Sammy Wanjiru's death still a mystery

Sammy Wanjiru's Legacy (3:24)

Michele Steele interviews ESPN the Magazine Senior Writer Shaun Assael on the tragic demise of Sammy Wanjiru, gold medalist in the marathon at the 2008 Olympic games. (3:24)

he dust swallows Sammy Wanjiru as he steps into the early morning of Kaptagat, a small village in the rural highlands of Western Kenya. The red clay hills surrounding him can hide many things, even one of Africa's most famous men. He doesn't need his AK-47 to protect him on this training run. At least, he hopes not.

Sammy wipes the clay off his tongue. It's been three years since he won Kenya's first Olympic gold medal in the marathon, returning from Beijing to a stadium-sized celebration and his face on billboards that rose over Nairobi's traffic-snarled streets. He was a contemporary hero for a new Kenya, with the perfect backstory to match: the dirt-poor farm boy who literally outruns his poverty.

He stretches the legs that once ran barefoot to school. The millions of dollars he's already made are nothing compared to what lies ahead. He can pocket six figures just showing up to the big events in Chicago or Boston. But with the Olympics slightly more than a year away, 24-year-old Sammy doesn't need more money. He wants that second medal and the second life he hopes it will bring.

It's hard for him to go home anymore. In Kenya, the average farmer makes $736 annually. The gap between its rich and poor is one of the widest in the world. A line forms outside the gates of his mansion in Nyahururu early in the morning, and by mid-afternoon it's around the block. Charity seekers, job hunters, fans, religious freaks. No wonder so many star athletes move out of their villages. At first he thought it would be fun to stick around and act like a king. Not anymore.

Sammy starts running. Slowly at first. He knows he's out of shape. He can feel his labored breathing once the landscape changes and he's entered the lush, green forest that reminds him how beautiful and pitiless Kenya can be at the same time. If he wants to defend his title at the Summer Games in London, he'll have to leave Kenya and the mess he's made -- or is it the mess that's been made for him? Winning a marathon involves running like a sprinter and thinking like a math genius. It takes a quiet mind. How can he get that with all the voices screaming in his head?

There's the weapons charge hanging over him after the mother of his first two kids claimed he tried to kill her. His agent wants him to get a divorce before that marriage gets any further out of hand. His mother, who hates his first wife, has taken sides with his second wife, who he was allowed to marry under Kenyan law. There are the nieces and nephews who depend on him for tuition, the friends who come to him for jobs, the elders of Nyahururu who are ever so helpful about suggesting how he should invest his fortune.

How can he leave when so many depend on him? How can he not? At an intervention a week earlier, his agent and coach sat him down and told him he had no choice. A plane ticket to San Diego awaits. In a week's time -- after a few legal matters are resolved -- he'll be training in sunny Southern California.

Sammy finally reaches the top of the mountain, where the Rift Valley spills out before him. It's a stunning view, untouched by progress. Up here, Sammy can still feel like he's on top of the world -- like a man who's outrun his troubles.

Two days later, 126 miles away, Sammy will be lying on his tiled patio with a shallow gurgling sound coming from his mouth and blood pouring from his ears and nose. Friends called by the night watchman will look up at the balcony that he's fallen from and wonder how a man who's taken his country to such heights can be killed by such a short fall.

f course, it isn't the fall that got him. In Kenya, it's the rise that does you in.

There's plenty of evidence of that in the country's hall of fame. Cross country runner Paul Kipkoech couldn't handle the accolades he got from winning Kenya's first international gold medal in 1987 and died in poverty eight years later, bitter at state officials for helping themselves to most of his earnings. Long distance specialist Richard Chelimo, part of a family dynasty, lapsed into depression after several near-wins in the early '90s and lost his struggle with alcohol at the age of 34. Two years later, in 2003, decorated road racer Benson Masya succumbed to his own fatal bout with booze.

