The Full 90

Family of former soccer pro can’t accept shame of suicide ruling

“It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it.”

— from the African novel “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

More than a year after her husband’s death, Ify Okafor asks God to erase the details from her memory. That image first seen from the corner of her eye, darkness against a white wall. For a moment she thought her husband was playing a prank.

That was Jan. 6, 2011, the day Ify found her 43-year-old husband, former Kansas City Wizards soccer player Uche Okafor, hanged by jumper cables in their suburban Dallas home. Now, she sits in a hotel meeting room nearby, wiping tears from her cheeks. Time is soothing, but it is no cure.

“There was no life,” she says. “I held him.”

At first, she prayed for answers. Why would her husband end his own life? For Nigerian Igbos such as the Okafors, suicide is seen as the ultimate sin. In their West African culture, a man who kills himself is to be shamed, buried in secrecy and forgotten. His accomplishments and relationships, no matter how they were once celebrated, disappear inside the shroud of self-inflicted death.

Then an answer came, and though it was illogical, Ify and those closest to her husband grasped it. It allowed them the comfort of knowing their brother and friend’s soul was free, his body suitable for a hero’s burial. Uche, they determined, had been murdered — his killers had staged the scene to appear as if he’d hanged himself. It didn’t make perfect sense, but to them it made more sense than suicide.

“I do not believe Uche is capable of taking his own life,” says Victor Onyeujo, a longtime friend.

In the last 17 months, the uncertainty surrounding Uche’s death has rippled through a nation and ignited battles. In the time since, Ify has also asked God to help the local authorities, the Little Elm, Texas, Police Department, whose detectives kept insisting that Uche killed himself. Uche’s first cousin accused the police of cheating his fallen relative out of a thorough investigation. Word spread in Igbo and international soccer circles that the department’s work was shoddy; that, despite the police accounts, the body Ify had discovered lacked the telltale signs of a suicide. Later, the Nigerian government publicly considered getting involved, and African media reported that the FBI had determined that, yes, Uche Okafor had been murdered.

“I believe God will expose them,” Ify says now of her husband’s killers, her eyes direct and her voice strong.

So many months after her husband’s death, the family’s search for truth continues.

“The way the whole picture looks,” Onyeujo says, “it looks like one of those mysteries that can never be solved.”

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village.

— Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart,” on the reputation of his main character, Okonkwo

Months after Uche’s death, a middle-aged man named Ugo Nwaokoro sits against a wall and talks about his first cousin, speaking over the beating of drums. It’s after 2 a.m. on a December night in Newark, N.J., and a party for another dead man has been going for hours.

Ugo and Uche grew up together in Nigeria’s Imo state. In those days, they and their relatives would tie rags together, kicking them across the brown fields like the men who played on the world’s great pitches. Uche spent his time honing his soccer skills and reading books. One of his favorites was a work of fiction called “Things Fall Apart,” the story of a Nigerian former athlete named Okonkwo, who challenges the Igbo (pronounced EE-boh) notion of destiny versus free will. The character becomes wealthy and respected before a stark change of fortune; his final years are spent contemplating a return to the life he once knew. Uche saw himself in Okonkwo, who would use sports to bring integrity to his family.

Uche’s soccer skills improved as he grew, and at 19 he joined the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s national team. With Uche as a defender, the Super Eagles won the 1994 African Cup of Nations, and he also was a member of his home country’s first two World Cup teams.

“The golden generation of Nigerian soccer,” says Mac Nwulu, another of Uche’s friends.

In 1996, the year Major League Soccer came to Kansas City, Uche was the Wizards’ ninth-round draft pick. He went on to become a captain and one of the team’s most popular players. He closed his professional career in 2000 after the franchise reached its pinnacle, winning the MLS Cup.

By the time Uche and Ify arrived in Kansas City, they had a 14-month-old daughter who had been born in Washington, D.C. They named her Lorraine Tochukwu, a nod to her American birth and her Igbo roots. Teaching her the Nigerian way was important to the new parents, but she would learn much of it during difficult times in her late teens.

