Matt Driscoll

He died in the snow, cold and alone. Now, the family of a Kenyan immigrant seeks answers

Eliud Ibirthi holds a photo of his son, Kelvin, a 34-year-old homeless man who died in the snow during the recent storm. Originally from Kenya, the men arrived in the United States as political asylum seekers about 15 years ago.
Eliud Ibirthi holds a photo of his son, Kelvin, a 34-year-old homeless man who died in the snow during the recent storm. Originally from Kenya, the men arrived in the United States as political asylum seekers about 15 years ago. matt.driscoll@thenewstribune.com

Sylvia Githiri remembers the last phone call with her son.

“He used to call me so often and tell me how much he loved me,” Githiri says by phone from her home in Delaware.

“His last words, were like, ‘Oh, mom, everything is OK. I’m going to call you back, and I love you.”

But Githiri’s son — 34-year-old Kelvin Ibirithi, a Kenyan immigrant — never called back.

Everything would not be OK.

On the morning of Sunday, Feb. 10, Ibirithi’s body was discovered in a snow-covered field not far from Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue.

Ibirithi died freezing and alone.

He was homeless, so his death attracted little attention. In the days after, a survey of people who work in the businesses surrounding the field revealed no knowledge of his existence. At the busy bank branch, the daycare center and the used tire shop nearby, no one knew of the man who sought refuge in their midst.

Ibirithi had been on and off the streets of Tacoma since at least 2016. In recent years, he sought help with housing from local service providers at least once.

It didn’t work.

Meanwhile, Ibirithi’s family — including his father, a Kenyan asylum seeker who arrived in the United States nearly two decades ago, with his wife and sons soon to follow — repeatedly tried to get him off the street and off alcohol.

Ultimately, those efforts failed, too.

On the Friday before he died, as a muffling, serene snow blanketed the city, Ibirithi sent a text message to a friend.

It was one of several messages in an increasingly desperate thread

“Help me,” it read.

There would be no response.

For Ibirithi, help never came.

Leaving Kenya

Eliud Githiri is a tall, stoic man with browline glasses and white jaw-length sideburns. He recalls coming to the United States from Kenya, desperate and seeking asylum.

Back home, he was the last of nine children, and a coffee farmer and accountant. His knowledge of finance got him into trouble, he says.

Aware that the Kenyan government was underpaying coffee farmers like him, Githiri says he began to “enlighten” his fellow countrymen.

“They started arresting me, persecuting me. I became a target,” Githiri says.

“That’s why I had to move out.”

Then living near Narobi, Kenya’s capital, Githiri first fled to the seaport city of Mombasa, staying in nearby remote areas to avoid detection. The experience strained his wife and four sons, including Kelvin.

In 2001, Githiri flew to the United States, making a home in Delaware. He hasn’t returned to Kenya since.

Two years later, in 2003, Githiri was granted asylum, he says.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t discuss individual citizenship or asylum cases due to privacy concerns, but the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics shows that 122 people from Kenya applied for asylum in 2001 and 144 applied in 2003.

Over the coming years, Githiri’s wife, Sylvia, and three of his sons, including Kelvin, would follow. By 2007, they were all in the United States. Only Githiri’s oldest son stayed behind.

“I would say they had a hard time, because of the persecution that I was going through,” Githiri says. “I kind of believe it affected them, especially the last two (boys). They had a lot of trauma.”

Kelvin Ibirithi arrived in the United States in 2005.

In Kenya, he’d studied ayurvedic medicine — a traditional form of holistic healing. His mother describes him as a good student, a quiet boy and a hard worker.

In the United States, Ibirithi — who was in his early 20s at the time — first worked in residential adult care before eventually attending Delaware Technical Community College and gravitating toward construction.

Sylvia Githiri, 62, still lives in Delaware. Though the specifics are clouded by grief, she also remembers the toll that the family’s struggle in Kenya and relocation to the United States took.

“It was tough,” Sylvia Githiri recalls. “So many things were going on. ... (Kelvin) was quiet. He didn’t talk much about it. He seemed to be happy, but I don’t know.”

She also recalls her son’s endearing qualities.