But they are mere footnotes these days. More than ever, Kenyans see running as a ticket out of poverty, and the agents who run training camps around Eldoret, a bustling city near Kaptagat, pluck the best from obscurity, offering food, housing, shoes and, most importantly, access to European and American promoters who pay appearance fees. In 1990, when Italian cardiologist Gabriele Rosa opened the first marathon training camp in Kenya, there were 700 events worldwide. Today, there are 2,800, with purses anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $650,000 at the New York City Marathon.

A four-figure payday can change a Kenyan's life. A six-figure one can transform an entire village. That's because, unlike western stars who put their wealth in global bond markets or timeshares, Kenyan athletes have a deep, abiding belief in keeping their winnings at home. A brand-new pink mall rises in Eldoret alongside ramshackle shops, financed almost entirely by marathon money.

"Building a mall, or buying a farm or a school near your home, is good business," explains British promoter Matthew Turnbull. "It's also a way of keeping your family and friends employed."

Sammy understood that acutely. Raised by his grandparents in a remote village about an hour's drive from Eldoret, he shoveled pig slop and chicken feed for his keep, then had other chores heaped on him by aunts and uncles. Outwardly carefree but inwardly guilt-ridden about being a burden to his grandparents, he had every reason to be exhausted by the time he ran barefoot to the Githunguri Primary School in his crisp uniform. Yet running came easily to Sammy.

And when he started winning school meets, it gave him a purpose. His mother, who'd left home when Sammy was young to work as a hostess in the nightclubs of the eastern port city of Mobassa, returned just as her son was turning 14, and made up for lost time. She started shepherding him to regional camps, needling coaches to pay attention. During a national championship in Nairobi, a scout took notice of the boy and offered him a scholarship to a high school in Japan. Without speaking Japanese, or knowing where the country was on the map, Sammy took off.

Japan has a long, deep marathon tradition that differs from the Kenyan approach in subtle but significant ways. Its teams have corporate sponsors, not the state ones that in Africa can be corrupt. And while a typical Kenyan runner may get thrown into dozens of track and field events, the Japanese marathoner is encouraged to do only a small number a year. The biggest difference, though, is cultural. Kenyans run because they are poor, gifted and hungry. The Japanese run because they are schooled in an almost-Zen-like adherence to discipline.

Sammy was immersed in both worlds, and when he returned from Japan it was easy to see the change in him. It wasn't merely that his new mentors couldn't pronounce his given last name, Kamau, and renamed him Wanjiru (pronounced "Wan-geer-ooo"). Sammy had new confidence, dressing in stylish clothes, taking care of his mother by moving her into her own apartment, accepting a job on a pro team in Japan. He also wanted to be the father he never had, and at dinner one night with a fellow runner began making eyes at his friend's sister, who was still in high school.

Sammy and Terezah Njeri were married in a 2005 ceremony that she recalls as quick and practical. "We went to a government office and that was all," she told ESPN The Magazine in an exclusive interview. There was no honeymoon. Sammy promptly flew back to Japan, where his career was about to become a supernova. In a breathtaking performance in Rotterdam, he broke the half-marathon world record set six years earlier by another Kenyan, Paul Tergat. While Terezah stayed at home with their newborn daughter, Sammy began climbing the global rankings.

In a video taken before the London Marathon in April 2008 -- his breakout run where, at 21, he finished second -- an American reporter mentions that Tergat is 37, and marvels that Sammy might have 15 years and countless records ahead of him. "It's kinda crazy how much money is in the marathon," the reporter adds, noting that Sammy just won $300,000 in Dubai. "What are you going to do with it?"

"Put it in the bank," he replies, smiling sheepishly and rubbing his shaved head.

t's hard to imagine now, but before Gabriele Rosa brought his first marathon camp to Kenya, there was relatively little interest in the event. Only one of the 39 Olympic medals that Kenya won between 1956 and 1992 came from a marathon, and the ones Kenyan men claimed after that -- a bronze in 1996 and silver in 2000 -- came from someone who'd taken up residence in Japan, Eric Wainaina. After Kenya's marathoners failed to medal at the 2004 Games, its athletics officials scoured the country for a trio capable of winning gold in Beijing. They chose Martin Lel, then a three-time London Marathon winner, Robert Cheruiyot, a four-time Boston Marathon champ, and Sammy. All trained with the Rosa family.

