Four snapshots of Barway Collins lean against Crystal Police investigator Julie Severson’s computer monitor.
Lt. Derrick Hacker has the 10-year-old’s last school picture, the one of him grinning in a blue and white polo shirt, pinned on a message board in his office. Contrasting with Barway’s smiling face are court documents chronicling how his enraged father, Pierre Collins, punched his son unconscious, bound his body and hurled him into the river.
It’s been a year since Barway was last seen alive. For the officers who solved the mystery of his disappearance, the details of the case continue to haunt them. Severson and Hacker, the lead investigators, kept the boy’s photos as reminders of the gut-wrenching story that shattered their community and how they solved the biggest case of their careers. The department from the quiet Minneapolis suburb was thrust into a missing child case that garnered national attention.
Months later, they would go on to present their tactics to other law enforcement agencies across the state. They’re scheduled soon to speak in Texas.
“In some ways we felt connected to him,” Severson said recently. “As the investigation went on, we were doing this to find justice for him. And personally I think Barway and this experience will be something that in 50 years from now I’ll remember.”
Barway’s memory is especially stirring for Crystal Police Chief Stephanie Revering, who unlike her colleagues has kept no photos.
Whenever she tells the story of how her police department solved the case to put Collins behind bars for decades, her connection to the boy grows.
“I thought it would get easier and easier, but quite frankly it gets a little harder on my emotions,” Revering said. “And so for me I have to relive it often and I want to honor Barway by just talking about it — because I see his face every time I do a presentation.”
In the beginning, investigators held onto hope that Barway was alive and with family.
But as the investigation wore on, that hope turned to suspicion.
For Severson, a turning point came four days after Barway vanished, when she received cellphone location data that placed Collins at the Mississippi River — the same place Barway’s body was later found.
“It was a somber morning,” Severson said. “I still held on to a small part of hope, but just looking at the facts it didn’t look or feel good.”
Revering said she suspected him right away. His story didn’t add up, and then he failed a lie-detector test.
“From the minute Pierre reported Barway was missing, I knew he wasn’t being truthful,” Revering said. “What possessed him to do it, I don’t know.”
Hacker saw key inconsistencies during a series of initial interviews with Collins.
The night after the boy disappeared, Hacker placed Collins and his wife, Yamah, in different rooms at their Crystal apartment. They were asked the same questions, yet their answers differed.
Yamah thought Collins was at work, when in reality he was unemployed. She had said her husband would often threaten to send Barway back to his native country of Liberia when the boy got into trouble. Collins was quick to say there were no problems at home.
“He was not giving the answers that a reasonably prudent father would give,” Hacker said.
Collins would fidget in his seat, his eyes darting to the interviewer then down to his feet. His social cues were consistent with someone being untruthful, Hacker said. He wasn’t forthcoming with a lot of information, but was adamant about handing investigators an ATM receipt showing he was not with Barway at the time of his disappearance.
“I could kind of see that he was becoming more of a person of interest,” Hacker said.
Days later, after he failed the polygraph test, Collins made an unexpected move.
“He gets up and storms out during the interview,” Hacker said. “We knew we [were] getting close. If this guy was truly a victim and had nothing to do with it, then why is he going to leave an interview?”
After Hacker told Collins a school van video showed Barway pointing out his father to a friend the day he disappeared, he grew nervous.
Collins started talking in the third person and said Barway was lying.
“Most people wouldn’t say that,” Hacker said. “If their child was missing and if they truly had nothing to do with it, they are not going to watch that video and that be the first thing they are going to say.”
Collins grew defiant, even after Barway’s swollen body was found floating in the Mississippi River and evidence placed Collins at the scene. Investigators visited him one last time in an attempt to learn the truth.
They told him they knew he was lying, but he challenged them: “Come back and get me when you have enough,” Collins told them.
They did. Hours later, he was arrested.
Collins’ words are now framed next to Hacker’s office.
‘It’s not fair’
Of all the cases in her 7 ½ years of police work, this is the one that stuck most with Severson.
“Even after the case was done, I would relive certain things and it would stir up emotions,” Severson said. “Certain moments, like when I got the call that a child’s body had been found in the river, are still with me.”
Severson was at a restaurant after a basketball tournament to honor slain Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick when she got the call. Her heart sank.
Severson doesn’t have any kids, but when she sees a child playing outside or at a park, her mind goes to Barway — the boy she never met but came to know.
“It’s this moment of sadness,” Severson said. “You think, ‘It’s not fair. How could this happen?’ ”