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The Globe and Mail

Toronto stabbing victim was 'strict boss' who missed her kids

Cabbagetown neighbours of Nighisti Semret, who was stabbed to death on her way home from work Tuesday morning, gathered for a vigil October 25, 2012 in the alley where she was killed.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The cleaning staff at the Delta Chelsea Hotel on Toronto's Gerrard Street usually work alone, dividing up different sections of the hotel among themselves. Last night, they worked in pairs, afraid to be alone after the violent stabbing death of their colleague and supervisor, Nighisti Semret.

Ms. Semret, 55, was stabbed to death on her way home from work Tuesday morning in a laneway between Bleecker Street and Ontario Street, north of Carlton Street. She was walking home after her night shift just before 7 a.m. Her attacker does not appear to have stolen anything from her, there is no other evident motive, and police are speculating she was attacked by a random stranger who is familiar with the Cabbagetown area.

At least 100 people gathered Thursday night in the laneway where she was killed, the second of at least three vigils planned.

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"It's a way for the community to grieve and move along in the grieving process," said Shelley Ledger, a resident in the area who helped plant an Emperor Japanese maple tree in Ms. Semret's honour.

Ms. Ledger was touched by the groundswell of support from people all over Toronto who are coming to the vigils. Many are from the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities. Ms. Semret was an Eritrean refugee who came to Canada in 2010.

Pam McConnell, the councillor for the neighbourhood, said many residents have approached her to say they feel helpless.

"They want to know what they can do to help. They want to see if they can locate her family and raise money to return her body home," she said.

The councillor said she is working to arrange counselling for her constituents, particularly for those who knew Ms. Semret and who witnessed the attack.

Police have not found the murder weapon, described by a witness as a large, serrated knife. They are now asking residents who live in the area bounded by Sherbourne, Carlton, Ontario and Wellesley streets to check their properties for a discarded knife. Police are also asking people who have security cameras to check their surveillance tapes for anything that looks suspicious between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Tuesday.

"This is something that this person does. This person has done this type of conduct before," said Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux with the Homicide Squad.

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Ms. Semret lived by herself in a rooming house on Winchester Street and spent most of the day sleeping, according to her neighbours. Her mother, brothers and children live in Uganda. Toronto police spokesman Constable Tony Vella said her relatives have been notified of her death.

At work, Ms. Semret rarely talked about her personal life. Her colleagues describe her as "a very strict boss" who wasn't easily approachable.

"She wants to sweep everything. Every corner," said Cris Salud, who workers say was her right-hand man.

Mr. Salud said he was able to work closely with Ms. Semret because he didn't let her gruff attitude toward her employees bother him.

"She's very strict about work. You feel like you are scared to talk with her," said Rose Delafuente. "If you didn't know her well, she seemed rude."

But there was a lighter side to Ms. Semret that the cleaners would occasionally get a glimpse of. She liked to sing and whistle. At the end of her shift, if she was satisfied with the work that was done overnight, she would clap her hands and perform a little song-and-dance.

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She also couldn't resist mentioning how much she missed her four grown children who are all in high school or university, her colleagues said. She had been hoping that her immigration papers would be processed before the end of this year so she could visit her children back home in December.

"She missed them a lot. She wanted to bring her children here for a good future," Mr. Salud said.

Ms. Semret never mentioned if she was married. Her colleagues assumed she was divorced. Sometimes, she would joke about wanting to marry a young guy, or an old, but rich man.

"She was tired of being poor," Ms. Delafuente said.

Another colleague, Divina Daleja, who described Ms. Semret as her best friend and who works at a few different hotels with her contracting company, said Ms. Semret was always asking her about getting a job as a nanny or as a cleaner elsewhere for better pay.

"She wanted to get out of this job because it is so tough," Ms. Daleja said. "Poor Nicky. She didn't deserve this," she added, using Ms. Semret's nickname.

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