Sammy tossed and turned the night before the event in Beijing. "I discovered that I had forgotten my race shoes in Kenya and I had to run the race in my warm-up shoes," he said later. "I had a lot on my mind and was pretty nervous, but as soon as I started, I forgot about it all. The only thing I thought was, 'Who cares, let's go!'"

From the starting gun, Sammy pushed the pace so hard that he left all but four rivals behind. Fusing his Kenyan and Japanese training into a monster stylistic hybrid, he ran with the fire he developed as a boy while using his Zen training to ignore the burning that radiated through his legs. His body was a machine, pounding out a sprinter's pace while his brain coolly calculated how to unnerve his challengers. He advanced, then fell back, then changed tempo again, exhausting them as they tried to anticipate his next move. By the time he ran past the two high-heeled women in sequin dresses holding the finish tape at the Bird's Nest stadium, he'd demolished the course record with a winning time of 2:06:32. Sammy Wanjiru had produced one of the greatest marathon runs of all time.

Sammy returned to a hero's welcome at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi, where all 30,000 seats were filled, then on to the Mediterranean style villa he'd built for himself and Terezah on the outskirts of Nyahururu, a central Kenyan city of 25,000 people that is favored by marathoners because of its high altitude. The house was a block away from a nearly identical one he built for his mother.

Nyahururu has a spectacular waterfall that lures tourists, plenty of bars to take their money and a traffic-choked downtown where cows and mules fight for space with SUVs. But just outside it, most people still reside in earthen huts and farm for a living. Sammy knew so many of them that it seemed as if half the highlands wanted to stop by his house to congratulate him and discuss business opportunities. Parties were constant, fueled by cases of Tusker beer and a 40-proof purple liquor called Zappa.

Sammy was a willing host, smiling his trademark toothy grin, joking, proudly showing off the head-turning luxuries he was able to buy himself, like a special edition Range Rover with white leather seats, tinted windows and a TV in the back. Later, he added an army-issue, military-green Land Cruiser with a canvas tent over the flatbed for anyone who wanted to jump aboard.

"When I was starting out, I thought I'd be lucky to get a desk job in an office when I was done," says Ibrahim Hussein, a member of Kenya's Olympic federation who won the New York City Marathon in 1987. At 21, Sammy already had made a mockery of those quaint notions. By some estimates, he had $20 million in earning potential ahead of him. "Whoever thinks it will end at 24?" says Federico Rosa, a partner in his father's business and Sammy's agent.

n 2009, Sammy won the London and Chicago marathons in course-record times, adding $1 million in prize money to his coffers, which already included a 10-year, $3 million deal with a Japanese supplement maker and another with Nike.

At home, Terezah watched with irritation as both his entourage and his payroll expanded. "Sammy had just one problem," she told The Magazine. "He could not say no."

Saying yes was always easier, as was looking the other way when friends were ripping him off. They padded the bills at bars where he bought everyone rounds, just so they could secretly split the profit, and siphoned money and materials off his investment projects, such as the apartment building he built called The Bird's Nest. Terezah says she tried to make him face the facts, but he didn't want to hear about it.

The law is a messy business in Kenya, especially when it comes to women's rights. "A sizable number of Kenyan tribal groups still hold onto polygamy, especially older ones in the rural areas," says Mwangi Kimenyi, a Kenyan economist who runs the African Growth Initiative for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. While urban Kenyans believe in single marriages, Kimenyi says that it is still widely accepted for men to have relationships and children with multiple women.

In 2009, with his marriage to Terezah crumbling, Sammy went the tribal route and took as a second bride a beautiful runner he'd met at a local track, Mary Wacera. She was his mother's choice, a loyal and understanding confidant, and when she had Sammy's daughter, Mary staked her claim to the family by christening her Hannah.

