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Police close case of Abdi Sharif's death but closure eludes family

Andrea May Sahouri
Des Moines Register

Police have officially closed the investigation for the missing teen Abdullahi "Abdi" Sharif, claiming evidence suggests no foul play in the 18-year-old's death.

But for his mother, the road to closure is far from over.

Sharif was last seen on surveillance video leaving the Target at Merle Hay Mall — where he worked — on Jan. 17. Cell towers last pinged his phone near a bridge along Euclid Avenue over the Des Moines River, according to police.

On May 2, Sharif's body was found by a kayaker and pulled from the Des Moines River near Prospect Park — less than a mile from his last cell phone ping. 

The Polk County Medical Examiner's Office ruled his cause of death to be probable freshwater drowning, but the manner of death undetermined.

Abdullahi "Abdi" Sharif, 18, went missing in January. His body was found May 2 in the Des Moines River.

Detectives told Fadumo Ahmed, Sharif's mother, he took a DART bus on Local Route 16 near Merle Hay Mall and got off around Euclid Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, where he walked to the bridge along Euclid Avenue and jumped into the Des Moines River.

The last photo on his phone — taken the same minute cell towers recorded the final ping — was a picture of the bridge at 5:43 p.m., according to police. A minute later, police said he tried to upload the photo to Instagram. Then his phone stopped providing data.

"Reviewing evidence acquired in this investigation, it is believed that Sharif jumped from the bridge committing suicide, or accidentally fell from the bridge. There is no evidence of any criminal act," Des Moines Police Department Sgt. Paul Parizek wrote in an Aug. 5 news release, adding that early in the investigation, family members told detectives he had expressed thoughts of harming himself more than once.

Ahmed told the Register that if it is true her son committed suicide — which she still finds hard to believe — it is something she will have to try to accept. But she questions whether police worked hard enough to find her son. If they did their job, she argued, he would have been found sooner. Their family could have had answers sooner.

"You can't stop someone from dying, but what really hurt me is my son being in the water for over three months without (police or the government) doing anything meaningful about it," Ahmed said.

"He was right here in this city while his body was withering away."

Fadumo Ahmed stands for a photo in the living room of her Des Moines home Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. Her son Abdullahi "Abdi" Sharif went missing in January and his remains were found in May.

Mistrust brewed between family and police throughout investigation

Des Moines police say they worked tirelessly throughout the investigation, committing more than 1,000 hours into locating evidence, potential witnesses, background information, and following investigating leads, according to the news release.

But by the end of the investigation, Ahmed said, it was hard to trust police were doing their job. Between language and cultural barriers, the police department's refusal to work with the private investigator the family hired, and a lack of communication, Ahmed hasn't been able to find closure on the manner of her son's death.

“It’s good when someone is trying to explain something to you that they’re straightforward. But if they tell you one thing today and they said something else yesterday, it looks like what they are telling you is not something that’s actual," Ahmed said.

"What they said was not something I could believe. ... They treated me as if I was a child."

Ahmed was referring to claims that police had initially told her Sharif was a runaway, or that he had walked to the bridge along Euclid Avenue from Merle Hay Mall. She further questioned the investigation after hearing from the Somali community that FBI agents had been going to local mosques asking if her son had been "radicalized," and the fact that Sharif was found so close to his last cell phone ping.

Stephanie Kinney, the private investigator, organized numerous search parties near Sharif's last cell phone pings — including at Prospect Park, where Sharif was ultimately found. Ahmed questioned why police weren't doing the same.

"Police take on this role, this duty to help others, but Abdullahi was not part of that," Ahmed claimed.

Police conducted ground searches near Sharif's last whereabouts, as well as the wooded areas near the Des Moines River, but did not search the river itself.

"Environmental conditions did not support a river search, however visual inspections were done. Throughout the investigation these searches were repeated," Parizek wrote in the release.

During an initial review of DART bus video surveillance, Sharif could not be located, police said. But after receiving more specific data from the FBI and sharing it with DART, police said DART was able to broaden its scope and discovered video of Sharif getting on a bus further east on Douglas Avenue, according to the news release. Sharif did not interact with anyone, and there is no video of Sharif exiting the bus.

Police said Sharif's last cell phone pings lined up with Local Route 16. Once he got off, "the data shows Sharif begins to walk eastbound on Euclid Avenue from MLK, Jr. Parkway at 5:36 pm. During this walk, Sharif accesses multiple apps on his phone and makes (two) calls; one a FaceTime and one a phone call, to family. When asked about this discovery, a family member confirmed participating in these calls but could not recall the content of the call," Parizek wrote in the news release.

Emily Levine, a close family friend, hired Kinney on behalf of Sharif's family. Levine, too, feels that Sharif's case was not taken seriously.

"It feels like we have become accustomed to existing in a world of 'ifs.' If only the DMPD had approved Stephanie's request for them to sign off to allow us access to search boats and resources in the river, we would have found him in February," said Levine, 33.

"And the hardest one — if the world didn't lose our sweet Abdullahi, how much incredible impact would he have continued to have in our lives?"

Levine and Sharif's sister, Ifrah Muhumed, questions Sharif's cause of death as well. 

"If (suicide) is true, I can accept that. It's hard ... but we'd have to face that fact," Muhumed, 22, told the Register. "But if police were doing what they were supposed to do, he would have been found sooner."

Remembering 'Abdi' Sharif

Death is not new to Ahmed, who had another son die at 2 years old before Sharif was born. Raising a son and watching him grow up for 18 years only to lose him is an unbearable pain, Ahmed said.

Sharif was kind-hearted. He had a magnetic personality and genuine ambition to make the world a better place, his family said.

Ahmed described Sharif as a pillar in their home, a father figure. He always took care of his family: Right before he went missing in January, Sharif threw out all of their old kitchen appliances and bought new ones.

"Abdullahi, when he left this home, it was as if a father left this home. A good father," Ahmed said.

Ahmed said Sharif's five siblings loved him more than they loved their own fathers, who don't hold a large presence in their lives.

Fadumo Ahmed speaks during an interview in the living room of her Des Moines home Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. Her son Abdullahi "Abdi" Sharif went missing in January and his remains were found in May.

The Roosevelt High School student loved music and creating beats. Avatar was one of his favorite anime shows, and his laugh, his smile and his sense of humor were infectious. 

"Whenever I was down, I needed somebody to make me laugh," Muhumed said. "He was that someone I could enjoy laughing with."

Ahmed said it was too painful for her to answer the things she loved most about Sharif.

She has found some peace after his body was recovered from the river, but the uncertainty around how she lost her eldest son is a feeling of injustice she can't shake.

Editor's note: A translator was used to interpret the interview with Fadumo Ahmed, Abdullahi Sharif's mother, from Somali to English.

Andrea Sahouri covers breaking news for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at asahouri@registermedia.com, 515-284-8247 or on Twitter at @andreamsahouri

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