“Kelvin was a very humble son. He could not even harm a fly. He used to love people. He used to joke and smile all the time,” Sylvia Githiri says. “He was a very hardworking, strong young man.”

In 2015, Eliud and Ibirithi moved to Washington — leaving Sylvia behind. In Delaware, Eliud Githiri worked in residential adult care and as a commercial cleaner before purchasing a gas station. He decided to sell the business, he says, after being robbed too many times.

Together, father and son settled in Tacoma at an apartment near the mall.

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Supporters of Eliud Githiri and his son Kelvin have gathered for frequent prayer vigils in Kenya. Githiri said the vigils have been attended by as many as 400 people. Courtesy of Eliud Githiri

Searching for answers

Sitting behind a small desk at the residential adult family home he now owns, Eliud Githiri rifles through a black briefcase, searching for Kelvin’s cell phone.

“It’s hiding,” he says as he goes from pocket to pocket, looking for one of the final connections he has to his son’s life.

The police gave him the phone after delivering the bad news, he says. He’s spent the days since trying to decipher its call log and unanswered text messages, looking for answers that have proven elusive.

There’s a message from the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 9 that he sent his son, asking him to call. The previous evening, Kelvin had sent him a photograph of his feet buried in the quickly accumulating snow.

There’s also a message from Ibirithi’s mother with a similar plea.

Neither garnered a response.

“The last time I was with him was on Wednesday, and we kept on talking, because I was trying to ask him to come back,” Eliud Githiri says, acknowledging a familiar struggle in recent years — the family trying to rein Kelvin in, and those attempts proving unsuccessful.

“I don’t know exactly what happened, because on Friday I talked with him, and we had an agreement to meet on Sunday. So when I missed him … I was kind of worried about him,” Eliud Githiri continues. “Saturday I called him. Sunday morning, I called him.

“Even when I was being informed by the officer that he had passed away, I was planning to go look for him.”

Over the last year or more, Githiri says, he’s spent a significant amount of time looking for his son — and praying for him.

The time they spent living together in the small apartment on Tacoma Mall Boulevard had generally gone well — with Ibirithi working in the service industry for much of the time.

More recently, after the two moved to the residential adult family home Githiri purchased and later to a place on Yakima Avenue, things began to deteriorate.

His son started coming home less and less, Githiri says, and drinking more and more.

“When we came here is when he started going out. I didn’t really approve,” Githiri says. “I didn’t like the company he was involving himself with. They were characters that I did not approve of.”

‘An ongoing struggle’

By late 2016, Ibirithi crossed paths with Dawna Bryant, the outreach team lead for Comprehensive Life Resources in Tacoma, which provides behavioral health services.

Bryant recalls Ibirithi and his girlfriend at the time visiting a Comprehensive Life Resources office on the corner of South 15th Street and Tacoma Avenue, looking for help out of homelessness. At the time, Bryant believes the couple was living mostly out of a vehicle.

“I remember him, because his last name was so unusual,” Bryant says. “I don’t remember how long they said they’d been homeless. It seemed to me it was an ongoing struggle with him.”

Bryant also recalls the specter of chemical dependency hanging over the conversation — though both denied it at the time — and underlying mental health issues possibly being a factor.

“I remember that they were looking to get off the street, but when we talked about how that was going to happen … We didn’t come to an understanding,” Bryant says. “We talked for probably half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. They were supposed to come back so they could work on some more things, but they never came back.”

Bryant continues.

“It happens a lot. People will come in and … they don’t really get back to see us in a timely manner, or we’re not able to find them,” she says. “I do remember both of them really, really wanted to get off the street. They were determined.”

Other local service providers declined to say whether they had served Ibirithi, citing privacy concerns.

As determined as Kelvin might have been to escape homelessness, the pieces never came together.

A review of Ibirithi’s criminal record over the last few years reveals a rap sheet emblematic of the familiar tumult of homelessness and addiction. It’s marked by trespassing citations, subsequent warrants and alcohol-related infractions. There’s also at least one domestic violence protection order.

