A Killer Dies, a Mystery Lingers

Hashem Zayed's death in prison leaves his motive for a bizarre murder unresolved

The cook who murdered a waitress in a downtown diner has died, bringing a strange end to a sad, strange episode in San Francisco's history.

Hashem Zayed died of a brain tumor Aug. 13 in Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad. He was 62, and serving a 35-year sentence for the shooting death of Helen Menicou, his co-worker at the Pinecrest Restaurant in the Theater District for nearly 20 years.

When he died, Zayed was awaiting an appeal of his conviction based on, among other things, the judge's instructions to the jury about how they should consider Zayed's mental state at the time of the murder. He had no history of violent crime. Defense lawyers portrayed Zayed as a simple-minded man who snapped. Prosecutors called him a coldblooded killer who plotted his murderous act. At trial, several psychiatrists offered a variety of diagnoses, some of which included dementia.

Medical tests performed before the trial showed no evidence of a tumor or any other physical clue about what might have suddenly turned Hashem Zayed into a killer. And the absence of evidence left everyone searching for a reason.

"The interesting thing about the case is that it sounded like he was acting out of character," says Kathy Chavez, the court-appointed lawyer who was handling Zayed's appeal. "He'd been a good worker, and one day he came to work with a gun and shot this woman as if he had some kind of mental disorder. How long the brain tumor was there, I don't know. There were some tests done [before the trial] but nothing showed up."

Zayed's case is also the subject of a study on workplace violence by University of Redlands professor Dianne Layden for the Institute of Behavioral and Applied Management, due out this fall.

The problem seemed to begin with poached eggs.

On the afternoon of July 23, 1997, an attractive young woman came into the diner, sat down at the counter, and asked for poached eggs, which were not on the menu. Zayed began to make them for her, but Menicou intervened, chastising Zayed in front of the customer. (The Pinecrest is a small place with an open kitchen, where most everything takes place in front of the patrons.) Menicou also served as the diner's daytime manager. Zayed later said he was embarrassed and felt emasculated, but not long after his reprimand he happily shared a table with Menicou and others at the diner. At the end of their shift, the cook and waitress went their separate ways.

Menicou, who was 47 at the time of her death, lived with her husband and one of her two sons in Millbrae. Zayed lived in a residence hotel a few blocks from the Pinecrest and worked evenings at the Market Street Cinema. Most of his life took place within about a half-mile radius. He also gambled in card rooms not far away. In fact, on this particular evening, he stayed up all night gambling and lost several thousand dollars.

Hashem Zayed came in to work the next morning, having had no sleep, carrying a .380 semiautomatic handgun. Menicou sat down at the counter with a cup of coffee. Zayed brought up the poached eggs again. And again they argued. The two had been arguing off and on for the better part of two decades about one thing or another. Sometimes Zayed, who spoke limited English, would mix up orders and Menicou would lose patience with him. But between the arguments, Menicou loaned Zayed money, and he made her lunch. That's just the way things were at the Pinecrest. Except on that morning in July.

Zayed got up and walked toward the door, and then stopped, turned around, and shot Menicou in the right arm. She screamed and ran around the counter. He followed and fired a handful of shots into her at close range. And then Zayed walked out the front door and waited for the police to come and arrest him.

Hashem Zayed never really could explain why he shot Helen Menicou that morning. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to spend what amounted to the rest of his life incarcerated. By all accounts, Zayed was a peaceful prisoner, absent any hint of the violent act for which he was locked up. He made friends with his cellmate, a man who spoke Zayed's native Arabic tongue, and prison staffers who took care of him.

Earlier this year, Zayed was diagnosed with a tumor in the rear of his brain. He declined treatment and eventually slipped into unconsciousness. On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 13, Hashem Zayed died from what was officially noted as respiratory cardiac arrest due to brain tumor. He was buried in a public cemetery in Livermore, along with the answer to why he killed Helen Menicou.

 
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