A Family's Grief

updated 03/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 01:00AM

With the haunted look of death foretold, the face of 11-year-old Merita Shabiu stares from a photo in the little house in Vitina, Kosovo, where her ethnic Albanian family squats against the walls, mourning her. Occasionally, Merita's five brothers and sisters call her name. Sometimes they lift her clothes to their faces. "They say, 'It smells of Merita,' " says their father, Hamdi Shabiu, 41.

Tragically, memories are all her family has of Merita, whose lifeless body was found on Jan. 13 by the side of a road two miles outside her small village. A day later, Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi, 35, a U.S. soldier with the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, was taken into custody by the U.S. Army and charged with sexually assaulting and killing her. The arrest added disillusionment to the family's grief. For Merita had been among the children cheering "NATO! NATO!" to welcome the American soldiers who arrived last June to keep Albanians and Serbs safe from one another. Later she would run errands for the GIs, fetching cigarettes and soft drinks. "We could never believe that this could have been done by a soldier," says Shabiu. "They were always good to us and we to them."

A world away, in Niles, Ohio, Ronghi's family and friends can't believe he could have committed such a crime. "I almost dropped dead when it came across on CNN," says Ronghi's brother Lou, 36, a police officer in McDonald, Ohio. Two days after Ronghi's arrest was announced, his distraught mother, Phyllis, 59, spoke by phone with Good Morning America to defend her son, telling Diane Sawyer, "If you'd see the plaques this kid brought home, the medals on his shoulder..."

Though Army authorities have not publicly revealed their whole case against Ronghi, some of the alleged details are emerging: Merita's family last saw her when she left the house around noon on Jan. 13, perhaps bound for a nearby market or to go sledding with other children. A friend remembered seeing Merita stop to talk to a soldier, who gave her a cookie. It wasn't until Merita failed to return home that evening that her father and mother, Remzije, 36, began to worry.

Earlier that day, says neighbor Musafer Semakova, 13, a soldier—whom he later identified from a photo as Ronghi—invited himself into the Semakovas' apartment after. finding Musafer and his two teenage sisters at home alone. According to Musafer, he handed the boy his flak vest, walkie-talkie and rifle, then pointed to the girls and said, "Pretend you're shooting at your sisters." Musafer says, "I said no," and quickly passed the gun back. Frightened, the girls left, and the soldier went away. A few hours later, Musafer saw the GI again—this time lugging a large, blood-smeared garbage bag out of the basement of the Semakovas' apartment building. As the soldier heaved the sack into a jeep, Musafer says, "I saw part of a knee and leg" poking out. Says his father, Muharrem Semakova, 40: "I wasn't sure whether to believe him because he's a child."

On Feb. 18 in Kosovo a preliminary hearing was held, as U.S. military law requires, to determine whether Ronghi should face court-martial. One witness testified that a private had admitted helping Ronghi dispose of a body in the woods outside town; the witness and a superior had then gone and found Merita under the snow. According to an investigating officer, Ronghi told the private not to say anything about what he had seen. Ronghi also allegedly said that it is "easy to get away with something like this in a Third World country," because he had "done it before in the desert." (Ronghi spent six months in the Persian Gulf.) Allegedly, when first confronted, Ronghi denied knowing about the body but then said he had found it in an apartment building, had gotten scared and had buried it.

Ronghi, now being held at a U.S. facility in Mannheim, Germany, is the third of four children of Lou Ronghi Sr., 68, a retired steelworker, and his wife, Phyllis. "It was by the book," Frank's brother Lou Jr. says of their upbringing. "We went to church on Sunday and had our spaghetti dinner in the afternoon." Ronghi took vocational classes and ran cross-country in high school, graduating in 1983, then worked around town at odd jobs, including detailing cars. His 1986 marriage to Karen Ulrich lasted about a year.

In 1988 he joined the Army and was promoted to staff sergeant two years ago. The highlight of his military service came last November, when Ronghi, an enthusiastic singer, was asked to perform for President Clinton, who was visiting the troops in Kosovo. "He got up there and he said, 'Wayne Newton couldn't be here, so you got me instead,' " his mother, Phyllis, later told a local newspaper. "He's such a ham." At Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was stationed before being sent to Kosovo, Ronghi had a squeaky-clean reputation—a regular guy who idolized Frank Sinatra. But some of those who knew him off-base, in the karaoke bars he frequented, recall him as a somewhat enigmatic figure who had no close friends, only acquaintances.

It may be weeks before Maj. Gen. John Abizaid, the First Infantry Division commander, exercises his authority to decide whether Ronghi should be court-martialed. But if, as is likely, he is tried for premeditated murder, Ronghi, who was accompanied at his hearing only by his two military lawyers, could face the death penalty.

Remarkably, despite the anguish of his daughter's death, Hamdi Shabiu isn't bitter. "We all know this is just one person who did this—not all America," he says. "We still love Americans. We are free today, and that wouldn't have happened without the help of America."

Bruce Frankel
Nina Biddle in Kosovo, Kelly Williams in Niles and Michaele Ballard in Fayetteville, N.C.

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