Almost Justice: A man who wanted to help city's children became victim of its streets

Beau Zabel in his Boy Scout uniform in undated photo. Zabel achieved the highest rank, Eagle Scout, by age 17. Credit: Courtesy of Zabel family

Chapter 1: Beau from Minnesota

Monday, she had written.

A date. His first in Philadelphia.


That's what Beau Zabel said when he was excited.

And Beau Zabel was beyond excited. He had been in Philadelphia 42 days and he was swooning in the newness. Like big-boy summer camp.

None of it felt real yet.

The Italian Market rowhouse with his roommate, Meg Guerreiro, and Kismet, her Maltese Yorkie. His soon-to-start student teaching program. His daily explorations with his Not for Tourists Guide to Philadelphia. Sometimes 50 blocks through Center City. Sometimes with Kismet. Always with his iPod, comedy podcasts loaded.

He was far from Austin.

Austin, Minn. Population: 24,000. Spam Town USA! Birthplace of that wonderful luncheon meat and home to the Spam Museum, where he had worked in high school, juggling and making balloon animals.

But Austin was Austin.

A year out of college, he'd been working the late shift at Mrs. Gerry's Kitchen, a salad dressing factory 20 miles from Austin. The pressure washers made his hands sore, and the dreary hours allowed his mind to dwell on unrequited loves.

He thrilled in the randomness of Philadelphia.

Like his new summer job at Starbucks on South Street.

"Rocking the espresso machine and blending some fraps!" he boasted on Facebook.

And now, this date, and with it, the possibility of a new friend. Her name was Jess. They met on Craigslist.

He tried not to get ahead of himself. He could be impatient with friendships and want to jump levels quickly. Not in a romantic way, but in a long-lasting way.

Of course, he loved his family, friends, his cats back home, Cleo and Mac. And there was his devotion to Stephen King, who was sooo much more than a horror writer.

But what did he know about love? Amour? Only what he'd seen on the screen and read on the page. He paid homage to it in his poetry.

"Life is love," he had written in his spiral notebook. "To love is to live."

And life was beginning now.

He untied his apron. The watch dangling from the belt loop of his cargo shorts read a few minutes past 1 a.m., the end of a Saturday-night shift, June 15, 2008. It was one of his last training sessions. Tomorrow, he'd be able to work the drink machines.

He stuffed his work cap into his backpack. Put on his black fedora. He had $17 in his wallet and 50 cents for a Mountain Dew at the vending machine on Washington Avenue - his nightly sugar buzz. He slung his bag over his shoulder and switched on his white iPod classic. He was on a Stephen Colbert kick.

He was 23 years old.

Twelve blocks straight up Passyunk. His regular walk home.

"Be careful," a coworker once warned him. "It gets sketchy."

Meg had brought up safety, too. Beau was tall but soft, like a teddy bear. She didn't think he understood how dangerous Philadelphia could be. Maybe some Mace or a Taser for the apartment, she suggested. He made a joke of it, said he'd just carry a baseball bat wherever he went.

He crossed Bainbridge. A woman had been robbed at gunpoint outside the gym there a few weeks earlier. Beau didn't know about that robbery. And he didn't know about the two men police believe were cruising in a tinted-out Monte Carlo. The quiet older one in the passenger seat with a 9mm handgun. The younger, heavyset one behind the wheel.

"On route," they called it. Looking for someone to rob.

Beau spent a lot of time thinking about a soul mate. He and Jess exchanged e-mails during the week.

"We can grab a bite to eat, drinks, walk around, get ice cream," she wrote. "Whatever, I'm actually pretty easygoing."

He asked her favorite coffee flavor so he could bring a gift.

"We have like a thousand flavors, so maybe I'll just close my eyes and pick randomly," he wrote.

He didn't want to come on too strong, but he'd barely have time for anything else once his teaching training began.

He was the middle child. An older sister, Brook. A younger brother, Brice. His mother, Lana Hollerud, and father, Douglas Kammeier, separated before he was born. He had a stepsister in Iowa City. When he was a toddler, his mother married Terry Zabel.

He grew up in a tidy, white-shingled house with red shutters and an American flag over the daisy garden. A wood-paneled bedroom with Grandpa's dusty hunting rifle encased on the wall. Through the window, the choking sweet smell of the Hormel plant, where the Spam was made.

Boy Scouts with Terry. Troop 109. Cuyuna Scout Camp, near the northern lakes.

"All God's critters got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher," they'd sing.

By 17, Order of the Arrow and the highest honor, Eagle Rank. A photo in the Rochester Post-Bulletin, his face still plump with baby fat.

Math league, debate, viola, first bass and then baritone in the choir. Bouncing always between cliques, but never feeling a member of one. He called his mother Momma. She called him Sunny Bunny.

Listening to his iPod, he passed the bars near Christian Street.

College was at Augustana in Rock Island, Ill., along the Mississippi. Urgent years spent thirsting for connection.

Even if he doubled the hours in a day, he wouldn't have had enough time for the things he wanted to do: school, work, choir, guitar, weightlifting, running, international club, Spanish club, friends, sleep, reading for pleasure, biking, and poetry.

Plus, he wanted to teach himself French, swim three times a week, write short stories, shoot pool, watch some sunsets, and learn photography.

He made friends, mostly with girls.

Alice Parker, the choral composer, led a campus hymn festival. He went with three girls. Afterward, they went to one of the girls' parents' house and baked cookies and sang show tunes at the piano. It was one of the best random nights of his life.

As a child, he was told if he believed in Jesus, he would go to heaven. In college, he doubted, then decided: He would follow the words of Christ, but also the teachings of Buddha and Confucius. They were all great men he could spend a lifetime pondering.

