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Short of the Goal: A Soccer Hopeful, Murdered

As the Indy Eleven prepare to take the field for a season opener on April 12, a tragedy on the sidelines remains unsolved.

Of the 37 hopefuls scheduled to compete for roster spots on the new Indy Eleven soccer team last July 25, perhaps none wanted it more than Felix Achoch. Since arriving in Indy from Kenya three years earlier, the lanky 21-year-old striker had wandered around the Midwest and the East Coast, looking for a contract with a professional soccer team. His talent was undeniable: In amateur matches, he routinely outclassed opposing defenses, dancing past them in his bright-orange cleats with ease and scoring from anywhere within 30 yards. But as the hour arrived to begin the Indy Eleven tryouts, only 36 players had reported. Achoch was a no-show.

Members of the coaching staff, dressed in red polos, huddled near the center of the field. The players—hailing from as near as Carmel and as far as Italy—jogged casually, warming up for a grueling two-day audition. On the sidelines, James Cormack, a Scotsman who had befriended Achoch months earlier, and Huss Sadri, the coach of Indy Inter FC, a local amateur team on which Achoch was the star forward, waited nervously. For weeks, the two had put their credibility on the line by lobbying the Indy Eleven to give him a tryout. Sadri called Achoch’s cell phone six times. In between shooting video and photos, Cormack tried reaching Achoch, too. But their calls went unanswered.

Cormack pleaded Achoch’s case with Juergen Sommer, the Indy Eleven’s head coach, who agreed to delay tryouts for 20 minutes. It wasn’t like Achoch to blithely blow off any opportunity to play soccer, let alone one so consequential to fulfilling his dream to compete professionally. “We were extremely frustrated,” Sadri says. “The tryout started. The coach was willing to let Achoch come in late, in case there was an emergency. We felt betrayed.”

Felix Achoch’s big break had finally arrived. The question torturing Cormack and Sadri: Why hadn’t he?

In October 2010, Achoch arrived at Indianapolis International Airport from Nairobi wearing a Manchester United jersey, jeans, and Nike sneakers. Accompanied by his father, Peter, and mother, Monica, he was the youngest of nine siblings. He brought with him little more than an education from St. Lawrence Academy, a private preparatory school in neighboring Uganda, and a dream of playing professional soccer. Back in Africa, he had been offered a small contract at Gor F.C., of the Kenyan Premier League, and had been accepted at Makerere University, where he planned to study archaeology and political science. But Achoch’s family had other plans for him.

“We all thought he was going to get better exposure over here, academically and sports-wise,” says Daniel Foster, Achoch’s older brother. (As is sometimes the case in Kenya, Foster, the eldest son, took his maternal grandfather’s surname.) So Achoch’s family came to Indianapolis to join Foster, who had been living in Speedway since emigrating from Kenya in 2002. They heard the city was an affordable place to live and knew it was home to a growing Kenyan diaspora.

Foster drove to the airport to pick up his family. He had last seen his baby brother when Achoch was only 13, and much smaller than the 6'2" man who stood before him now. “It’s unfair to be taller than your older brother,” the 6'1" Foster recalls telling Achoch. “Whatever you’re eating is what I need to be eating.”

As they drove to the house, the first question Foster remembers Achoch asking him was whether there were any big football stadiums nearby. Indy didn’t have the kind of football—meaning soccer—venues Achoch was hoping for. “Indianapolis does have minor-league soccer, but we are big in basketball and football,” Foster explained. Undeterred, Achoch discovered an indoor soccer complex that winter near 62nd Street and Georgetown Road and played games whenever he could.

In 2011, the brothers began searching for professional tryouts for Achoch. A few months later, they found a small club in Chicago that needed players. The tryout went well enough, but Achoch decided he wanted an opportunity in a better league. Over the next few months, he trained with a team from St. Louis and traveled around the Midwest. That fall, Achoch changed his strategy, opting instead to go to Kansas Community College in Kansas City, where he worked at Walmart and rekindled a friendship with a longtime friend and fellow player from his days in Kenya. But his Kansas stint didn’t last long either. The burden of work and school seemed to be too much for him, his family noticed. He was also listed as a defender on the KCC roster, a position that may not have suited the natural attacker. Achoch came back to Indy in August 2012.

Without a team and casting about for practice, Achoch joined an over-35 league, where he met James Cormack. “I knew he looked too young, but fellow teammates assured me he was close enough,” Cormack recalls. In the game, Achoch ran circles around everyone. Impressed by the kid’s talent, Cormack advised him to be more careful about the games he chose. “He was playing in any game he could find, and I tried to get him to apply for tryouts,” Cormack says. “He needed to be playing at a competitive level.”

What Daniel Foster knows for sure is that by 2:15 a.m., his brother lay in the club's parking lot, blood seeping from his ear.