“Drinking became a problem,” Eliud Githiri acknowledges. “I told him as soon as he improved I would send him back to school. He said that’s what he wanted. All the time he would say, ‘I’ll stop. I’m not drinking.’ He lived in denial.”

On the other side of the country, Sylvia Githiri recalls a similar battle.

“He started to struggle. He stopped working. I think he was in the wrong company, and he started drinking,” she says. “We were trying to get him into rehab, but we were not able to. It was too hard.”

As the situation worsened, Eliud Githiri called on his large family in Kenya and an institution that’s provided him with a backbone of support — his church.

A member of the Diaspora Community of Faith Church just south of Fern Hill Park, Githiri enlisted the help of his pastor and the church’s large Kenyan congregation.

“I said I wanted prayer. I want prayers for my children,” Eliud Githiri says. “So we prayed. It didn’t help so much.

“But I kept on.”

A body in the snow

By the morning of Sunday, Feb. 10, a thick blanket of snow covered the vacant field behind a tire center on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, and temperatures hovered in the teens.

The field — most of it surrounded by fencing, some of it lined with razor wire — is where Ibirithi’s body was found.

According to Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, Ibirithi’s body was lying facedown, with an empty liquor bottle nearby and no footprints in the snow around it.

Authorities arrived at 9:49 a.m., roughly 15 minutes after being dispatched to the scene. Officials with the Tacoma Fire Department had already turned the body over, determining that the man was deceased.

No identification was found.

A 911 caller — later identified by The News Tribune as 73-year-old former Gig Harbor City Council member John Picinich — discovered the body. Picinich told police that Ibirithi — whom he described as homeless and “a heavy drinker” — had performed odd jobs for him in the past.

At approximately 9:30 a.m., Picinich said he came looking for Ibirithi, who he told police had been known to set up a camp in this field. Picinich told The News Tribune that Ibirithi was supposed to work for him that day but wasn’t answering his phone.

Cool said that Ibirithi’s body was removed at 10:35 a.m. and that the police report notes that there were “no unusual circumstances at this time.”

A short time later, a single police officer knocked on Eliud Githiri’s door.

“They said, ‘I have some sad news for you. Can you sit down?’” Githiri recalls.

“So I sat down, and that’s when he broke the news.”

In the week following Ibirithi’s death, Githiri says the congregation at Diaspora Community of Faith Church raised more than $20,000 to pay for his son’s burial.

On Wednesday, Feb. 20 — 10 days after Ibirithi was found in the snow — a funeral was held at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma.

Meanwhile, back in Kenya, Githiri’s family — which numbers close to 400 hundred with generations of children and cousins — has been holding regular prayer vigils.

‘Help me’

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office says it could be months before an official cause of death is determined.

Ibirithi’s family, meanwhile, is left trying to come to terms with the reality that there will likely be questions they’re never able to answer.

How did Ibirithi end up facedown in the snow? Who was the last person he talked to?

And where did it all go so wrong?

“I don’t think I will ever really know,” says Eliud Githiri.

One thread of messages on Kelvin’s cell phone remains particularly troubling to his father.

He keeps returning to it.

It starts, like other messages on the phone, with a picture of snow on the ground, covering long, matted grass that looks similar to the growth that fills the vacant field behind the tire shop.

It’s sent to a contact Githiri doesn’t recognize — listed as “D D. Crazy.”

“Call me in a few,” Ibirithi’s messages begin, before spiraling downward in despondency.

“I should have been dead by now,” the next text reads.

“Help me.”

“Please talk to me.”

For a grieving father, the glimpse into his son’s final days is nearly too much to take.

It’s certainly too much to make sense of.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Githiri says when asked about his son’s pending cause of death. “Could he (have) been killed or poisoned? Could it have been suicide? Or he was desperate? Nobody has got an answer to that. These are things we can’t know.”

“I would like him to be remembered as a person who loved being in the community, supportive …,” the father adds, before looking out the window and trailing off.

“Really, I can’t have a lot to say, because I loved him. It’s only that somewhere, some way, things changed.”

Three days after that conversation, Githiri texted me with one final request.

“Please write what you would like to hear about your child,” it read.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.


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