In an interview in Nyahururu, Mary says, "Sammy's life with his first wife was not good. I tried to support him, listen to his problems."

During fall 2009, Sammy and Mary were heading to her house in Nyahururu after a shopping trip to town when a group of masked thugs stopped his car and put a gun to his driver's head. "Get out," one yelled, yanking Sammy from the back seat. "You, too," said another, grabbing Mary by the neck. At gunpoint, they stole the couple's phones and fled.

After reporting the incident to police, Sammy returned to Mary's house, unnerved. He knew as well as anyone that for all its natural beauty, Kenya is a ruthless place. Sammy was, after all, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, which had played a bloody part in the civil war that raged after President Mwai Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, was accused of stealing the election of 2007.

In the Rift Valley, where most great marathon runners come from the Kalenjin tribe, the bloodshed was especially fierce. After a group of Kikuyu went on a Kalenjin killing spree that claimed the life of Lucas Sang, a member of the 1988 and 1992 Kenyan Olympic teams, hundreds of Kalenjin retaliated by killing scores of Kikuyu, among them 40 women and children who'd taken shelter in a church.

That war was over. But Sammy couldn't be sure if Kalenjin clansmen were targeting him now or if he'd simply become a random victim of Kenya's most common crime -- one that happens at least 10 times a day in Nairobi. Either way, says Wacera, "Sammy was very shaken." He started taking alternate routes to her house and bought an AK-47 for protection.

As the lines of fanatics kept growing longer outside Sammy's gates, his own home and hometown offered little refuge. He was suspicious of the police who often wanted their own handouts. And the strain was starting to show. In April 2010, Sammy left the London Marathon with a knee injury while trying to defend his title. Others around the circuit were noticing a new edge to him. At a publicity event in Europe, a veteran racing executive heard him boast that he never went anywhere without a gun. "Sammy didn't have his feet on the ground," he says. "He was starting to act like a gangster."

Federico Rosa tried to intervene, begging his star client to come to the family's camp in Eldoret to train for the Chicago Marathon. When Sammy arrived, the camp's coach, Claudio Berardelli, saw that he was overweight and straining to follow lesser runners. "We'll be lucky if he finishes fourth," he told Rosa. The Chicago Sun Times agreed, telling its readers on race day, "Don't expect Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya to repeat as champion."

As 38,132 runners lined up at the north end of Grant Park, no one told Sammy. Over two hours in the unseasonably warm October morning, he traded the lead with his powerful Ethiopian rival, Tsegay Kebede, until the two were alone in the homestretch. "It's Ali-Frazier," a TV commentator exulted, watching Sammy slow, charge forward, and slow again, until he finally fell in line behind Kebede so that the Ethiopian couldn't see anyone on his tail when he turned his head. Then, finding another gear, Sammy surged forward for the last time.

Afterward, despite having won $175,000, Sammy seemed less joyful. "People said Sammy can't make it, Sammy can't make it," he remarked in English in a post-race interview. "… I say thank you to God. He gave me the strength today."

y December 2010, Sammy couldn't keep his troubled home life from spilling into the open. In an incident that made headlines that month, police arrested him for allegedly threatening to kill Terezah in their home. As the Kenya Broadcasting Network reported, "Wanjiru arrived at his home and picked a quarrel with his wife. It was then that he attempted to shoot his wife but she managed to escape. The athlete is said to have turned his anger on the watchman who had intervened and hit him with the rifle butt on the cheek and the right hand."

Terezah describes what happened succinctly: "He was drunk. He came home. I don't know what made him annoyed."

While Sammy insisted to his mother and Wacera that he'd been set up -- that there was no assault -- the incident had one clear consequence. Terezah agreed to drop the attempted murder charge only if Sammy agreed to sign a legal affidavit confirming that, under Kenyan law, she was his first wife.

"Because of our family, I told him we had to reconcile," she says.