He neared Washington Avenue with its gated tire shops and cellphone stores. Ahead, the neon of Geno's Steaks lit the sky orange.

A summer semester in Ecuador solidified his desire to live a life for others. He slept on a schoolhouse floor in the jungle, jogged a dirt road with barking dogs at his heels, and stood on a cliff overlooking the continental divide. Somehow the clouds seemed more majestic.

He bought a Panama hat and red rosary beads. In San Pedro, he ate six fish eyeballs on a dare. He tried a mai tai, but was more comfortable being the responsible one who made sure his friends got home safe.

He started to think in Spanish. The natives gave him tips. Don't say adios casually, because adios literally means "to God."

Once he mistakenly said estoy exitado to his house sister, which does mean "I am excited," but in a wedding-night sort of way.

In Ecuador, he fell for an American girl named Ann Marie. They read each other's poetry. He made her host family Spam and cheesy eggs. She fell asleep on his shoulder at Star Wars Chapter III. Afterward, she insisted she was fine taking a cab. He wrote the license plate and cab company on his hand just to be sure.

He slept near an active volcano.

The vending machine on Washington Avenue was next to a razor-wire fence. Two young people walked near, laughing in conversation. Beau was still listening to his iPod.

After graduation, he moved back to Austin. Went to work in the salad dressing factory. Grew lonely.

"I was at a movie theater the other day, and there was a girl sitting behind me that sounded just like you," he wrote a school friend.

In his childhood bedroom, he typed out the applications for student teaching programs. Miami. Chicago. Philadelphia. Places he would be needed. The Philadelphia Teaching Fellows was math-centric.

"Mathematics is one of my dearest passions," he wrote in one application essay. "Some mathematicians would describe their field as a soap opera that they love to watch unfold. We love to see how the characters interact. I hope to someday instill at least part of that passion into my students."

In Philadelphia, he'd teach his own class and take teaching certification classes at Drexel University, tuition-free if he stayed in the city five years.

"See you in the funny pages," he e-mailed his family.

But he worried, too.

"Some days, I feel uber-excited about becoming a teacher," he wrote a friend. "Occasionally, I have cursed days where I fear that teaching won't be all I hope it will be."

He found the Ellsworth rowhouse on and flew in to see it over Easter. Meg was an education major at Temple University, preparing to be a student teacher, too. Beau arrived with a bouquet of white flowers.

As a thank-you for agreeing to be his roommate, he bought Meg the astronomy software Starry Night. Mailed a note:

"I don't know if I believe in astrology, but the placemat at a local Chinese restaurant describes me freakishly well: You are ambitious yet honest. Prone to spend freely. Seldom make lasting friendships.

"Freaky-deaky." he wrote. "I'm looking forward to living with you and hopefully starting a long-lasting friendship, in spite of my zodiac."

He arrived on a Monday in a van with his mother. Six states, 18 hours. He unpacked his childhood comforter, adorned with a red dinosaur wearing blue tennis shoes. Many of his things were in shoe boxes. His passport. His teaching supplies. A pocket Constitution.

Lana said goodbye on the sidewalk, and hugged Meg. "Take care of my son," she said.

That first night, Meg took Beau to Rita's Water Ice. We don't have water ice in Minnesota, he told the counter girl. Meg watched the counter girl grow impatient.

Many mornings, Meg would come downstairs to find Beau out exploring with Kismet.

He let his sandy blond hair go long and grew a beard.

He liked sticking out. He wore his Spam tie-dye. Played up his accent: "Doncha know?"

Meg landed him the Starbucks interview. He listed his mother as his first reference.

He couldn't get this one coworker to like him. Whatever Beau said, the kid snapped at him. The harder Beau tried, the harsher the kid got.

"I'm just going to keep being nice," Beau told Meg.

He sipped his soda and crossed toward Ellsworth.

He had already gone on his first teaching interview. A high school in North Philadelphia. Meg helped him pick an outfit. "Oh, my God, you need a solid-colored tie," she said, exasperated with all his patterned ones. He looked so out of place in his leather jacket and fedora. Meg made him promise to call when he got there. He thought it went well.

He turned on to Ellsworth Street.

Earlier in the week, he had adopted a mangy orange Tabby and named it Jake, after Jake Chambers, a character in King's Dark Tower series. Kismet didn't sleep the whole time Jake was in the house. The two animals just stared at each other. Jake wouldn't eat or drink and was doing this weird thing with his mouth.

He was eight houses from home. Some low-hanging branches, a red rowhouse door, a blue truck parked at the curb, a streetlight ahead.

Just the night before, Beau did a neighborhood tour for his cousin Lauren Chaby, who was taking summer courses at the University of Pennsylvania. He showed Lauren the Italian Market, took her to a cafe where they melted Hershey bars into hot chocolate. He shared his excitement about his upcoming date.

Lauren felt timid in the city but confident around Beau. She didn't want to leave him that night. She idolized him. He was brave and honest and principled. A thinker. A dreamer. He was beautiful.

Police do not believe there was a struggle between Beau and his killer. He was shot from behind. Maybe, lost in his comedy, laughing at punch lines only he could hear, he didn't realize a thing. Or perhaps he had turned to face his killer before turning to run.

Maybe, in an awful instant, he knew.

The bullet entered below his left ear. He died instantly.

The police officers stood over him. The neighbors crowded. His backpack was still on his shoulder, but the pocket where he kept his iPod had been turned out and the iPod was missing. The blood on his face made his eyes look so blue.

An officer took the wallet from the backpack. Opened it.

"Beau from Minnesota," he said.

Contact Mike Newall at 215-854-2759,, or follow on Twitter @MikeNewall.