“He wanted me to understand,” Lorraine Tochukwu said.

Among Igbos, a Nigerian ethnic group whose beliefs are rooted in Christianity, there are few things more important than bidding a proper farewell to a fallen countryman. The funeral is the last great party, a reflection of years and achievements, and a celebration of the legacy that lives on.

When Uche died, the suspicion of suicide was in the air. Because of the severity of this taboo, some of Uche’s friends decided to skip his memorial service in Dallas and funeral in Nigeria. Ugo worked quickly to reassure them that Uche did not die by his own hands. Acting as the family’s spokesman, Ugo told reporters in Africa that suicide had been “completely ruled out.” The disgrace lay not on Uche’s shoulders, Ugo said, but on those wearing the badges in Little Elm. He told friends that, when a man hangs himself, there are unmistakable signs: his tongue protrudes from his lips, for instance. Ugo insisted those signs were not there.

So late on this December night, children dance in a parking lot, stepping in time with the music. More than 100 people have gathered at a chapel in Newark for the wake ceremony for Chief Izegbu, an Igbo leader who died recently in Nigeria. Even long after midnight, friends and relatives tell stories about the departed, and when the chief’s son lifts an oversized photograph of his father, they throw wads of cash toward him.

“This is goodbye,” Ugo says, his eyes puffy.

Nearly a year ago, he decided that Uche wouldn’t be denied a day like this.

Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.

— Achebe, on the value of muted sentiment

In the weeks following Uche’s death, the search is on. Family and friends will remember him as happy and friendly. Who would’ve killed someone so lively and kind? Who could’ve pulled off the perfect crime?

“Uche apparently had enemies,” Ify says, “but I didn’t know.”

After retiring from soccer, Uche made his living by exporting expensive cars; there was a Mercedes in the garage on the day he died, ready to be shipped to an associate in Nigeria. He also worked part-time for ESPN as a soccer analyst, a taste of his old life. Ify is a nurse, and the family lived in an upscale neighborhood. Public records reveal no bankruptcy filings or significant debt, and Ify says money was never a problem.

The family begs the Little Elm police to search for Uche’s killer. Why are investigators being stubborn? Ugo says that a Little Elm detective downplayed Uche’s death, telling Ugo that Uche might be important in Nigeria, but in Texas he is just another man.

Ify says her husband showed no hints of depression in the days and weeks before his death. Nurses, she says, are trained to spot these indicators.

“No matter how they hide it,” she says, “there is something in him that you see.”

After her father’s death, a fight rages that Lorraine Tochukwu does not fully comprehend. Her mother and uncle tell her little about Uche’s passing. She hears that Ugo, who in 1991 moved from Nigeria to New Jersey, is squabbling with police about how her father died. There is a disagreement that has become increasingly tense.

Five weeks pass, and finally there is a reckoning. The family travels to Nigeria, past the brown fields where Uche had once played, through villages whose residents had heard distressing things from America but are relieved when word of a conclusion reaches them. Nigerian news outlets report that the American FBI has overruled the Little Elm police; one of their heroes has not done the unthinkable. The Vanguard, a Nigerian newspaper, publishes a story in late January stating that a source close to the Okafor family has seen a preliminary FBI report that confirms Uche was murdered, though his killer has not yet been identified.

The Nigerian consulate, based in Atlanta, pressures the police to be thorough. The nation’s foreign affairs minister, Odein Ajumogobia, says in January 2011 that, depending on the FBI’s findings, Nigeria’s government could choose to involve itself in the name of uncovering the truth for one of its sons. Ugo threatens to sue the Little Elm Police Department and Tarrant County, whose medical examiner initially rules Uche’s death a suicide — then, in late January, backs off that ruling, changing the cause of death to “pending.”

“The village is satisfied, the tribe is satisfied,” Ugo will say months later. “No matter what the white man says over there.”

So they gather on Feb. 17 at Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri, the capital of Imo, thousands of them, as the remaining members of the 1994 Nigerian World Cup soccer team carry Uche’s copper-hued casket to the sideline. The onlookers who can’t get in follow the car until the gates halt them, and then they stand there and cry.