In the spring of 2013, Cormack connected Achoch with Sadri, who coached Indy Inter FC, a club in the Central Indiana Amateur Soccer Association’s Premier League. Cormack went to watch the first game, in April. After getting lost, Achoch showed up 10 minutes late to the field at Park Tudor. A photo taken just before he was subbed into the game shows Sadri standing next to Achoch, who was wearing his bright-orange cleats (which his sister “Babi,” who lives in London, had bought for him), his arms akimbo and his lithe body towering over the ball at his feet. Once in the game, Achoch scored three goals and led his team to a 3-2 victory.

By summer, Achoch was preparing for two important tryouts, one he secured with Kenya’s Under-23 national team and one that his friends Cormack and Sadri had arranged: the Indy Eleven. He also met a girlfriend, Danatia Duncan, and started taking classes at Ivy Tech and working occasionally at an Amazon distribution center. Friends say he was looking forward to watching Chelsea play Inter Milan in the Guinness International Champions Cup at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 1. Although he had bounced around the Midwest and still wasn’t playing professionally, he suddenly had prospects. At last, everything appeared to be coming together for Felix Achoch.  

On Sunday, July 22, Achoch, a chronically late sleeper, awoke in his parents’ Speedway home around 10 a.m. With an open schedule, he called his friend Ken Nyangira, who lives on the northwest side, and they agreed he should come over. From there, they traveled to a friend’s house on the south side, where they watched soccer on television and enjoyed barbecued goat, a traditional African dish. Achoch opened his laptop and played music. “He loved to be the house DJ,” Nyangira recalls.

Later that night, after returning to Nyangira’s house briefly, they went to J.D.’s Pub on the west side. They watched sports with another group of friends until midnight, when Nyangira decided to go home. But Achoch wasn’t tired. He told his friend he was headed to a nightclub called Tadkaa.

Achoch had been to Tadkaa before. Once known as Club Vision, the African restaurant and bar at 4150 Lafayette Road was owned by Sware Conte, a man known to help African immigrants with their paperwork. On Friday nights, it had reggae music, and on Saturdays and Sundays, it often featured an African DJ. At 2 a.m., Achoch went into the club with two female friends he had met after leaving J.D.’s Pub. It was the final night of Black Expo weekend, and flyers for the event promised “The Cheapest Party in the City.”

What happened next remains unclear, at least to the public. The lead detective on the case, officer Daniel R. Kepler, declined to comment for this story. What Daniel Foster knows for sure is that by 2:15 a.m., his brother lay in the parking lot, blood seeping from his ear. A police report cites an account from the DJ that night, who “had heard how the man was injured, but did not witness it himself.” The DJ told cops that Achoch was waiting in line to come into the club and said “disrespectful things” to a group of four or five men, a telling of events his friends and brother can’t reconcile with the shy boy they knew—so shy he often had trouble speaking up to his teammates on the field. The group of men then began beating Achoch.

From his own interviews with people who were there, Foster gathered a more nuanced chronology. Achoch and his companions grabbed a seat at the bar. A bouncer walked over to him and told him the cover charge was $10. The club closed soon, so Achoch and his two friends decided paying the cover wasn’t worth it, and they were ushered outside. In the parking lot, Achoch made a call (a detective later gave Foster the number; he called it, but no one ever answered). Then, as Achoch was on the phone, a man picked him up and slammed his slender 160-pound frame to the ground. Scared, Achoch’s friends fled. As many as seven men came out of the club, Foster was told by a witness, and joined in beating Achoch.

One of the witnesses Foster spoke with, Michael “Jah” Nyanhongo, a 52-year-old man who lives on the north side, yelled at the men to stop, pleading that they had “beaten this guy enough.” Then, Nyanhongo says, they turned on him. They attacked, breaking a rib and his collarbone before knocking him out. The assailants fled.

Whatever led to them, both beatings were severe. Although he was still conscious when authorities arrived, Achoch suffered a brain aneurysm. His jaw was broken. The police report filed that night says Achoch refused to speak to officers and would not give his name or date of birth. Medics took him to Methodist Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, where he was still recovering three days later on July 25, as Cormack and Sadri tried feverishly to reach him from the sidelines of Carroll Stadium. As the tryout ended, Sadri remembers leaving the field and resolving to give Achoch a piece of his mind in a Facebook message. The tryout was a very important step in his career, he told Achoch. If something had happened, Achoch should let him and Cormack know.

Two days later, Achoch’s girlfriend saw the message and replied: “Hi this is Dana, Felix’s girlfriend. Felix is in the hospital. He was attacked on Sunday night by a couple of guys at a party. He really was looking forward to his training for Indy Eleven. But unfortunately, this happened. He is stable and improving each day.”
And Achoch’s condition did seem to improve at first. But when Foster saw his brother in the hospital, Achoch was hooked up to several machines, and doctors had drilled a hole above his right eye to help reduce swelling. He didn’t seem quite right. He was agitated, and he had trouble remembering what happened. “It was like his brain had stopped on that Sunday,” Foster says. “He didn’t know who my dad was. He was calling him one of his friend’s names.”

