Last fall, Ahmednur Ali was gunned down in broad daylight outside the Brian Coyle Center as he left after an afternoon of volunteering.
The 20-year-old Augsburg student’s death appeared to be next in a line of Somali men’s unsolved murders in Minneapolis last year, which numbered at least seven.
Police worried the lack of progress in closing the cases, which they attributed in part to tight-lipped witnesses who feared retribution, was feeding into increasing violence in the Somali community.
Then, police caught a break. Just four days after Ali was murdered, with help from eyewitnesses, they arrested then 16-year-old Ramadan Abdi Shiekh Osman in connection with Ali’s death. Osman, a Minneapolis resident, was charged with second-degree murder, and in early December 2008, certified to stand trial as an adult.
The arrest was touted by the Minneapolis Police Department as a turning point after the string of unsolved murders. A mention of the case on the department’s website in late December used phrases like “unprecedented partnership” to describe the cooperation between the Somali community and police that helped lead to Osman’s arrest.
Charges dropped, but case ‘not closed’
But what had been viewed by many as progress, quickly dissipated last week as the case began to fall apart.
“Two of the critical witnesses we needed to make our case recanted, and one literally went south to Mexico,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told Bridgeland News. The day the case was set to go to trial, June 1, charges were dropped against Osman, and the now 17-year-old was released from custody.
While the police department’s perception of making inroads into the Somali community may have come prematurely — and to some, might have made the department seem almost out of touch in terms of realistically assessing its progress — both police and the prosecutor’s office have vowed to continue pursuing the case.
Speaking on WCCO Radio Wednesday, Freeman said the case is far from over.
“We continue to work with Minneapolis police and the Somali community to find witnesses who will stand up at trial and testify for the government,” he said.
Following a joint interview with Freeman on WCCO Radio, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan told Bridgeland News it’s not uncommon for a suspect to be recharged. “It’s not closed,” he said, referring to the case, which is currently assigned. He also said there’s no statute of limitations in this kind of case that could prevent charges [against Osman] from being reinstated at a later date.
Progress, setbacks, caution and a reprieve from last year’s violence
Despite commitment from prosecutors and law enforcement, there have been other setbacks. Until recently, Minneapolis employed three police officers of Somali decent, according to Dolan, who has said, in terms of recruitment, it’s important for the Minneapolis police force to be inclusive of the diverse communities that reside in the city. Just this week, one of the three Somali officers was laid off as a result of budget constraints.
Still, trying to change the culture of silence in the community remains a key focus for police and community members committed to quelling violence in the area.
The Brian Coyle Center, a place for youth to gather and participate in organized activities, saw a drop in participants after the shooting, executive director Jennifer Blevins said.
Over the past half-year, that decline has turned around and numbers are back up after the installation of security cameras on site and close monitoring by staff of goings-on at the center, she added.
But now, after Osman’s release, Blevins fears the calm that settled over the community since the arrest could transform to something worse.
“So far, we’ve seen a reduction in violence since last year,” she said. “We’re very happy about that and we don’t want to see that reversed.”
At this point, there hasn’t been a noticeable outward reaction to the suspect’s release among youth at the center, she said.
“But we’re being cautious, and we’re making sure the lines of communication are open so if anyone is having a reaction to this, they know that there are adults they can talk to and get support,” Blevins said.
Fears of retribution for suspect and witnesses alike
Dolan has indicated that he recently spoke to the family members of several Somali murder victims who say there’s a very real fear of retaliation. But it goes both ways. Now that Osman, who remains the key suspect in Ali’s murder, has been released from custody, Dolan said police are also concerned about reprisals against him. “He’s known. His name’s known,” Dolan said. “It’s not like this is a ‘who done it.’” In terms of Osman’s safety being compromised, “We fear that,” Dolan said.
Osman’s attorney, identified by the County Attorney’s Office as Hennepin County Public Defender Ann Remington, could not be reached for comment.
In the meantime, the Coyle Center will do its part to instill in people who go there a sense of ownership in the community — the kind of stake, Belvins said, that helps urge witnesses afraid of retaliation to testify.
“We’re supporting the community and saying we need to focus on stopping the violence and supporting the witnesses so that prosecutions happen in these cases, and those who are committing violent crimes understand that there will be consequences,” Blevins said.
The center has been working with other organizations in the Somali community to build programming that will engage youth and consequently help to curb violence among young people, which has run rampant in the Somali community in the recent past.
For now, Blevins waits with the community to see what will happen next.
“Everyone is very committed to having this neighborhood be a safe neighborhood where everyone feels like they can walk around and enjoy the benefits of being in this neighborhood,” she said. “At this time when it feels like there’s a step back, everyone is sticking together and focusing on the importance of witnesses feeling like there is a lot of people behind them so they feel like they have the support to come forward and testify.”
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