“I felt like they loved him almost as much as we did,” says Lorraine Tochukwu, now 17. “They felt like it was their son and their father that they lost.”

On this February day in 2011, Uche’s former Super Eagles teammates form a side, and players from the Imo State All-Stars form another. They play an honorary friendly to a 1-all tie. Ify sits beside her daughter in the grandstands, and they sob as Uche’s former teammates surround the referee for the closing ceremony. The man slowly blows air into a whistle, a solemn note, then lifts Uche Okafor’s final red card. This is their way of saying goodbye.

“I took the body home,” Ugo says. “He got a befitting burial, because they knew.”

And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent that even the village rain-maker no longer claimed to be able to intervene. He could not stop the rain now, just as he would not attempt to start it in the heart of the dry season, without serious danger to his own health.

— Achebe, on the difficulties ahead for Okonkwo

In the days after Uche’s death, the Little Elm detective leaves business cards with phone numbers and pleas scrawled onto them. It is standard procedure, but already the pressure is mounting.

Oscar Hinojosa, a heavyset and soft-spoken man, knows the score: a mistake could lead to a mild international incident. Like those in Uche’s circle, Hinojosa wants to know what happened in the hours between Uche dropping his daughter off at school and Ify discovering her dead husband. There are no signs of forced entry or struggle, and the investigation reveals no unusual fingerprints. The house is immaculate, as Uche always kept it, and no suicide note is found.

While Hinojosa waits for clues, Ugo occasionally confronts the detective in Little Elm, cordial at times and, Hinojosa says, threatening at others. Sometimes he brings along an attorney or a Nigerian diplomat. Once, Ugo shows up with an independent forensic pathologist named Matthias Okoye, a fellow Igbo whom Uche’s family enlisted to perform a second autopsy. Okoye determines that Uche didn’t hang himself; he was strangled. Okoye later tells The Kansas City Star that he found bruises on Uche’s torso and additional bruising on his throat, suggesting he was attacked. The Tarrant County autopsy report finds no such torso bruising and only a one-inch-wide bruise on Uche’s throat, consistent with the width of jumper cables.

Okoye never sends his conclusion to the Little Elm police. Ugo, who still insists that Uche’s tongue wasn’t protruding (police photographs reviewed by The Star showed that it was), discloses few details of his cousin’s death, saying the family’s investigation is ongoing.

Ugo shares his theories with Hinojosa and his commanders. That the killer sneaked into the home, injected Uche with a sedative, and hanged him in the hallway. Or that Uche refused to defend himself when faced with his murderer and simply allowed his death to be carried out. Some of the theories are difficult even for Uche’s family to believe.

“He would fight,” his daughter says.

Hinojosa listens to everything Ugo has to say, but when he asks for proof, there is none.

“They are trying to convince me that it was a homicide,” Hinojosa recalls. “ ‘No, no, it was a homicide; he couldn’t have done it.’ OK, show me evidence that could lead me to believe you, or show me something that I’m not seeing.”

Ify discovers one of Uche’s undershirts beneath the downstairs sink; she believes her fastidious husband would never have left it there and that this is evidence that someone else had been in the house that day. Later, they find a handwritten prayer request folded into a bible at church. Among the 12 lines, it asks for health and life, for God’s grace, and for Uche’s destiny to be fulfilled. It also asks for prayers against “confusion in my marriage (and) family,” and against fear. The family sees this as proof Uche wanted to live. The police view it as his way of saying goodbye.

Hinojosa later hears from a reporter in Nigeria that Uche had been “depressed” about something he had learned shortly before his death: bad news regarding a job opportunity in his homeland.

Even Ify’s initial reaction is that Uche had committed suicide. When Little Elm police Officer Cris Trevino arrives at the Okafors’ home that January afternoon, his uniform microphone captures Ify’s response to discovering her husband: “Uche hung himself! Oh, Jesus!” she is clearly heard saying on audio reviewed by The Star. “He’s going to hell. He’s going to hellfire!” Ify later denies saying this.

