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IM CRIME FILES: In the Name of the Father
As leader of the Indianapolis Black Panther Militia in the 1990s, Mmoja Ajabu bred hate and anger in the name of social justice. When his son was convicted in a horrific murder, he incurred the wrath of the entire city. Now, Ajabu returns to prominence.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the December 2008 issue and is included among IM‘s Best-Ever Crime Stories. Ajabu’s son, Kofi Modibo Ajabu, was convicted of participating in one of Hamilton County’s most savage murders, in 1993. (That story is shared in the feature-length article “Deadly Decisions” from our April 1995 issue.)
Facing the entrance of the church, Mmoja Ajabu tries to envision a Sunday 13 years ago. He can see that day almost as clearly as he can now see himself in the glass doors. Much in the reflection has changed.
The 59-year-old man with a white beard and a custom-made black suit sees his 46-year-old self clad in military fatigues, his four fellow militiamen positioned behind him. He can see the face of the security guard inches from his own, blocking his entrance to the church. He can feel the stares of the apprehensive congregants gathered in the church lobby, looking on from within. And he can still feel the anger well up inside of him. He exhales through flared nostrils.
“I was pounding on these doors,” he says, calmly pantomiming the action with his fist. “I was screaming, ‘Who are you to say I can’t come in this church?’”
But he knew the reason then, as well as he does standing here today. At the time, Ajabu was commander of the Indianapolis Black Panther Militia. To many, he was a villain, a madman who was holding the city hostage, threatening violent “revolution” if the government did not respond to its black constituents. A maniac who, when his son was involved in the brutal slaying of three Carmel youths, had called out the prosecutor and the mother of the victims and pledged that “a whole hunch of people would die” if his son was executed. An outspoken opponent of organized religion who had long maligned the Light of the World Christian Church—one of the city’s most influential—and its bishop, T. Garrett Benjamin Jr., as hypocrites who talked of good deeds on Sunday but did nothing to help those in actual need. The revolutionary who, with armed escort, was now trying to invade their sanctuary.
“I was yelling, ‘That’s why I talk about this church,’” he reenacts, fists landing softly on the glass. “I said, ‘How can y’all say you help people, when y’all won’t let people in the church?’”
Ajabu unfolds a crooked finger, and rings the doorbell. The Light of the World church left this building years ago for a bigger facility across town. Still, a custodian from the current tenant opens the door and greets him: “Reverend Ajabu.”
Ajabu asks to see the chapel, and while the custodian runs to get the keys, a tall marble fountain in the lobby echoes behind his story. “Eventually,” he says, “the ruckus outside drew the attention of the bishop. He sent word down to security to let us enter and to escort me to a seat.”
The custodian returns, keys jangling, and unlocks the chapel door. “Go on in,” he says. “I’ll go upstairs and turn on the lights for you.”
In the darkened sanctuary, Ajabu retraces the path on which he was led that day years ago, past the awestruck churchgoers, all the way to the front pew, where he was seated next to the bishop’s wife. He now sits in the same spot and stares up at the dark and empty altar. “Bishop preached on Moses,” he says. “And it all came flooding back to me.”
As it does now: Distant visions of his father preaching from a similar pulpit, later lying in his coffin, leaving the teenage son to support his family. A job recently lost for carrying a firearm; a home nearly burnt to the ground; his wife who after years of tumult was now leaving for good. All on top of the hatred from the people of this city, a fury he could feel in the stares of those in the pews behind him.
Perhaps the mounting burdens had finally overwhelmed him. Maybe it was divine intervention. Perhaps both. The bishop’s wife touched his shoulder and invited him to join the church. Ajabu wept.
He now stands and approaches the altar, as he did on that day, clasps his hands together and brings them to his lips. The lights come on, as if on cue, but Ajabu doesn’t notice. Tears streaming from his clenched eyelids, he bows his head. A knot forms in his throat. He can muster little more than a whisper.
“I was a pariah in this city,” he says softly. “The bishop hugged me. He loved me when my life was devoid of love. He put his arms around me and never let go. This was the place where he started me on that path.”
Today there is a new Light of the World. In 2002, the expanding congregation moved into a brand new complex dubbed “The City on the Hill,” erected just north of Crown Hill Cemetery on Michigan Road. Every Sunday, more than a thousand churchgoers file through the new glass doors. Every Sunday, Reverend Muja Ajabu is there to greet them.
A short, gaunt man whose tailored suit nevertheless hangs loosely on his bones, Ajabu possesses a raspy voice that carries the fervor of a man many times his size. “S’up, soldier?” he gruffs forcefully to the men whose hands he grabs and locks to pull them in for a firm half-hug. “Good morning, sister,” he offers the ladies, often punctuated with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. White hairs have overtaken his thick beard and are starling to encroach on his black Afro. Gone are the stern countenance, clenched jaw, pouting lips, and blazing eyes of the righteous protestor. At 59, his face has softened, wrinkles worn around yellowed eyes and lips now often upturned into a smile.
Greeting is part of Ajabu ’s job at the church. As minister of social concerns, he is obliged to be accessible to the people. Outside these doors, he organizes public forums on school choice and race relations, and delivers food and blankets to the homeless. He helps plan and attends rallies to urge fair treatment of workers. Even on this day as people enter the church, they pass a booth for voter registration on their way to the assembly hall. In short, he is now in charge of conducting the community outreach he so adamantly condemned Light of the World for not doing. It is all part of Ajabu’s and the bishop’s design.
From afar, a satisfied Bishop Benjamin watches his protege, whom he refers to as “the poster child for redemption.” He believes in Ajabu. To him, Ajabu is more than a humanitarian arm of Christ’s church; he is a symbol of the salvation that has at the heart of Christianity. “Ajabu has always been involved in community organization and activism,” Benjamin says. “But he was militant, radical, fiery. For many, he was a scary person leaning toward violent solutions. He was an enemy of the church.”
Benjamin knows that stigma still surrounds Ajabu. Even now, in his church, a few people seem reluctant to return his embrace. People outside the church are even more skeptical. When they learned that Ajabu would be entering seminary to become a minister at the bishop’s urging, even Ajabu’s ex-wife and his daughter—with whom he remains close—suspected the move was purely a power grab to further his political agenda. “Ajabu is generally misunderstood,” Benjamin says. “But it comes from his checkered past.”
The bishop says that since their initial hug in 1995, Ajabu has given him authority in his life, making him something of the father the adult Ajabu never really had. He sees Ajabu as an honest and caring man who was consumed by his own anger. A man who has always sought to do good but strayed from the righteous path as a child and spent his entire life, more than half a century, finding his way through violence and hate back to the place he began. “He did not know Christ. He did not know the power of love,” Benjamin says. “But now he is finally putting himself in a position to go back to his beginnings.”
When all the congregants are in the hall and seated, Ajabu takes his place, not in the front row, but on stage with his fellow ministers, like his father before him. And as the choir breaks into song, Ajabu sways to the beat, reaching to the sky and singing. His eyes fill with tears. “We are all defined by our fathers,” the bishop says later. “Everything we do in life is either in honor of, or in reaction to them.”
Paul West was a Baptist minister and father of six living in West Parkview—a black neighborhood tucked into the largely white west side of Indianapolis. In 1949, his eldest son was horn and christened Paul West Jr. The boy would later become Mmoja Ajabu.
West Parkview was essentially a cluster of five streets of homes, shops, a fire station, and the Baptist church where the senior West occupied the pulpit. The community was tight-knit, a place where the children’s neighbors were also their parents, especially in terms of authority. And in that environment, Pastor West emerged as a prominent figure. “He was the neighborhood wise man,” Ajabu says. “He was a counselor.”
But the senior West was also a strict disciplinarian, a man who struck fear into many children in the community, none more so than his son. “He ruled by the board,” says Kwame T. Mumina, who grew up two streets down from the West family. “If he said to he home at 7:00 and you came in at 7:01, you were going to get it. He had no tolerance. And I think (Ajabu ) was afraid of him.”
That fear drove the young Ajabu to excel in school, where he was not only a star athlete in football, basketball, and tennis, but was also a solid student, particularly in math. His respectful demeanor won him the admiration of many students, teachers, and parents at the mostly white Ben Davis High School. Still, Ajabu could not escape the era’s blatant racism.
It was a reality Ajabu’s father knew all too well. While within West Parkview he was seen as a leader, an educated man, and a man of God, outside that world the elder West worked as a janitor, a bottom-rung occupation that kept his family in poverty. And it was while laboring at this job that Paul West Sr. died suddenly in 1964, leaving 15-year-old Ajabu to take care of his mother and siblings. “The weight fell on (Ajabu ) to support the family,” Mumina says. “And be struggled with that. He could no longer he a kid, and I think that led to further resentment of his father for leaving him.”
Ajabu went wild. By day, he went to school and worked flipping burgers or whatever other odd jobs he could get. But at night he would hit the streets to shoot dice, play poker, smoke cigarettes, down bottles of whiskey, and carouse with women. When he was 19, he got a girl pregnant, becoming a father himself—a job he was nowhere near ready to take on.
In 1968, one year after graduating high school, Ajabu joined the U.S. Army, serving a brief stint in Germany before being shipped to Vietnam. There, his nascent frustration with white hegemony was baptized in blood. He was one of a disproportionate number of young black men fighting and dying for a freedom they didn’t get to share in back home. The Viet Cong set up speakers around the camp, Ajabu says. “And every so often a man would come on and repeat, ‘Black man, this is not your war. Go home.’”
Upon his return in 1970, Ajabu walked into an Indianapolis restaurant in his uniform and ordered a steak. The waiter refused to serve him. “He came back from the war a changed man,” Mumina remembers. “He was hard and cold. His thought processes were more measured, skeptical, and questioning. It was like the emotion had been squeezed out of him.”
He felt his identity, too, was false, and he abandoned his Christian name. Mmoja Ajabu was derived from dialects of Western Africa (Mmoja meaning “one who is unique,” and Ajabu meaning “one who brings and invites surprise”). Paul West was a white man’s moniker, his father’s name, a name that, to this day, he will not answer to.
They bang on plastic buckets with sticks and rattle beans in empty soda cans. Marching downtown, north on Illinois, the group of 35 or so whites, blacks, and Latinos are chanting in a singular voice: No Justice/No Peace. Some wear purple T-shirts with yellow lettering that reads “Justice For Janitors.” Dressed in a brown suit, Reverend Ajabu, son of a janitor, marches alongside them.
The group reaches its destination, a building that the Service Employees International Union says is owned by a company that canceled a contract with a union company and hired one that is not union-friendly. Seventeen people lost their jobs. Many of them are among the purple-clad protestors, who now line up and face the building. A man on a bullhorn calls, and the group responds.
“What do we want?” Justice.
“When do we want it?” Now.
Meanwhile, protest organizers gather at the building’s entrance. They mean to deliver a report from a recent panel discussion on worker’s rights. Ajabu was on that panel, which is why he is among the messengers. But as he tries to enter the revolving door, he finds that it is stuck. Peering through the glass, he can see a woman holding a to-go cup of coffee stopping the door from within.
“What are you doing?” Ajabu asks
“You can’t come in,” she replies.
“And who are you?”
Quickly, Ajabu steps to the swinging door immediately to his right. As he enters, the woman tries to block him, her left arm striking him in the chest. Noticeably perturbed but still controlling his temper, Ajabu continues, only to be met with the woman’s hand and the cup of coffee, a shot of which splashes on the shoulder of the reverend’s suit.
“I cannot believe this. This is a public building,” be exclaims melodramatically. “I’ve been assaulted.”
At this, both Ajabu and the people at the front desk call the police. Statements are taken. The lobby is slowly emptied.
But outside, Ajabu joins the frenzied protestors, hushes them, and from the steps of the building, he launches into a theatrical sermon.
“Someone has unfairly lost their job and this woman is standing up for greed,” he yells. “We have to stand strong. We cannot back up. It is time to stand with the least of these. It is what God would have us do.”
After shedding his father’s name, Ajabu soon rejected his religion. To him, Christianity was thrust upon slaves to pacify them. He converted to Islam but soon found that some of the Middle Easterners would not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the blacks in prayer.
Politics became Ajabu’s religion. He enrolled in Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and got involved in the Black Student Union, advocating for multicultural awareness. He traveled around the country setting up student organizations at other schools. He was finding his voice as an activist.
While at school, Ajabu met a teacher and fellow black nationalist named Jane Hart. In 1973, they had a son, Kofi.
However, Ajabu still drank and gambled. He was now dealing marijuana, which he had been exposed to in Vietnam. In 1973, he was imprisoned after trying to buy $10,000 worth of weed coming into Texas from Mexico. During the next 30 months in federal prisons in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Michigan, Ajabu’s activism took a radical turn. The 25-year-old inmate immersed himself in black history and the ideas of leaders like Malcolm X, the ethos of equality “by any means necessary,” which he passed on to his fellow inmates. Once, in the Oklahoma prison, he was accused of inciting a riot.
Upon his release, Ajabu returned to his family in Indianapolis. A daughter, Nzinga, was born in 1976. Meanwhile, Ajabu went back to IUPUI, got an associate’s degree in applied engineering technology, and took a job as a relay technician with PSI Energy.
But Ajabu stayed political. In 1988 he ran for the Washington Township School Board and lost. He considered getting involved with the NAACP, but as with Christianity, he found the organization too passive. Then, in 1990, he saw a flyer for a Call to Arms Summit in Milwaukee for a new Black Panther Militia. The Panthers’ stance of equal opportunity at any price and their strong rhetoric appealed to Ajabu. He rounded up about 30 people and headed to Wisconsin. When he returned, be gathered 4,000 local signatures in support of the Panthers, and in 1991, Ajabu was installed as commander of the Indianapolis branch.
In 1993, when a black family was harassed out of a mostly white neighborhood along White River with gasoline-drenched crosses in their yard, Ajabu and the armed Panthers marched through the streets. They protested when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally on the statehouse steps. They spoke out when two whites murdered a random Indianapolis black man in retaliation for another shooting.
That same year, the Panthers led a boycott of a Korean-owned beauty-supply store located in a black neighborhood on Indy’s east side. Concerned that the Koreans were taking money out of the community, Ajabu’s troops picketed the store and demanded the owner make a $200 monthly donation to the Panthers to help set up social programs for local residents. Many saw Ajabu’s strong-arm tactics as extortion, or, at least, cowardly bullying. But the city somehow found no legal wrongdoing, and the storeowner eventually acquiesced.
In early 1994, Ajabu served notice to the city and Mayor Stephen Goldsmith that if conditions for blacks didn’t improve by the end of the year, the militia would go on the offensive, and bloodshed would ensue. The threat made national news. “We’re tired of the conditions that African-Americans are living under,” Ajabu told The Wall Street Journal. “We believe that revolution is the solution.” Goldsmith told The Indianapolis Star that Ajabu and his followers were “one of the most destructive forces in … race relations in Indianapolis.”
While all of this was going on, Ajabu was raising a family in turmoil. Nzinga, now a psychiatrist outside Atlanta, remembers a softer side of her father who played tennis and made pancakes with her. But she also remembers a dad who had trouble putting aside the militant front. Jane recalls a husband who was more concerned with his political world than with working for the white man and making house payments like his father died doing. A husband who was angry and often misplaced his anger on the family. He took Kofi to Panther meetings and marches. Nzinga remembers waking up in the middle of the night to phone calls of men screaming, “Go back to fucking Africa!” and “We’re going to kill you niggers!” And Kofi remembers a father who was “as much a commander in chief as a father,” who taught him to shoot at age 7, trained him in self-defense in preparation for a revolution that could come at any time, and who instilled in him the notion that pain was necessary for revolution.
On the morning of March 17, 1994, police discovered the bodies of three youths—17-year-old Nick Allemenos, his 13 year-old sister, Lisa, and his 23-year-old friend, Chris James—in pools of blood in a ransacked Carmel home. Each had been hound and gagged with duct tape, throats slit. News of the grisly crime rocked the city.
The next day, Ajabu was in bed when the morning TV news announced that authorities had arrested three suspects. Then he saw 21-year-old Kofi, in handcuffs, being walked across the screen.
What had been intended as a simple robbery for rent money had somehow escalated into a triple homicide. Kofi had been implicated along with co-worker James Walls and Walls’s roommate, Raymond Adams. Ajabu had met the two men on several occasions, and had warned Kofi to stay away. Still, when Kofi told him that he never intended to kill anyone—and, in fact, didn’t—Ajabu believed him.
Kofi was charged with 10 felonies, including three counts of murder, for which Hamilton County prosecutor Steve Nation announced he was seeking the death penalty. Debra Meyer, mother of two of the victims, voiced her support.
The idea that his son might be executed infuriated Ajabu. In April 1994, outside the Hamilton County courthouse after a pretrial hearing, Ajabu addressed the press. “I want to serve notice as a father,” he said. “If my son is killed for something he did not do, other death sentences will he carried out.” He later elaborated to the Indianapolis Recorder: “If Steve Nation or this legal system or anybody … kills my child for something he didn’t do, they will cause me to kill people for something they didn’t do. I’m going to play by the rules … made by Steve Nation and supported by Debra Meyer.”
A white Indianapolis that had previously seen Ajabu and his rhetoric as little more than a novelty or, at worst, a distant threat, now read newspaper headlines such as: “Murder suspect’s dad vows retaliation.” The Indianapolis News ran an editorial titled “Ajabu doesn’t get it,” in which reporter John Krull wrote, “Ajabu did what he always does. He took an ugly situation and made it even more ugly … instead of realizing that violence already has wreaked enough horror in this community, he offers more violence, more horror.” In turn came letters to the editor cursing Ajabu: “What did Kofi Ajabu learn from his father? He learned hate and racism, for starters.”
Nation and Meyer took Ajabu’s words as direct threats. “My wife was scared to death.” remembers Nation. “I never felt (Ajabu) was going to pull the trigger, but I thought his rhetoric would inspire some youth looking to move up in his ranks.” Meyer later testified that she was terrified. “She couldn’t even attend the trial,” says George Allemenos, Meyers’ ex-husband and father of the two teens. “Here was a man who bred hate, bred racism … with his guns and his Panthers (at the trial) in South Bend. It seemed to me that he wasn’t sorry for what his son did. He was only sorry that he got caught.”
The trial lasted more than two weeks. Kofi was convicted on all counts and given three life sentences—same as Adams and Walls. But when the state Supreme Court found insufficient evidence that Kofi had had intent to kill, his judgment was reduced to a 240-year term, which he is currently serving at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana.
As the courtroom cleared, a Black Panther Militia supporter told the press, “There is a price to pay on the head of Kofi Ajabu, and we will begin to collect on it.”
Ajabu said nothing.
While he was consumed by his son’s trial, Ajabu’s life was falling apart.
In January 1994, he was arrested for illegally carrying a handgun while on work assignment with PSI Energy. The company later fired him. In May, a fire started in Ajabu’s northside home. Police initially suspected arsonists, but insurance attorneys later suggested that Ajabu might have set the fire himself to collect money for Kofi’s legal fees or to prevent foreclosure. That August while Ajabu was being indicted on the intimidation threats, he was also being accused of inciting members of an Alabama Black Panther militia to burn down a high school after the administration threatened to prevent interracial couples from attending prom. That same month, dissenting members of his own Indianapolis Panthers released a statement claiming that Ajabu had been voted out because of his overly violent rhetoric and the recent negative publicity. Ajabu and supporters within the group denied the ouster, a split in the party ranks that would eventually destroy the Indy militia. And in December, Jane filed for divorce.
It was this beleaguered Ajabu who fought his way into Light of the World Christian Church on that day in 1995.
But the actual transformation of Mmoja Ajabu was far from instantaneous. It was as if the bishop had merely shown him the path. In November 1995, Ajabu was convicted for battery when he punched a gas-station manager over a money dispute. The following year, he was taken to jail when, in protest of the impending execution of a man who had shot and killed a police officer, he and two other Panthers attempted to burn an American flag during a 1996 Olympic torch event on Monument Circle. (Ajabu was acquitted of disorderly-conduct charges.) Ajabu ran against Julia Carson for Indiana’s 10th District Congressional seat in November 1996—while on house arrest for intimidation. He garnered only 4 percent of the vote.
After the election, he served the remainder of an eight-month sentence for the gas-station battery. Then in May of the following year he lost his appeal on the intimidation charges and was sent up for another year. During those months in prison, Ajabu weighed his troubles and his relationship with Christ. He read constantly, though not a single word out of the Bible. “I already had too much on my mind,” he says.
But God was one of his preoccupations. When he emerged from his cell in 1998, he had resolved not only to commit his soul to his father’s savior, but also to dedicate his life to his father’s calling. In 2001 he left for seminary in Atlanta.
Growing up, Nzinga says her father never hesitated to speak to his children against the church, even though they were raised Christian, like their mother. And Ajabu hardly ever spoke of his father at all. All Nzinga knew of her grandfather was an old portrait of a man in a military uniform that sat on a table in her grandma’s bedroom. She had no idea her grandfather was a minister. So when Ajabu told his daughter of his desire to join the clergy, she was skeptical. “We were all stunned,” she says. “But when I saw the heart he put into his preaching, I was convinced. I saw him cry in the pulpit. He never cried in public. He always had to be the masculine leader.
“But, he’s still a revolutionary—don’t be fooled,” Nzinga says. Even while in seminary, Ajabu made national headlines for leading a protest when President Bush came to Atlanta to lay a wreath on the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. Ajabu received his master’s in di’inity in 2004, and after a short stint as pastor at a couple of churches in Georgia, he returned home to Indianapolis to he ordained at Light of the World. Ajabu was home, and his reputation was waiting for him.
“There was a risk in bringing Ajabu to the church,” Bishop Benjamin says. “But I discerned a heart for God. He’s still a work in progress. But I believe he can make a great difference for the Kingdom of God.”
But others have a tough time forgetting the old Ajabu. George Allemenos hasn’t forgotten what Ajabu’s actions did to his family. “Nothing has changed but the stripes,” Allemenos says. “He might he right with God, but he’s not right with the people he hurt.”
Former prosecutor Steve Nation, now a Hamilton County Superior Court Judge, has a slightly different take. Ajabu once threatened his life, and in so doing, threatened his family’s well-being. And he still cannot fathom how Ajabu could go after a mother who had just lost her children. Still, he says he has forgiven Ajabu. “I have to,” he says, fingering a green bracelet stitched with the white letters W.W.J.D. “When all this was going on, my prayer was that if Ajabu could use his power of words for God, what a great gift that would be. When I heard he was back in town with Bishop Benjamin, I thanked God for answering my prayer.”
Ajabu sits upright at the head of the long table. The children around him—two teenage boys and their sister, age 12—slouch in their chairs, heads in their hands, eyes scanning the walls and ceilings as the bearded elder reads them the rules in a slow, measured tone. Suddenly, he is interrupted by a muffled, tinny hip-hop ringtone coming from the purse of the children’s mother, who is seated at Ajabu’s left hand. The reverend shoots a menacing gaze at the woman, who frantically digs through her bag to silence the offending phone.
“No jewelry of any type,” Ajabu picks up in a calm, fatherly voice. “Including watches. No hats or bandanas. Y’all wear haggy clothing? Y’all sag?”
“Yeah,” chimes the hopeful chorus.
“Can’t sag here.”
Ajabu is laying down the law, detailing the rules of Project IMPACT—an alternative sentencing program run through Light of the World church that focuses on educating and counseling children and their parents to combat juvenile delinquency. Several weeks ago, the single mother contacted Ajabu for help. She told him her kids were having trouble at school, getting into fights, getting picked on, and being treated unfairly. Her response was to go to the school and confront the staff. There she was arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, and battery on a police officer. She was facing jail time. “She was overzealous in defense of her children,” Ajabu says. “But she was being a mother.”
Ajabu came to her court hearing and pleaded with the judge. He convinced the court to suspend her sentence pending her and her children’s completion of Project IMPACT.
Now, having read through the list of rules, Ajabu sets down the paper and scans the faces of each family member around the tale. “I’m looking for better things out of all of you,” he says. “And I want you to he leaders, not followers. You’re going to run into children with had attitudes. Don’t buy into that. I want you all to set the example. When they talk about you, I want them to say positive things. I want y’all to excel.”
Then Ajabu goes around the tale, engaging each individual in turn.
To the boys: “Amen?”
The 12-year-old: “Amen?”
And to the mother: “Amen?”
Photos provided by Mmoja Ajabu; photo of Ajabu standing in church by Tony Valainis.
This article appeared in the December 2008 issue.