Sept. 23, 2008: Fear, questions after Augsburg student ambushed

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2009 - 12:16 PM

Police have no motive and apparently no witnesses in the shooting at a community center in Minneapolis. Investigators don't believe the victim was involved in criminal activity.

Jennifer Blevins stared out her office window Tuesday, pointing at the small patch of street between two trees, where Ahmed Nur Ali was ambushed and shot to death less than 24 hours earlier.

The 20-year-old Augsburg College student had just finished his first day in a work-study program at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, playing basketball with kids and teaching computer skills. Blevins, head of the center, said Ali wanted to give something back to his Somali community, and she was happy to have him helping out.

Police said the circumstances surrounding Ali's death -- a man known to many who was shot in broad daylight in front of a bustling gathering place -- should be bringing witnesses and people with information out of the woodwork. So far, that doesn't appear to be the case.

Investigators have yet to come up with a motive. Did somebody walk up and shoot Ali or was it a drive-by shooting? Was there a confrontation? Was Ali the intended target or could it have been mistaken identity?

Police say they don't believe Ali was involved in any criminal activity that would have led to his killing.

For now, that includes gang activity, said Capt. Amelia Huffman.

"I wish I had more details," she said. "We have talked to quite a few people who weren't witnesses who wish they had more to offer. But there are witnesses who haven't come forward."

Ali was the third Somali man from Minneapolis killed since April. Nobody has been arrested in any of the cases, and Huffman said it's too early to determine if the killings are related.

Ali's death stunned the Augsburg campus, where more than 700 students, friends and faculty joined for a gathering at Foss Chapel on Tuesday morning. Ali, who was studying political science and international relations, had played on the college's soccer team and helped start the campus' Muslim student association.

One friend who had known Ali since they attended Columbia Heights High School said word of his death spread quickly in the Somali community. He didn't want to see Ali's death "be a lost cause."

Mohamed Sallam, director of Pan-African student services at Augsburg and Ali's adviser, described him as "very Muslim," with strong faith. He wasn't aware Ali planned to volunteer at the center.

Sallam spoke briefly at the gathering, explaining why Somali culture and religious customs call for quick burial. Muslims honor people who die, but they don't memorialize death, he said. The gathering was an opportunity to reflect because "death is a reminder for all of us," he said.

After the gathering, Addis Fetto could no longer contain her emotions. She had hung with Ali nearly every day for the past two years, and she was angry that some media outlets reported his death might be gang-related.

"It's not fair," she wailed. "He was just tutoring kids."

While violent crime has decreased in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood where the Brian Coyle Community Center is located, First Precinct Police Inspector Janee Harteau said she is concerned that three men have been killed in the area this year. Beside Ali, Abdullahi Abdi, 18, was killed in April and Joseph Sodd III was stabbed to death in June.

"Ali's death is pretty shocking," said Mustafa Jumale, a University of Minnesota student who worked with Ali at the center. Jumale expressed fears, despite lack of evidence that the Coyle center itself isn't safe: "I won't be able to go back to work. It's too dangerous."

Blevins met with staff Tuesday. Many heard the gunshots and ran out to help Ali as he lay dying in the street. It's traumatic to see violence and loss of life in front of you, she said.

"Ahmed was somebody we immediately trusted," she said. "If he had any ongoing conflicts, I don't believe he would have come to work."

Huffman said police have heard people talk about witnesses in the Somali community who are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation. But others are either apathetic or possibly complicit, she said.

"It's too early to say if Ahmed was the intended target, but this wasn't a case where 20 shots were fired," she said.

There are some language and cultural barriers investigators need to work through, but several procedural issues raised by Ali's relatives aren't unique to immigrant communities, Huffman said. Family and friends were upset that his body wasn't covered, but this was necessary for investigators to preserve the crime scene.

"This case, like some other recent cases, comes down to an incredible lack of information from people you could reasonably expect would want to talk to police," she said. "We should have no shortage of witnesses. And, yet, we do."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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