Santa Rosa Eritrean Man Killed, Search for Killer Continues
Cirak Tesfazgi with his family.
By Julie Johnson | The Press Democrat
Cirak Tesfazgi appeared to have set up camp around midnight Monday morning in a downtown Santa Rosa doorway alcove.
Although he often slept on the street, Tesfazgi, 32, was not without a home. He had a key to his mother’s apartment above Sam’s Market on Humboldt Street in the Santa Rosa Junior College neighborhood, less than a mile away.
A college graduate with a love of poetry, for years a fixture at downtown cafes, a first-generation American whose wide smile was readily recognized by strangers, Tesfazgi suffered more than 50 stab wounds early Monday morning, likely caused by a bent chef’s knife police found on the ground near the alcove at 418 Riley St.
Police released new details Tuesday of the predawn killing after an autopsy revealed the extent of the vicious attack that occurred sometime around or after 12 a.m. Monday.
The unknown killer remained at large Tuesday.
“We have not found anything to indicate he had enemies, or was participating in any type of activity that would create enemies,” Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Josh Ludtke said.
Ludtke said detectives hoped the knife would help lead them to the killer. Investigators suspect the knife was newly bought or stolen, and they were canvassing downtown businesses for any recent thefts.
Tesfazgi was well known to officers who patrol downtown, Ludtke said, merely because he was always there. He also was recognized by people in the homeless community but wasn’t known to associate with them.
Three of Santa Rosa’s four homicides this year have been transients. It’s a stark number in a city that has averaged less than four homicides annually over the past 10 years.
The transients killed this year shared little in common apart from spending nights sleeping outdoors.
Officials have estimated 2,000 people are living without permanent shelter in Sonoma County — with another 1,000 in temporary shelters — a homelessness rate higher than San Francisco and three times the national average of about 18 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population.
Tesfazgi was one of six siblings and a member of Sonoma County’s tight-knit Eritrean community. His mother, Elsa Tewoldeberhan, said her son was an excellent student, a graduate of Santa Rosa High School and Sonoma State University.
“He was always an A student, he was never in trouble, his whole life,” Tewoldeberhan said.
|Cirak earned a literature degree|
Staff at the Sonoma County Library on Tuesday published a photo to social media of Tesfazgi’s three self-published poetry chapbooks, or pamphlets, that are part of the library’s Local Author’s collection.
Tewoldeberhan said she saw her son sometimes every day, sometimes just a couple times a week. She saw him last week, perhaps Tuesday, when he came home to eat, shower and rest. She went downtown on Saturday to try to find him at the library and coffee shops where he was often seen, but he wasn’t there.
She said after her son graduated college, he appeared to develop depression or some related affliction that she could not identify. Tewoldeberhan said she took her son to a counselor but he didn’t want help.
“The doctor told me, he has to be willing to say, ‘I am sick,’ ” she said. “I thought hopefully one day he’ll be ready to say something.”
Tesfazgi’s poetry tumbled onto the page in dense clauses, such as “the bead of braken fractal, the furcate of opal utility in spate” and “In whence beginning beganst best to begin?”
Family friend Celeste Austin, special programs director with the Living Room day center for homeless women and children, said she and others can’t help but wonder what they might have done to help Tesfazgi and his family. She gave him a few dollars for a poem when she’d see him downtown.
“It is just heartbreaking this is how he left this earth, so violently and with this kind of ... negativity,” Austin said. “His death is really affecting this community in a different kind of way.”
The most raw and intimate grief over Tesfazgi’s death was shared Tuesday inside the open door of his mother’s garage on Humboldt Street.
Starting Monday and into the hot afternoon Tuesday, women in head scarves poured each other cups of coffee and shared tears, passing boxes of tissues and taking turns washing dishes in the upstairs apartment. His father, Matthew Tesfazgi of San Ramon, sat with other men under a tent set up outside. Family friend Azamit Gebrekidan of Santa Rosa said friends would stay with the family for days, cooking, cleaning and comforting.
“They’re not supposed to be alone and crying,” Gebrekidan said.
Tewoldeberhan was at times composed, looking through binders for her son’s diplomas. Then another friend would arrive, embrace her and grief would overcome her.
“Where am I going to find him? Can you help me? Can you help me? I pray for him,” Tewoldeberhan said. “Help me find my son, I’ll pay anything.”
Born Cirak Mateos Tesfazgi at San Francisco General Hospital, he grew up one of six siblings: older sisters Ariam and Walta, his younger sisters Dalpak and Seghen, and his little brother Moab, who goes by Eddy.
Tewoldeberhan until recently worked as a medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa, and said she mainly raised the children on her own. They moved to Santa Rosa when Tesfazgi was about 3 years old because she wanted to send her children to better schools.
“That’s what I wanted, a life for him, Tewoldeberhan said. “Now, he’s gone.”
Ocean Bent of Santa Rosa, a friend of Tesfazgi’s from their years at Santa Rosa High School, said they were part of a pack of four boys, best friends. They loved basketball, went jet skiing on Lake Berryessa, took trips together to Lake Tahoe and a senior trip to Hawaii. He described Tesfazgi as a free spirit with an old soul.
“He was very intelligent and always had an opinion,” Bent said.
Bent — seated next to Tewoldeberhan in her living room as women bustled in the kitchen — said the friends fell out of touch after high school, but would run into each other at Peet’s Coffee or Flying Goat when Bent returned to the city to visit family.
Tesfazgi took classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College and Butte College in Oroville before enrolling at Sonoma State University, school officials said. He earned an English literature degree in 2011.
“It’s just shocking, I remember someone so vibrant and loving, and I want to hold on to that memory,” Bent said.
Family friend Tsehaynesh Gebru of Windsor said she was shocked to hear what had happened to Tesfazgi, whom she emphatically described as “very smart, very smart.”
“When things like this happen, we come together, we take care of the family,” Gebru said.
For police, Ludtke said that they need the public’s help narrowing the time frame for when the attack may have occurred. He encouraged anyone who might have seen any activity on Riley Street to contact police. He also asked anyone with information about stolen or lost knives, or about the case, to contact the Santa Rosa Police Department’s violent crimes team at 543-3590.
Cirak on a trip to Eritrea in 2008
The scene where Cirak was brutally stabbed to death
Cirak's mother. Elsa Tewoldeberhan mourning the death of her son
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