“Once he’s off his medication, that’s when he tends to go to haywire,” Sherif, 41, said. “There are times when he’s just unaware of anything going on around him. If he couldn’t find his vape, he would go nuts.”
About nine months later, the unthinkable happened.
According to police, Samy, 36, “fatally assaulted” his 82-year-old father on Sept. 27, leaving Talat at the bottom of a staircase in the basement of a home in the Rose Hill area of Fairfax County he shared with his adult sons. He was charged with second-degree murder. Samy has pleaded not guilty, Tarik said. The public defender’s office, which is representing Samy, declined to comment.
Sherif and Tarik concede their brother had troubles. But they are skeptical of police’s theory of what happened. Tarik said his father had a history of getting dizzy in his old age, and he believes that Talat fell and hit his head on the concrete floor.
“Do I think my brother is capable of doing something bad? Absolutely. I will never lie about that,” Tarik, 45, said. “But do I think, in this particular instance, that this was my little brother? Absolutely not.”
A grandmother’s killing: Covid’s mental health crisis hits one family
Sherif said he woke up just before 2 p.m. that Tuesday afternoon and went outside to smoke a cigarette. Their father slept in the basement, but Sherif said he hadn’t seen him that day yet. When Samy later woke up to smoke a cigarette and make coffee, he told Sherif that he also hadn’t seen their father.
Sherif panicked. Talat usually woke up before his sons to make tea and smoke a hookah before heading back to the basement, Sherif said. It was unusual that no one would have seen him by the afternoon.
Sherif said he screamed for his father but got no response. He said he rushed to the basement, flung the door open, and found Talat crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood.
Sherif said he checked for a pulse on his father’s arm, chest, and neck before he yelled out to Samy to call 911. Samy said his phone wasn’t working, so Sherif rushed upstairs to grab his own and summon authorities, according to Sherif.
Police questioned both brothers before asking them to get in separate vehicles to go to the police station, according to Sherif. At the station, Sherif said officers took photos to see if he had any wounds on his body.
Sherif said he told officers that he needed to go home, and he was released. But investigators continued to question Samy, Sherif said, adding that he was told he could not see his brother.
Sherif said he arrived home around 6 p.m., and Samy arrived not long after. He said they went to stay at a hotel around 11 p.m. that evening, and Samy left to return home at around 5 a.m. the next day.
According to Sherif, police called him a little after 6 a.m. to let him know that Samy had been arrested.
A Fairfax County police spokesman said in a statement that “detectives investigating the death of Talat Hassanein, 82, quickly identified significant trauma to his upper body. Detectives from our Crime Scene Section also responded and discovered evidence to indicate Talat’s death was not accidental. Further investigation determined that Samy Hassanein fatally assaulted his father.” Police declined to detail their evidence against Samy.
‘That’s where he wanted to die.’
Talat, who was born in Egypt in 1940, loved tailoring, a trade he first took up as a soldier in the military in Cairo, Sherif said. He came to the United States in 1971. There he worked on his uncle’s farm in Waldorf, Md., for a few years until returning to tailoring in the mid-1970s, when he opened a store in D.C., Sherif said.
He was a hard worker, contemplating applying for an open position in a thrift store even after he retired, Sherif said. Both Talat and his wife retired around 2000 and rotated between living in the United States and Egypt. Tarik said his mother has been living in Egypt for the past year.
While in the United States, Talat was drawn to the Arlington and Alexandria area, Sherif said. On occasion, he would take his sons with him when he drove past the Washington Monument.
“He would show us the pride he had in the United States, and he wanted us to have that pride,” Sherif said.
Talat also wanted to instill in his sons the value of hard work and a good education, and an appreciation for their heritage, Sherif said. He enrolled the boys in Northern Virginia’s Islamic Saudi Academy and taught them how to speak, read and write Arabic. He wanted to ensure his children knew the official language of their home, as well as mastering English, Sherif said.
“He wanted us to know about Egypt and our religion, but he wanted us to love America,” Sherif said. “He always referred to the United States as home. That’s where he wanted to die.”
Struggling with mental illness
Through the years, the family had struggles — particularly with Samy. He had seizures at ages 2 and 6, and was diagnosed partially schizophrenic. As he got older, he talked to walls and had conversations with himself, Sherif said.
While his brothers played basketball or hide-and-seek with other kids in their Fairfax neighborhood, Samy buried himself in first-person shooter video games like Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, Sherif said. During his first two years at Edison High School, which his brothers also attended, Samy allegedly found solace in smoking marijuana.
Throughout high school, Samy kept to himself and complained about not having many friends, Sherif said. He had but one romantic relationship that Sherif said went sour very quickly — because Samy would too often talk about outlandish conspiracy theories. He was a big fan of Infowars founder Alex Jones, Sherif said. Tarik said that Samy would sometimes be glued to Jones’s show for 12 hours a day.
“We told him that no girl wants to sit there and hear conspiracy theories and hatred about the country where she was born and the flag that she supports,” Sherif said.
In adulthood, Samy worked at Alexandria Renew Enterprises, or AlexRenew, a water resource recovery public utility that cleans water, Sherif said. (The company declined to comment.) Samy still struggled with mental illness.
During Samy’s paranoia, Samy often distanced himself from the family. Sherif said Samy always reached out to him first, when he was ready to reconnect.
The two bonded over Michael Jackson music, and Samy particularly enjoyed the song “Blue Gangsta,” which was released after Jackson’s death in June of 2009. But Jackson’s death also brought Samy deeper into conspiracy theories, Sherif said.
“He started saying the government can’t stand the idea of a Black man being the most famous person in the world,” Sherif said. “But months later, he flipped on Michael Jackson and called him the head of the Illuminati.”
Kathy Harkey, the executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) of Virginia, said that adults with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may experience symptoms such as hallucinations, a change in sleeping habits or changes in temperament.
The pandemic created particular challenges for those seeking treatment. In a recent study that Harkey conducted in early October, 41.9 percent of respondents agreed that they faced more difficulty in getting mental health appointments and services than before the pandemic, and 14 percent strongly agreed.
But Harkey said that people with serious mental illnesses are often the victims of crimes, not perpetrators. And Harkey also said only 1 percent or less of those people actually commit major crimes like murder.
“Society always seems to need a reason to turn back to whether a person has a mental illness because they can’t justify in their minds that regular people commit heinous crimes,” Harkey said.
Natasha Tonge, an assistant professor at George Mason University’s psychology department, said this stigma may persist because people avoid or treat those afflicted with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as foreign or scary.
“As a result, it’s easier to stigmatize people with serious mental illnesses and it’s harder to put yourself in their shoes and understand the complexity of their illness,” Tonge said.