Through it all, Hinojosa keeps an open mind. He holds weekly meetings with his superiors, asking if he has missed anything. He consults with a Texas Ranger to check his approach against that of a statewide investigator.

“Have we done this? Yes. Have we done this? Yes,” Hinojosa recalls of the discussions. “What else can you do?”

One day, Ugo comes into the Little Elm station alone. He explains what suicide means in Igbo culture; that his cousin will be shamed, and so will his family. An honorary funeral will be impossible, and this will bring darkness over those who saw Uche as a beacon. If nothing else, Ugo asks that day, what can they do to allow Uche a proper burial?

Hinojosa explains that he lacks the authority to change the cause of death. He advises Ugo to write to the medical examiner’s office requesting that, during the wait for toxicology results, the cause is changed to pending. Ugo makes his request and, according to police records, insists that “after that he didn’t care what they wrote as the cause of death.”

“He said: ‘Once the burial’s done, we’ll be OK,’” Hinojosa says.

The medical examiner obliges, and Uche is buried in Nigeria amid a great celebration. Now that the funeral is finished, Uche’s body will not be disturbed. The toxicology results return no findings of chemicals in Uche’s system, and in April 2011 the cause of death is again marked as suicide. The investigation is closed.

Later, the phone rings again in Hinojosa’s office, and this time it is a reporter from Complete Sports, a publication based in Nigeria. He asks when the FBI will release its full report. Hinojosa responds with some surprising news: The FBI isn’t involved in the investigation. It never has been. Despite the story circulating among Uche’s family and in his homeland, the bureau and the Little Elm police haven’t even spoken about Uche’s case.

“A complete fabrication,” Hinojosa says.

Mark White, an FBI spokesman in the Dallas office, says the bureau wouldn’t investigate a suicide or homicide unless the case showed evidence of a civil rights violation. White adds that the FBI wouldn’t simply overtake a local investigation; a department would request its assistance.

“We’d be working hand in hand with them,” he says.

Hinojosa says hope might suggest one thing, but the evidence has never suggested anything but suicide.

“There’s no other explanation,” says Hinojosa, a 19-year veteran of the department. “I wish there was.”

Okonkwo … was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years.

— Achebe, on his main character’s quest to resume his old life

In the hours after her father’s death, Lorraine Tochukwu is fighting. She argues with family members who roam the house, removing some photographs of Uche and turning others on their face so that his eyes cannot follow them. Ify refuses to enter rooms where pictures of her husband look back at her.

“There was so much fear of the unknown,” Ify says.

Lorraine Tochukwu remains split between two countries, two cultures. She sees her mother change into black clothing, which Ify will wear each day for the next six months. She hears whispers about how her father died, but because she is still seen as young, they deny her the details. In Nigeria, children are not allowed to defy their elders by asking questions.

“When time gets there,” Ify says more than a year later, “I will tell her.”

Lorraine Tochukwu is irate when family members slip into her room to retrieve photographs, including a collage from the family’s days in Kansas City. She searches for details of her father’s death on the Internet. She knows the Igbo way, but it’s not a perfect fit for her. Her father understood this. After years in America, he too occasionally felt trapped between two worlds.

“He had a different way of doing things,” Lorraine Tochukwu says.

One day before his death, Uche came to her with a book in his hand, its pages old and weathered. He told her that he had carried it with him since he was a boy. Now, he wanted his daughter to have it. She looked at its title: “Things Fall Apart.” Within its narrative, there were similarities in the paths taken by Uche and the main character, Okonkwo. Though Uche did not spoil the ending for his daughter, Okonkwo is exiled from his village, fails in his attempt at redemption and later hangs himself from a tree.

“He would say that it would show me, in detail, the Igbo culture, like when it started off,” she says. “That’s really what he wanted me to see.”

The night before her father died, Lorraine Tochukwu and her parents had an argument. Ify was the disciplinarian, Uche the softy. Their daughter had been moody, and Uche found her crying in her bedroom. He told her to turn to God, and then she slept.

Months later, these conversations seem poignant and meaningful. She says she wishes she had paid closer attention to the words, capturing the emotions in a jar and inhaling them now like a dried flower.