Meanwhile, Sammy's friends kept showing up to their house, persuading him to skip his training and go to the bars, knowing he'd pick up tabs that often reached thousands of dollars. On the odd days where he summoned the strength to say no, they'd be waiting for him at the track after practice. Sammy also started taking trips out of town to visit other girlfriends. Coming home from Nakuru in January, he lost control of his Land Cruiser and it flipped several times, ending up in a ditch with a broken windshield. He begged the cops not to take him to a regional hospital because of the media attention he'd attract.

"Sammy's friends started calling me to say his drinking was getting really bad," Berardelli says.

When Sammy pulled out of the 2011 London Marathon with what was reported as a knee injury, Berardelli and Federico Rosa traveled to his home for what both men describe as an intervention. "He knew he had to get out of Kenya," Rosa says. "His marriage was finished. I'd already taken him to a lawyer to discuss a divorce." Rosa had a plane ticket for him to escape to San Diego, and a place for him to stay when he got there. The only thing standing in the way of his departure was a single gun charge that the police refused to dismiss after the episode with Terezah.

Early on May 15, Sammy went for a run through the hills of Kaptagat, as he'd been doing all week. According to Rosa, Sammy knew the rumors about his drinking were getting louder, that his critics were whispering that he was washed up. Good, let them talk, he would say. The more they underestimate me, the better.

"He was really happy that week," Wacera recalls. "He really wanted to go to the U.S. to train and I told him that I'd go there with him."

After Sammy's run that day, a gardener was planting flowers around the camp. Sammy reached into his pocket to give the man a few bills, as he often did. Then he climbed into one of Rosa's cars for the drive back to Nyahururu, trailed by his best friend, Daniel Gatheru.

he drive from Eldoret to Nyahururu should take only a few hours. But Sammy stretched it out, stopping off at a restaurant for beers, then visiting a woman who later would claim to be the mother of another of his children. It was 8:30 p.m. by the time he and Gatheru arrived back in Nyahururu.

Gatheru said goodbye to Sammy at his gate, figuring Sammy's night was over. But he was wrong. Seeing that his wife wasn't home, Sammy left to drink at one local bar, then another beside the town's famous waterfall. In a Dutch-language biography, author Frits Conijn quotes patrons of the Waterfalls Resort as saying that Sammy grew despondent and started complaining that no one cared about him, just his money. He was also heard to say that he might as well just throw himself into the waterfall.

It takes Terezah more than an hour to describe her account of what happened that night. It's a long and involved story, impressive in its detail. Every few minutes she stops and asks, "Yes?" to make sure those details are clear.

Terezah says she went into town for a soda while waiting for Sammy to arrive from Eldoret, then to her driver's home for dinner. At 9 p.m., she was still at the driver's home, talking to his wife. When she finally arrived at her villa, the night watchman let her through the front gate. But even though she saw Rosa's borrowed car, and assumed Sammy was back from Eldoret, she says she didn't go right in. Instead, she asked the watchman to make some tea for her in his private bungalow. "I had a cold and I wanted to take it with my medicine," she recalls.

The key part of the story comes after Terezah says she took the medicine to her bedroom and opened the door: "I saw someone jump up from the bed, a lady. The lady asked me who I am. I told her I am Sam's wife." At that point, Terezah says, Sammy jumped up in what she describes as a rage. With the memory of the AK-47 incident still fresh in her mind, Terezah says she slapped a padlock on their bedroom door and fled into the courtyard. Sammy, she says, was already standing 14 feet above her on their balcony, yelling "Open the door!"

"I won't," she says she yelled back. "I called the police to do it for you."

Sammy demanded that the watchman let him out, but Terezah says she didn't wait to see what happened next. She says she was already outside the gate on the street when she heard the thud.

he next morning, as Nyahururu awoke to the news of Sammy's fall, gawkers lined up outside the cramped mortuary where he lay lifeless on a slab. In the finer precincts of Nairobi, taxi drivers listened to the report of his death on their radios, sharing the shock with their fares, all concluding that, you know, one can live only so fast, even as a gold medal marathoner. What made it more than a one-day story -- a national whodunit, in fact -- was that a lax police investigation left the case mired in inconsistencies, contradictions and macabre guessing games.

