The Last Word

They've fought for justice for nine years, but time is running out

The photos taken by sheriff's deputies on August 9, 1995, are startling in their detail: A young man is sprawled across the front seat of his 13-year-old Mercedes, his corduroys and bare chest covered with blood.

Other than the blood, Fehmi's car is spotless in the photos. Cans of Lysol line the car door's map pouch; a pine-shaped air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror.

Danaj's house was messy, his gun in plain sight.
Danaj's house was messy, his gun in plain sight.
Fehmi's blood spattered his car.
Fehmi's blood spattered his car.

Meanwhile, Danaj's cottage down the street was a mess. Danaj had no running water, so the photos show a porch with plastic jugs of water, soap and a razor. Bullet shells litter the porch floor; neighbors told deputies they often heard gunshots from the cottage.

Inside, old magazines, clothes and crayons are piled carelessly. There's no stove or refrigerator, just a karaoke machine. When Fehmi arrived that day, Danaj was eating lunch; the photos show peppers in an electric skillet, balanced carefully on a cardboard box in front of the TV.

Danaj insists Fehmi came into his cottage and attacked him, and he shot in self-defense. But, as even the sheriff's report notes, the pictures show no signs of a struggle. "If they fought," Lisa asks plaintively, "why wouldn't things be knocked over?"

In a case where emotions overshadow hard evidence, speculation has been rampant. The Halilis are convinced that Fehmi came to Bacliff to confront Danaj about something Danaj wanted to keep quiet. Misho Ivic, who gave Johnny his first job oystering, suggests Danaj may have made rude comments about a family friend. More than anything, he says, Danaj resented the Halilis. "The problem is, they came from the same area. One succeeds, one doesn't. The one that doesn't hates the other really bad."

The story in the sheriff's reports seems far from complete. Fehmi spent the morning at a dry dock with another Prestige employee, 46-year-old Avdiraim Hisenaj, fiberglassing a boat.

Just before 1 p.m., the two men headed to Skinneroo's restaurant in Bacliff, one block from Danaj's cottage. They were supposed to meet Fehmi's dad and brother. Instead, they called Danaj to say they were coming over.

Neighbors reported hearing Hisenaj and Fehmi arguing in a foreign language outside the cottage. Later they heard a gunshot, a pause and another shot. Then a neighbor witnessed Fehmi's car careen down the street, driverless, with Hisenaj chasing behind and shouting, "He's been shot!"

The car rolled into a ditch. Fehmi's body had fallen across the front seat. His chest was spurting blood.

At 1:12, Danaj called 911. He was very upset, the dispatcher reported. "Vehicle in the ditch, kill, kill," her notes record him saying.

When Galveston County sheriff's deputies arrived, Danaj told them Fehmi showed up and began "boxing" him. Danaj said he "boxed Fehmi for a little bit and then shot him."

Because Danaj's English was limited, it's unclear if he actually meant there was fighting instead of boxing. But no neighbors had seen a physical altercation. While Danaj displayed a few razor-thin cuts on his forearm and a line of blood dripping from one ear, there were no signs of a serious beating.

And despite the neighbors' testimony about what they heard, he insisted he'd shot only once. Danaj owned two guns, a revolver and a semiautomatic, and both had been fired, according to the sheriff's report. The bullet that killed Fehmi matched Danaj's semiautomatic.

However, deputies also found a gun in Fehmi's pants pocket. There was no indication he'd even displayed it that day, although Danaj claimed he'd grabbed his gun because he saw Fehmi's first. (Fehmi was carrying more than $1,000 cash at the time; relatives say he had the gun for protection.)

Fehmi's companion, Hisenaj, hardly cleared up the confusion. He claimed that Fehmi had dropped him at the restaurant and he had no idea what happened. Hisenaj had an arrest record for domestic disputes and driving under the influence, and the deputies concluded he was lying, according to reports.

But instead of pushing harder, the deputies let him go. And instead of arresting Danaj or taking him in for further questioning, they let him go, too.

A week later, Hisenaj returned with a lawyer. He said he'd lied because he was afraid.

Then he told a different story: Fehmi had wanted to pay Danaj, but Danaj pulled Fehmi onto the porch and beat him. Danaj took out his gun, Fehmi put his hands up and they walked into the house. There was a gunshot. Fehmi ran out, spitting blood. Danaj fired a second shot as Fehmi staggered into his car and tried to drive away.

Parts of the story still didn't compute. Hisenaj couldn't explain why he'd been arguing with Fehmi shortly before the gunshots, as witnesses had reported; he said they hadn't talked. And he had no explanation for Danaj's attack.

However, his statement was damning. He was an eyewitness, and he'd identified Danaj as the aggressor, contradicting the self-defense claim.

But Danaj was already gone. When the deputies let him go after the shooting, he cleaned out his bank account and fled Texas. By the time Hisenaj gave his statement, Danaj was frantically driving east.

On the Saturday after the murder, Galveston County sheriff's officers received a call from their counterparts in Chesapeake, Maryland. A deputy there explained that they'd stopped a car with expired Texas plates and a shattered windshield. The driver, Haki Danaj, professed to speak little English, but a search of his car found $3,000 cash -- and a business card for the sheriff in Galveston.

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