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Family Conflict Preceded Slaying

August 29, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

A woman testified Thursday about familial friction and repeatedly running away from her strict Syrian immigrant parents, patterns which prosecutors said motivated her father to kill and dismember the nephew who often harbored her.

"I was asking for a little more freedom and it wasn't happening," 23-year-old Vilma Tawil testified as her father, Fadel Tawil, 65, sat hunched a few feet away in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.

Fadel Tawil is accused of killing his nephew, Hilal Taweel, 35, in January of 1999.

Although wary of his uncle, according to testimony and police, Taweel on several occasions let his cousin stay at his Burbank apartment, and even arranged once for her to take a trip to Oklahoma for a week when she ran away from home.

Prosecutors said that this was an affront to Fadel Tawil, whom they described as being unable to reconcile the life he led in Syria with the American culture he felt his daughter was quickly adopting.

On Jan. 2, 1999, a partial torso and leg belonging to Taweel were found by workers at a Sun Valley recycling plant.

The rest of the body was never found.

Authorities have said they knew where Taweel was killed -- the Tawil family's apartment in Burbank -- and why. What they may never know is how Taweel died.

A criminalist with the Los Angeles County coroner's office testified Thursday, however, that a bone analysis did reveal the means of the man's dismemberment.

"All of these marks are consistent with having been made with a saw," said Steven Dowell, pointing to cuts across a vertebra and knee joint.

Most of the day's testimony was taken up by a description of the tensions within the Tawil family. During breaks, Fadel Tawil smiled at his daughter.

Under questioning by both the prosecutor and defense attorney, Vilma Tawil said the day-to-day problems that drove her to keep running away were primarily with her mother, Mouna Tawil.

"My shaky relationship was not with my father, it was with my mother," the daughter said. "She was nosy and wouldn't give me my freedom."

After she would run away, however, her father "did threaten to send me back to Syria," Vilma Tawil said.

She said Taweel and her father generally had "a very good relationship," with the victim often visiting her parents.

However, she described an explosive set of encounters in August 1998 between her father and her cousin.

Having discovered his daughter at Taweel's apartment, Vilma Tawil said, her father attacked his nephew as she changed clothes in another room.

"I heard my dad yelling at Hilal and slapping him a couple of times," she said.

According to her testimony, the older man yelled: "How could you disrespect our family this way?"

Later that day, as Taweel tried to make peace at his uncle's house, according to Vilma Tawil, an argument that also involved her mother and brother erupted.

Upset, her father grabbed a knife and threatened to kill himself, she said. Taweel tried to keep his uncle from hurting himself, she added.

"I got so emotional ... I cut my wrist with a razor," Vilma Tawil testified.

Her brother and Taweel took her to the home of a doctor her cousin knew for treatment, she said.

Prosecutors expect to wrap up their case next week.

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