“It’s hard for me to cry about it anymore, because it’s mostly like this happy thing,” Lorraine Tochukwu says. “I know he’s not here anymore, and I can’t do anything. But at least I can remember.”

Uche drove her to school the next morning, and nothing seemed unusual. He had spent much of December in Jamaica, calling a tournament for ESPN, and it was around that time that an opportunity presented itself. Uche had for years hoped to return to Nigeria and again become part of the nation’s soccer tradition. He learned late in 2010 that the Nigeria Football Federation was considering him to join its technical committee, a group that oversees teams and coaches. This, former friend and ESPN colleague Nwulu says, was one of Uche’s dream jobs.

“There were two things he wanted: To join the Nigerian Football Federation marketing committee or the technical committee,” Nwulu says. “Whatever it was, he always wanted to be part of Nigerian football.”

Late that year, Uche began hinting that big things were ahead.

“He was talking about maybe having something good happening,” says Tommy Smyth, a soccer play-by-play man who worked alongside Uche in Jamaica. “He didn’t really divulge to us what it was, but he said: ‘Oh, you’ll hear from me in the future.’”

When the new year approached, Uche called Ugo and told his cousin to “get ready.” He believed 2011 would offer big things, and in time, he would return to Nigeria. But first, Uche was going home for his daughter’s birthday. She would turn 16 in late January.

Lorraine Tochukwu rode with her father on that fateful morning. Before they reached the school, she turned to him. Vulnerable from the night before, she told Uche about the things that frightened her. Then she asked her dad a question: What is your greatest fear?

After a moment, he told her. It is being unable to provide for his family.

Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend’s dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog. …” He could not say any more. His voice trembled and choked his words.

— Achebe, on Okonkwo’s suicide

In the minutes before his death, Uche climbs into his unfinished overhead attic. Little Elm police reports and photographs show how he loops one end of the jumper cables around two planks, the teeth of the clamps biting into one of the boards. The rest of the cable drops into the hallway.

Earlier in the morning, Uche had called his friend Onochie Anibeze, the group sports editor of the Vanguard. Anibeze would later write that Uche sought an update on the Nigerian Football Federation’s committee appointments. Uche learned the news: He had been passed over for the technical committee job, the one he badly wanted and the opportunity that would’ve pushed him back into soccer’s spotlight. After discussing positions available on other committees, the men ended their conversation.

When another friend calls later that morning, Uche tells him, according to statements to the police, that he is unable to talk because he needs to “get something done inside of his house.” The friend calls back several times, getting no answer; he then dials Ify to alert her. After several unanswered calls by Ify, she leaves work and rushes home.

Wearing a white, long-sleeved polo shirt and faded jeans, Uche pulls a black folding chair into the hallway, its seat covered with a thin layer of dust. He sets it beneath the attic. Police photographs from the scene show that Uche leaves his phone and a pair of ankle socks on the staircase bannister, not far from where a Kansas City Wizards poster hangs in the hallway.

What happens next will cause those closest to him to struggle for answers. It will lead them to construct and embrace a myth of denial and implausibility that starts small but then grows, giving life to questions that, more than a year later, cause pain they cannot ease. They will ask God for the truth. What happened, and why? Many of them say that they will never believe that Uche killed himself, even if they are shown indisputable proof.

“I pray: Will God open my eyes and say: ‘Son, don’t weep no more;


is what happened,’” his old friend, Victor Onyeujo, says. “That will help me to move on.”

Knowing would be painful, Onyeujo says. But not knowing is worse. Regardless of homeland and culture, sometimes learning the truth isn’t nearly as difficult as accepting it.

“A dead man doesn’t have any shame,” Ify says. “Shame goes to the people that are alive.”

Uche slides off his leopard-print slippers, leaving them next to the chair. He steps barefoot onto the seat, cutting a footprint in the dust, and ties a single-loop knot around his neck. He closes the attic door above him, pinching the cable and leaving no slack.

Then his left foot slides backward, the seat tilts upward, and his toes pull five lanes of dust off the seat’s edge.