The slaying of umi southworth

Couple's focus on daughter's career masked a troubled marriage

Husband's arrest on Murder charge brings Couple's problems to the surface

jkegley@herald-leader.comJune 5, 2011 

Don Southworth, left, Umi Southworth and their daughter, Almira Fawn, posed for a photo with Eymard Cabling at Applause talent agency in Chicago in 2009. Cabling, an actor, met the Southworths at a talent convention in 2008.

Umi and Don Southworth seemed a happy couple, united in their desire to see their young daughter, a child-prodigy folk singer, thrive in the national music scene.

That was the impression the family left on many, including Eymard Cabling, a theater actor who met them in 2008 at a talent convention in Chicago.

Like many who have seen Almira Fawn Southworth perform, Cabling said he was transfixed by the girl's natural stage presence and musical sophistication. He became fast friends with Almira, her younger sister and both Don and Umi Southworth.

"There was nothing bizarre at all," he said. "They were a very normal, supportive, talented family."

Beau Gunn, a North Carolina radio station manager who worked with the family to develop Almira's career, had a similar recollection.

"Everything seemed real good on the outside as far as what the public would see," Gunn said.

Cabling last heard from Umi Southworth a little more than a week before she was beaten to death at her home June 9, 2010. Her husband, Don, was indicted for murder last week after nearly a year of intense investigation by Lexington police detectives.

Umi and Almira Southworth texted Cabling in late May 2010, asking whether he was going to be at another talent convention where Almira had been asked to perform.

"We're only going to attend the convention if you're going to be there," he said they told him.

Cabling, who is based in California, was working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the time and said he couldn't make it, but he wished them the best.

A few days later, he read Umi Southworth's name in an online news article sent to him by a colleague.

The article said she had been beaten and left for dead behind her Meadowthorpe Avenue home just days before she and Almira had intended to move from Lexington to Nashville to further the girl's recording career.

Don Southworth had not planned to move with them, although there had been talk that he would move later after he retired from his job at UPS, said Buck Williams, owner of Progressive Global Agency, a Nashville talent agency.

Umi Southworth's injuries were so bad that police thought she was dead, leaving her in the bushes for more than three hours while they conducted the investigation as a homicide. She died the next day in the hospital, where she was taken after coroner's officials detected a faint pulse.

"I was aghast," Cabling said. "I was shocked by the reports about police negligence."

Proud of their daughter

Umi and Don Southworth's private lives seemed to have been virtually unknown; the family largely kept to themselves, neighbors have said.

In public, the couple interacted with Almira, who is now 13, but didn't seem to interact with each other.

"Individually they were very proud of their daughter, but it was like they were at separate tables," Gunn said.

"When I was there and Don and Umi were at a gig together — physically in the same place at the same time — there was little communication or interaction ... that you would expect from a husband and wife."

Cabling said his interaction was mostly with Don. Umi, a native of Indonesia, rarely spoke unless he addressed her specifically, he said.

"I am of Asian ethnicity as well, and I observe a lot of Asian women from other countries to be very submissive, quiet and reserved," he said. "I noticed that Don was more vocal."

A cousin's perspective

One of the few people whom Umi Southworth seemed to speak with candidly was her cousin, Sita Moore, an Indonesian native living in Pennsylvania with her husband, John. Sita Moore said Umi Southworth had no other extended family in the United States.

Moore said that Umi and Don Southworth met in Jakarta, Indonesia, while he was overseas doing import-export work for UPS, where he has worked for about 25 years.

Umi met her husband-to-be about 1995 at Bank Central America in Jakarta, where she worked as a clerk, Moore said. Moore wasn't sure how the introduction was made — Moore was at teenager at the time and lived about 25 miles away. But when Umi introduced Don to her large family in Indonesia, Moore recalled her being happy. A few days later, Umi moved with Southworth to America, where they were married, Moore said.

"She loved her husband very much," she said. "She was very proud."

Umi would regularly send greeting cards and photos of newborn Almira to family and friends in Indonesia. When Sita moved to the United States, she and John Moore visited the Southworths on occasion.

Over time, Umi seemed to become "saddened," Moore said. Umi's calls became less frequent, and she seemed quieter and more reserved during visits. It was during that time that Sita and John Moore were introduced to Yogi Moerti Lestari Hesti, who was presented as the Southworths' live-in housekeeper.

During one visit, when the cousins were alone, Umi Southworth burst into tears, Moore said. Umi told her cousin that Don Southworth had taken Hesti as a second wife and had a child, Aleah, with her. The five people lived together at 1212 Fenwick Court until Aleah was 6.

Custody battle

Don Southworth's relationship with Hesti is documented in an open child-custody case file in Fayette Circuit Court. The case began in 2005 after Hesti accused Southworth of attacking her.

Southworth was charged with first-degree sexual abuse and fourth-degree assault after Hesti told police that he beat her and forced her to have sex with him. Southworth was ultimately convicted of assault and an amended charge of sexual misconduct. He paid a $500 fine, according to court records.

Umi Southworth paid his $800 bond, according to court records.

In an affidavit filed in 2006, Hesti said she had met Don Southworth while a student at the University of Kentucky. She was hired to care for Almira, to clean the house and to prepare the meals.

She became pregnant after Don Southworth "instigated a relationship," the document said. The two were bonded in a Muslim ceremony in Indonesia "in an attempt to mitigate some of the shame brought to my family" for being unwed and pregnant, the document said.

Hesti said in the document that she was unaware that it was against U.S. law to have two wives. She said she was forced to act as a housekeeper or baby sitter in public. Don Southworth told her she would be deported if anyone found out about the arrangement, she said.

Don Southworth disputed Hesti's claims in several court filings, saying Hesti lived with him and Umi by choice and that several relatives living in the United States "could have and would have helped her escape" if she was in trouble. The living arrangement was not bad for Almira and Aleah, documents said.

"Nobody was happy in the relationship except for the children," Umi Southworth said in an email message to Hesti that was printed and filed in court.

The day after Umi Southworth died, Hesti filed an emergency order of protection granting her custody of Almira. In January, Fayette Circuit Court Judge Timothy Philpot signed an order saying Don Southworth could talk to Almira by phone, indicating that Almira was still in the custody of Hesti and her husband, John Johnson.

A protective father?

Friends and family say Southworth was an involved father who wanted both his daughters to succeed. He also was protective; when Gunn first contacted the Southworths about the music videos on Almira's YouTube page, Southworth was skeptical, Gunn said.

"I got a pretty good, thorough questioning from Don," he said.

Sita Moore said Almira "adores her father." Michael Johnathan, host of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, which has featured Almira, said Southworth was "very easy to get along with" and that the Southworths didn't seem controlling when it came to Almira's career.

"They did not come across like 'stage parents,'" he said.

But Gunn said that in negotiations with the Southworths, Don was the vocal one, "much to everyone's chagrin," because he would often talk at length and "talk himself in circles, which would almost always pop up more roadblocks."

Gunn said Umi was more knowledgeable about the recording industry and would say what needed to be done correctly and concisely when her husband wasn't around.

Southworth could be controlling, Gunn said. Cabling said he seemed to "want to show Almira off," whereas Umi was more focused on her daughter's happiness.

Gunn said people who did not work so closely with the family probably would not have seen Southworth's controlling side.

"With minimal interaction with him, he looked like and seemed like just a proud and happy father," he said. "A lot of people held Don in high regard."

Southworth, 48, is in the Fayette County Detention Center, awaiting a pretrial hearing on June 23. His bond is set at $500,000.

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