Tensions ran high at a Saturday prayer service for a missing Crystal boy, with community members swooping in to defend the family from those looking to cast blame 10 days after the fourth-grader’s disappearance.
Pierre Collins, 33, remains the primary suspect in the disappearance of his missing 10-year-old son, Barway Collins, police have said.
“In our community, if we are not careful about how we disseminate information, you can almost find an innocent person guilty,” said Liberian community leader Imam Mohammed Dukuly, who spoke to a crowd of about 50 spectators, mostly supporters.
“He’s our brother, she’s our sister,” he said, pointing to Pierre Collins and Barway’s stepmother, Yamah Collins. “Let us stand by the family in this moment of grief. Let us not decide who’s guilty right now.”
About a dozen family members and community activists pleaded for Barway’s safe return Saturday afternoon outside the Cedarwood Apartments in the 5400 block of Douglas Avenue N., where Barway was last seen March 18 after being dropped off from his school van. Speakers urged others to report any information they may have and allow authorities to finish their investigation.
“We hope and pray that the truth will manifest itself,” Dukuly said.
Crystal police, with the help of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, have focused their search along the Mississippi River, east of Crystal from Interstate 694 south to Minneapolis’ Webber-Camden area. Crystal Police Chief Stephanie Revering has said there is “strong evidence” that Pierre Collins was in that area just after Barway went missing and authorities don’t believe he’s been completely truthful about his son’s disappearance. Police said he failed a lie-detector test last week.
Pierre Collins has not been arrested or charged, and police have declined to say what role they believe he might have played. But the father remains adamant about his innocence and said that he’s fully cooperating with police.
An emotional hour of song and prayer was interspersed with the family’s pleas for help in cracking the case. At one point, Yamah Collins collapsed in tears, screaming “bring Barway home.” Pierre Collins held his wife’s hand and silently cried during the gathering.
Alexander Collins, executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association, asked volunteers not to become distracted before conducting an organized search of the riverside area.
“We are talking about a future leader of this community. Barway could be the next law enforcement officer; he could be the next president of this country,” said Collins, who is unrelated to Barway’s family. “We are not just talking about an individual, we are talking about a generation.”
Toward the end of the event, a spectator began shouting accusations at Pierre Collins, questioning his knowledge of Barway’s whereabouts and unsettling community members standing with the family. Friends came to Pierre Collins’ defense, repeatedly yelling back at the man “Innocent until proven guilty!”
Pierre Collins did not address the allegations or speak to the media Saturday.
Pastor Harding Smith of Brooklyn Center’s Spiritual Church of God, which organized the event, said Barway’s disappearance has devastated the Liberian community. He urged volunteers to try and find strength during this “time of uncertainty.”
Tillman Collins, one of Pierre Collins’ older brothers, flew into town Saturday to help with the search. He told reporters he has no reason to suspect his brother in the disappearance and believes he’s innocent.
In previous interviews, family members said that Barway emigrated from Liberia in 2011 with his father to seek better educational opportunities. Barway’s biological mother, Mami Momo, still lives there.
Pierre Collins has previously been accused of mistreating his children by ex-wife Jennifer Beaver. The complaint resulted in an order-for-protection petition filed in early 2013, but expired March 14 — four days before Barway went missing.
Crystal police released short surveillance videos related to the case, one showing Barway preparing to get out of his school van and casually telling a friend he sees his “dad” and “uncle,” and another of him approaching his apartment building’s door, then turning around and walking away.
His father has repeatedly told police that he doesn’t know who the boy was referring to.
Veronica Lewis, assistant pastor at the Spiritual Church of God, led the group in song and reassured Pierre Collins: “My heart is aching, but I believe in you.”
Barway attends Evergreen Park World Cultures Community School, where he was described by Principal Sheryl Ray as a well-known and thoughtful student.
Last week, police increased the reward for information leading to an arrest and prosecution in the case to $12,000.
Al-Jerome Chede, a moderator on Radio Africa, told spectators Saturday that it is not enough to simply ask for the boy back. Family and friends closest to him must speak up and share what they know with police, he said, because that’s the only way to figure out what happened.
“If he’s not found, God forbid, his blood will be on our hands for those of us who know information and decide to keep quiet,” Chede said.
Staff writers Karen Zamora and Kelly Smith contributed to this report.