being attacked in a fast-food restaurant by a man who had threatened to kill her and that the investigation was continuing when she was murdered.

It also emerged last night that new security doors on the block of flats where Arsema's body was found had been left unlocked on the day of her murder. Initial reports suggested that her attacker had entered this way and lay in wait.

Arsema was discovered by a young mother and her nine-year-old daughter. They returned home to Matheson Lang House near Waterloo Station to the find the teenager, still clad in her school uniform, slumped in the lift. Wayne Fort said his daughter had rushed to bang on his door, crying: "Daddy, daddy, quick, come! The girl's in the lift, she's on the floor, there's lots of blood." The victim's wounds were so severe that paramedics, who were on scene within minutes, could not save her.

A 21-year-old man, who was arrested shortly after, was still being questioned at a south London police station last night.

Arsema – who was the 16th teenager to be murdered in the capital this year – lived on the fourth floor of the block of flats with her mother, Tsehay, older sister, Faruz, and younger brother, Robel.

The schoolgirl's family, who are from Eritrea, were said to be inconsolable and unable to comprehend fully what had happened.

Packed into two small rooms, many buried their faces in their hands as they sobbed openly. Her friend Berekati Asfeday said: "Her mother can't talk, just cry, cry, cry, non-stop cry.

"She was in the church with me, she was a singer. She was a beautiful girl, just a beautiful girl."

Cathy Loxton, the principal at Arsema's school, the Harris Academy in Bermondsey, one of the Government's flagship schools, said many of her fellow pupils had had to be sent home after they had heard the news of the death.

She added: "Arsema was a popular, friendly and well-behaved girl who had much to contribute to our school community."

"She was a bubbly person. Almost kind of an angel. She was smiling all the time," said one school friend, explaining that Arsema, who had initially struggled with her English, had been studying for GCSE exams.

Father Yohannes Sibhatu, leader of St Michael's Community Church in Camberwell, where Arsema had been a regular in the choir along with her older sister, added: "I am really very shocked. I feel very sorry for the family that this tragedy has happened."

Acknowledging claims that the youngster had met her stalker at his church, he remained adamant that he had never been aware of any other congregation members harassing her. He would have contacted the police, he added.

But Mr Fort said he had seen an argument between a man and Arsema's sister two months earlier, in which the young woman had been shouting: "Stay away from my sister, don't touch her."

"There was a chap who seemed to be infatuated with her," he added. "He seemed to have met her at the church. I could see from the efforts of the elders of the family that they were trying to get rid of the man."

A Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed yesterday that Arsema and her family had gone to Kennington police station on 30 April to complain that the youngster had been an assaulted by a man in a McDonald's restaurant on Walworth Road, south-east London, two weeks earlier, and he had threatened to kill her.

The spokesman said: "The allegation was investigated by officers from Southwark Police CID. As part of this investigation, on 12 May a Safer Schools officer spoke to the victim at her school. However, 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 19 May. The investigation was still being progressed when Arsema was tragically murdered yesterday," he added. Detective Chief Inspector Caroline Goode of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command said: "We are speaking to her family and friends to help build a picture of events leading up to the murder and to help piece together the relationship between them."

After neighbours complained of broken security doors at the block of flats, new ones had been installed last week, a spokeswoman for Lambeth Council explained. Occupants were given a period of time to collect their key fobs before the new doors became operational and therefore they had not been locked at the time of the attack.