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Emmanuel Bartuoh played high school football with a passion driven by dreams beyond the results posted on a scoreboard.
"I've known the guy since childhood. His dream all along was to play football, but here's why," said Fridley High School senior A.B. Borner, a teammate. "I remember when he was a kid, he made a promise to his mom to support her. That's why he played his heart out. Everything he did, he did it for her."
On Saturday, friends and family remembered the 18-year-old star free safety with the million-dollar grin and struggled to understand his sudden death Friday night after a friend apparently shot him accidentally in the chest.
"It doesn't make sense. Oh, God, could this really be happening?" said his older sister, Marthaline Bartuoh, 22. "I can't say it was his time to go, because it's not. It was not his time to go."
When police and paramedics arrived at the Rice Creek Townhomes in Fridley on Friday, they found a sobbing and blood-soaked Samuel Keleih Dennis, 20, who said he had tried in vain to revive his longtime friend after pulling the trigger on a gun he thought was unloaded. Bartuoh, who had been watching football with his cousins at the apartment in the 1600 block of 68th Av. NE, was struck once in the chest and died shortly afterward.
He thought gun was unloaded
Police said Dennis had stopped by to show off the handgun Friday night but did not know how semiautomatic pistols worked. He pulled the slide back, ejecting a round. Dennis then thought the gun was unloaded, but did not know another round is automatically inserted into the chamber when the slide moves forward again. According to investigators, Dennis pointed the handgun at Bartuoh and, thinking the gun was unloaded, pulled the trigger.
Dennis, 20, of Coon Rapids, remains in the Anoka County jail on probable cause for second-degree manslaughter, but the Anoka County attorney's office will decide Monday whether to file charges.
On Saturday, less than a full day after hysterical family members outside the home had to be restrained by police, Bartuoh's grandmother climbed into a truck outside the still-sealed apartment, wailing with grief as tears streamed down her face. The scene was similar at Fridley High School, where hundreds of red-eyed students sobbed and embraced each other. Bartuoh was known as a leader on the team, making all-conference. He planned on playing Division II football.
"He was a great kid and he's gonna be deeply missed by a lot of people," said Bartuoh's football coach, Lambert Brown. "Hopefully they can remember him by the good things he did and try to live up to the example that he set."
Fridley High School Principal Dave Webb had recently offered to help Bartuoh apply for schools that specialized in industrial design and had taken him to a meeting of the city's Rotary Club as a shining example of academic success.
'There's no explaining this'
Webb said Bartuoh is the first student to die in his 11 years at the high school. "There's no explaining this, it isn't the goal," Webb said. "I think the goal is supporting each other right now. I don't think anyone can understand what happened. It just sounds like it was an accident."
Bartuoh had recently moved in with his two sisters at the small Brooklyn Park apartment while his mother made an extended trip to Liberia, where Emmanuel was born, to visit family members. She was on her way back Saturday, Marthaline Bartuoh said.
She said the family has known Dennis for some time. He is a family friend and was a year or two ahead of Bartuoh in school. Part of her refuses to believe what happened is an accident.
"How can a 20-year-old bring a gun, knowing it's a gun, to a friend's house like that?" she said. "I wasn't there. How I wish I was."
Marthaline Bartouh said that she's angry about her brother's death but that the anger has no value.
"I could get mad at Sam," she said. "I can get mad to the rooftops, but that's not gonna bring my brother back. I can only pray to almighty God that we meet again."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921