Unsolved slaying spurs lawyer Yatooma to action

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Tragedy is personal to attorney for Tamara Greene’s son

BIRMINGHAM — Norman Yatooma still isn’t sure what happened the night his father was gunned down outside his Detroit convenience store 15 years ago.

Did two men or one kill his father when he tried to interrupt a carjacking? Did they escape on foot or by car?

What’s certain is the killers were never found.

“I used to go to bed at night with fantasies of finding who killed my father,” said Yatooma, now a Birmingham trial attorney. “I was a kid who was obviously very angry about losing Dad.”

His father’s unsolved murder is why Yatooma is becoming the loudest voice demanding to know who killed Tamara Greene, an exotic dancer known as Strawberry who allegedly performed during a rumored party at Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s Manoogian Mansion and was murdered months later.

Yatooma is seeking justice for Jonathan Bond — Greene’s son, who turns 15 today — in a $150 million federal lawsuit alleging Kilpatrick and other city officials thwarted Greene’s murder investigation. It has become an extremely high-profile case since becoming linked to a perjury investigation of Kilpatrick, though it was filed in 2003.

But the fame of the case means nothing to Yatooma, who started a foundation to help local kids whose parents have died unexpectedly.

For him, Jonathan’s case is personal.

“Tamara Greene wasn’t just Strawberry who danced. She was a mom,” Yatooma said. “My father wasn’t just some guy who interrupted a carjacking. He was our father. I’m just hoping to get the same answers for Jonathan that Kwame Kilpatrick would insist on if, God forbid, it was his mother who was killed.”

Yatooma’s father, Manuel, was 2 ½ when he and his mother came to Detroit from Iraq in the 1950s to join his father. Manuel started working at his father’s convenience store at 13 years old. He later bought his own store in Detroit, got married and had four sons.

He worked hard and expected the same from his sons.

“Dad was someone who respected someone’s accomplishments, not your efforts,” Yatooma said. “He measured you by your results.”

One night the elder Yatooma tried to intervene in a carjacking at one of his seven convenience stores. A gunman lodged two bullets in his head, snuffing out his life at age 45.

Norman Yatooma, then 20, had been elected the student body president at Taylor University, a small Christian college in Indiana, the day before. But he never got the chance to share the news with his dad.

“I went into my day-old office and I just tore it apart,” said Yatooma, fighting back tears. “I started throwing things and put my fist through walls. I had never in my lifetime called my father ‘Daddy.’ Over and over again, I was “ saying, ‘I love you, Daddy.’

“For a few brief moments, I felt like a little boy who wanted his Daddy.”

But as the eldest son, Yatooma quickly became the man of the house after bills came pouring in, along with 63 claims against his father’s estate.

“Life changed,” said Yatooma, who lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife, Nicole, and two young daughters. “My scope of responsibilities had increased in incomparable, immeasurable ways.”

Though his father had accumulated wealth from his convenience stores and other businesses, it disappeared within six months as lawyers fighting the claims against the estate siphoned the bank account. One of the family cars was repossessed, and the stack of foreclosure notices could have wallpapered the kitchen.

The overwhelming financial, legal and emotional toll inspired Yatooma to create Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids on Father’s Day 2003 to offer support to children who have suffered the abrupt loss of a parent.

“We had a choice: to get better or bitter,” said Andrea Yatooma, the family matriarch and the foundation’s chaplain. “We didn’t waste the pain. Our pain will help someone else.”

The nonprofit is funded with private donations and run by more than 200 volunteers. It has offered food assistance, home repairs, legal representation, grief counseling and other services to more than 500 southeastern Michigan families.

Among them are Anna and Rebecca Harris, whose mother died of lung cancer in 2002. A few years later, their father, Jim Harris, got hurt at work and had to have surgery on his neck. Shortly after, he suffered a heart attack and kidney failure and was diagnosed with cancer.

Harris’ inability to work left him on a tight income. The Yatooma foundation helped him pay his rent and utility bills and helped them buy groceries. Yatooma even took Harris and Anna to see the Red Wings play because she was a fan but had never been to a game.

“This agency really cares about you,” said Harris of Harrison Township. “When they start helping you, they want you to know they are there for you.”

That’s why Royal Oak resident Mike Maceroni gives time and money to the organization. He can relate to the organization’s mission since both of his parents died three days apart in 2000. He’s also impressed by Yatooma’s passion.

“He wants to do everything to help a family so they don’t have to go through what he went through,” said Maceroni, 40.

Ernest Flagg, Jonathan’s father, wasn’t aware of Yatooma’s foundation when he approached him in September to take over the federal case that had languished since being filed five years ago. He only knew that Yatooma had a good reputation, came highly recommended and wasn’t politically connected to Detroit officials.

“Jonathan needs answers,” Flagg said. “It was his mother who was murdered. There is no way Tammy is going to come back, but it’s very, very important to me to bring answers to Jonathan. We need to help him bring closure.”

Since Yatooma took over the case, a federal judge has ruled he will allow the attorney to review text messages between city officials that could offer leads into Greene’s death.

“He’s aggressive and looks out for his clients,” said Ron Reynolds, a Farmington Hills attorney who has worked with Yatooma. “He’s extraordinarily good at getting attention for his cases.”

But Jonathan’s case is not about getting attention, it’s about finding him the answers he deserves, Yatooma said.

“Kids shouldn’t have to experience the premature loss of a parent — certainly not at the age of 10, as he did,” Yatooma said. “But when you are forced to live through that sort of experience, the very least you can ask for is a meaningful investigation and responsible answers and certainly not a cover-up of your mother’s murder.”

And if Yatooma’s father were still alive, he would expect nothing less than results from his son.

“(What) he’d expect, as I expect and what most people with a beating heart expect, is the truth will be revealed in this matter,” Yatooma said.

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