LAWRENCEVILLE - Tedla Lemma partnered with his brother to escape the pre-revolution, communist grip of his native Ethiopia, leaving Africa with little more than the proverbial shirts on their backs.
They landed in DeKalb County in pursuit of a better life. They set to work at a series of metro Atlanta gas stations, until Lemma rose to managerial status and his brother squirreled away enough cash to buy a liquor store on Memorial Drive in Atlanta. They channeled thousands back home for waiting relatives, working up to 17-hour days, sleeping remarkably little.
"We (had) nothing," said Lemma's brother, Sirak Lemma. "You have to pay attention to every penny you have."
But on Lemma's first day at work as a cashier at his second job, a robber shot him in the head at close-range, wiping out his short-term memory and rendering the left side of his body unresponsive. The incident disrupted his rags-to-riches ambitions and foreshadowed how violence, robbery and greed would ultimately take his life.
The brothers would eventually live together for more than a decade in a tony Lilburn subdivision in a home worth several hundred thousand dollars. The home, however, became a target for a violent team of thieves bent on stripping the Lemmas of what they'd toiled for, according to prosecutors.
In an upstairs bedroom on March 25 last year, Tedla Lemma's ambitions ground to a halt. Robbers beat, hog-tied and gagged him with an adult diaper so tightly he suffocated - all for a payout of two flatscreen televisions, some jewelry and a jar of coins, police have said.
The first of four suspects police believe were on Lemma's property that day faced a Gwinnett Superior Court jury for the first time Tuesday afternoon.
Quincy Marcel Jackson, 28, of Riverdale, faces a long list of charges - including felony murder, burglary and kidnapping - that stem from three home-invasion robberies in the months prior to the killing.
The robbing spree began Nov. 7, 2007, when Jackson and others allegedly attacked the Lemma brothers at home and stole $54,000 they'd saved over eight years. It ended when the crew left Tedla Lemma, 51, for dead and inadvertently killed him, authorities said.
Jackson's cell phone transmitted through towers near each of the robbery scenes as the crimes were being perpetrated, said Assistant District Attorney Christa Kirk. Tedla Lemma's wallet, Social Security card and other possessions were found in Jackson's home, she said.
Kirk said a female suspect arrested alongside Jackson last July, Lorna Araya, has implicated him in each of the crimes.
Police said Araya, a product of Lilburn's Ethiopian community, knew most of the victims. Her parents once sold a package store to Lemma's family.
Araya knew her co-defendant and owed him a debt of $1,000, which Jackson threatened to cash in with violent acts against her family, a detective testified last year.
Jackson's defense co-counsel, Matthew Crosby, called Araya the mastermind behind the home-invasions and the state's star witness.
"In (prosecutor's) rush to judgment, they start making deals with the devil - Lorna Araya," said Crosby. "In doing so, they ignored a cast of likely suspects."
Crosby argued the state lacks any shred of direct evidence that links his client to the crime scenes.
Testimony in the trial is expected to resume this morning.