Nyahururu police initially label his fall a suicide, leading to headlines like the one in London's Evening Standard that screamed, "Marathon Runner In Suicide Plunge After Row With Wife." But an autopsy later concluded that Sammy's death was the result of a blunt force trauma to the head that several independent pathologists, who examined the report, say could have come from a drunken fall, perhaps as he tried to chase after Terezah.

Sammy's mother, who has no love for Terezah, is convinced that her son was murdered. Last June, she stopped a ceremony to break ground on Sammy's grave by hurling curses at Terezah, throwing rocks at the media and whipping out a machete when onlookers tried to restrain her. She also insists that footage from surveillance cameras on Sammy's property showed Terezah walking in with the "other woman," Jane Nduta, before Sammy's fateful plunge. If true -- and police say the footage is too grainy to make out individuals -- it would contradict Terezah's claim that she found the two in bed.

At a hearing on her arrest for assault and disturbing the peace, Hannah told a judge, "I believe my daughter-in-law knows what caused the death of my son. Ask her, why did she hasten his burial? Was it not to conceal the truth?"

In a news conference in Nyahururu on April 15, Hannah added a new wrinkle, alleging that Terezah was having an affair with a local police officer who helped arrange the plot. She claims the watchman on duty at the Wanjiru home that night confirmed that cops entered his house before he fell to his death.

Terezah, meanwhile, continues to present herself as the wounded widow.

"I cannot change what's in Sammy's mother's mind or in her heart," she says. "I was satisfied with the investigation that was done. I think there is nothing else for [the police] to see."

ince Sammy never thought to write a will -- who would at 24? -- Hannah and Terezah continue to fight in court over his estate, which is estimated at up to $10 million.

Wacera and the reported mother of Sammy's Nakuru child, Judy Wambui, also are vying for a share. Both will be helped by Kenya's new constitution, which gives out-of-wedlock mothers the right to sue their childrens' fathers for support.

"There is no way the courts will deny Wanjiru's children a piece of the inheritance," says Kimenyi of the Brookings Institute.

But Terezah has no intention of going quietly, or letting Sammy's other women nudge her aside. "Other people say they are wives to Sammy," she told The Magazine. "Well, if they are a wife to Sammy, they should pay his bills. Before they get anything, they should pay me for all I've done."

The fight, which shows no signs of abating, is testing the transparency of local and national police who have not publicly commented on the case in nearly a year, and the courts, which have to iron out all the competing claims. It's also giving Kenya's media a frothy look at how the rich live while sparking a lively moral debate about the role of sexuality and bigamy in a modern East African country. In cabs, on blogs, at dinner parties, on talk radio, Kenyans are using the case to talk about the status of women in marriage, even as some wonder whether this is a case where a wife got away with murder.

But, in the end, Sammy's death may show nothing as much as the shockingly cavalier way Kenya treats its abundant athletic resources. Sammy is buried in a dairy farm he purchased near his home where a single sheep grazes by the red marble tomb embossed with a photo of him smiling in a shiny brown suit. There's no statue to him, no race named in his honor. On the contrary, Kenya has moved on from his passing in spectacular fashion.

Four Kenyans ran 2:04 or better last year, and at the end of this month, Athletics Kenya will pick a three-man Olympic marathon team from a field of six that includes Patrick Makau, who shattered the world record in Berlin with 2:03:38, and Geoffrey Mutai, the New York City Marathon winner whose personal best is 2:03:02. The stark reality is that Sammy might not even have made Kenya's 2012 Olympic marathon squad.

"I was the head of the delegation in Beijing," says David Okeyo, the secretary general of Athletics Kenya, "and I was one of the happiest people in the world when Wanjiru won that marathon. What happened with him is very sad." Asked what he thinks about the charges and counter-charges, he says, "One day the truth will come out. I am sure of it."

But it already has. It wasn't the fall that killed Sammy Wanjiru. In Kenya, it's always the rise.