By the following weekend, Achoch was sitting up in a chair and talking to his sister Babi, who had flown in from London. Doctors planned to operate on his jaw on Saturday. That afternoon, though, they scrapped the plan when Achoch had a massive seizure—a typical occurrence for someone who has suffered head trauma. Achoch’s condition began to worsen. On July 30, at approximately 11:01 a.m., with blood no longer flowing to his brain, physicians pronounced him dead. The coroner cited blunt-force trauma to the head as the cause.

A few weeks later, Foster stopped by Tadkaa and stood in the place where Achoch had been talking on the phone before he was attacked. As he tried to picture the incident, he wondered: Why would anyone want to hurt Achoch? Whom had he called? And who was the bouncer who ushered them out?

Last fall, IMPD took the first step in answering some of those questions. Using Facebook and YouTube, detectives tracked down four videos of the night’s party from inside the club. They traced them to Brooke Day, who had recorded the performance of Gamble Lyfe’s, an Indy-based rap group that includes her cousins Brandon Day (stage name “Sleez”) and Bobby Day Jr. (“Kyd Rych”). On August 2, Brooke told detectives, Brandon called to ask her to take down the YouTube videos, without giving a reason. Texts between Brooke and an unidentified caller that night reveal that someone named “Mike” was “wrestling” an African whom someone named “Tone” had knocked down.

"If it ain't a cage fight, I ain't fighting," says the man accused of beating Felix Achoch. "I don't fight innocent, helpless people."

Although the identity of “Tone” remains a mystery, on November 11, officers arrested the man they believe to be “Mike”—Michael Glenn, a bantamweight professional cage fighter with a 24-4 record who was working security at the event that night. Glenn had been asked by friends—Kid Rych and Sleez—to be there. At first, Glenn denied to police that he was at the club but later changed his story, confirming he was the bouncer. Glenn approached Achoch shortly after he entered the club, police believe, for failing to pay the cover charge. They say he confronted Achoch from behind, executing a “thread the needle” move, in which he took Achoch’s arm and pulled it between his legs. Then he threw Achoch out of the club. At that point, Glenn claims to have gone back inside, and he says he saw someone else hit the victim in the parking lot. But witnesses told police that the altercation between Glenn and Achoch continued outside. One witness describes “a short doorman” charging Achoch and hitting him until he fell to the ground. As the bouncer pummeled him, witnesses say, other men came out of the bar and joined in. One witness says that Glenn went through Achoch’s pockets while saying, “Where your money at?” Achoch arrived at Methodist with no wallet or cell phone.

In an interview at the jailhouse, where he awaits trial for one count of robbery and one count of aggravated battery, Glenn insists that he is innocent. He says that he saw between 10 and 12 men—none of whom he knew—beat Achoch in the parking lot. In the probable-cause affidavit, he also denies stealing Achoch’s wallet. Glenn says his background as a cage fighter is irrelevant. “If it ain’t a cage fight, I ain’t fighting,” he says, adding that “I don’t fight innocent, helpless people.” But it’s clear that police think otherwise. When they arrested him, Glenn warned officers that “I’m 135 pounds, but I guarantee I’m strong,” adding several times that “my hands are registered [weapons].” He pointed police to a YouTube video of a fight in which he got a body-slam knockout against an opponent. In the video, Glenn lands more than a dozen punches in the first 22 seconds, including several to the head. Less than two minutes into the fight, Glenn executes the body slam, knocking out the other fighter. The emcee blares: “Ladies and gentleman, 1:41 into the first round, KO, The Lethal Weapon, Mike Glenn.”

When the Indy Eleven take the field for the first match on April 12 against the Carolina RailHawks, Achoch’s bright-orange cleats will be in the back of his old Ford Explorer, a few miles from the Carroll Stadium field where they might have made their debut. In Achoch’s memory, his brother and others started the Felix Achoch Sports Foundation, a charity aimed at promoting academics, athletics, and safer communities. They also held their first fundraiser, “Football for Felix,” with a series of exhibition matches last fall. Led by Cormack and Sadri, members of the city’s African and soccer communities donated thousands of dollars to cover a portion of the $20,000 bill to send Achoch’s body back to Kenya.

The striker is buried now on his father’s land in Siaya, a six-hour drive from Nairobi, on a small patch of land covered by avocado, cypress, and mango trees. It’s Kenyan tradition for every man in the family to construct his own house on his family’s estate. Achoch began building near those trees when he was 18, before he set out for Indianapolis, a place where he thought he could achieve his dream of playing professional soccer and get an education. He never got around to completing the home’s roof. He left it, and a dream, unfinished.

 

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew; audio courtesy Terri Stacy at 93.1 WIBC

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue.