By Mara H. Gottfried
It started with a drinking party.
Six weeks later, two of the partygoers were dead; one was charged with murder; and a second was jailed on suspicion of homicide.
The first to die was Towanda Harris, 46.
St. Paul police say she was stabbed to death May 10 at an apartment on East Minnehaha Avenue near Johnson Parkway.
Her former boyfriend, Willie James Chestnut, would soon be charged with her murder.
The second to die was Rahel Nigusse, 39.
Her body was found wrapped in a blanket Saturday in a wooded area just across the alley from the apartment where Harris, who was a friend, was killed.
Early Monday, Harris’ husband, John Richard Stanton, 64, was arrested as a “person of interest” in her death, police said.
tanton will be released from jail Tuesday, pending further investigation, said Sgt. Paul Paulos, a St. Paul police spokesman. Police continue to work on the case and are awaiting results from the medical examiner’s office about Nigusse’s cause of death, Paulos saided.
Stanton and Nigusse were acquaintances, police said. A daughter of Stanton’s said her father told her that he and Nigusse had been seeing each other.
Nigusse was “a sweet woman, a family woman, who never hurt anybody,” said Yonas Nigusse, Rahel’s brother.
Rahel Nigusse took insulin for diabetes and struggled with drinking, said her brother and a friend.
“Little by little, she got involved with alcohol,” said Yonas Nigusse, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta. “She got better, then she got worse over the last few years. … We couldn’t find any facility that could keep her against her will for any length of time.”
Rahel Nigusse had been depressed after witnessing the events that led to her friend, Harris, being killed in May, said Sadiya Mohamed, a friend of Nigusse’s.
On May 10, police were called to Harris’ and Stanton’s apartment in the 1400 block of East Minnehaha Avenue. Harris, stabbed in the shoulder, was pronounced dead.
Stanton told police that Chestnut, 54, had dated his wife years ago and was visiting their apartment, according to the criminal complaint against Chestnut. The group was drinking, and Stanton reported he saw Chestnut stab his wife, the complaint said.
Police arrested Chestnut nearby and Rahel Nigusse was with him, the complaint said.
Nigusse told police that, during the fight, she left in a panic, the complaint said. She said she heard Chestnut tell Harris “to stay away or he will kill her” and saw Chestnut throw a knife outside.
Chestnut said to Nigusse, “I stabbed that (expletive),” she told police.
After his arrest, Chestnut denied that he hit or stabbed Harris, saying, “I wouldn’t do that, I love her,” the complaint said.
Stanton has been shaken since his wife was killed, said Candy Stegora, one of his daughters. She said her father, a former Marine, had post-traumatic depression from his service.
Stegora said her father told her he and Nigusse were seeing each other “a little bit here and there.”
But Stegora said her dad told her last week that Nigusse had gone out of town and that the two weren’t talking much.
Stegora saw her father Friday and he seemed fine, she said. She was stunned by the news Monday that he had been arrested.
Mohamed, the friend of Nigusse’s, said she dropped her off at Stanton’s apartment June 15 and Nigusse had been staying there.
Nigusse called Mohamed about 2 a.m Thursday and left a voice mail, asking Mohamed to pick her up. Mohamed said she kept calling Nigusse and never reached her.
Yonas Nigusse said he had also been trying to reach his sister and learned Monday that she had died.
“We want to figure out exactly what happened,” he said.
Originally from Eritrea, Rahel Nigusse and her family lived in a refugee camp in Sudan before moving to Georgia while a teenager, Yonas Nigusse said. Rahel Nigusse lived in the Twin Cities for about a decade, her brother said.
Rahel Nigusse had a 10-year-old daughter, whom Yonas Nigusse and his family have been raising on-and-off for the past three or four years, he said. The girl visited her mother recently, and Rahel was planning a trip to see her for her birthday in July, Mohamed said.
“She loved her daughter and was really happy to see her,” she said. “She was telling her how much she loved her, how she’s proud of her.”
Pat Thraen contributed to this report. Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her at twitter.com/MaraGottfried.