Hawo Ahmed called home in tears.
She had just given birth in a Nashville jail, and her mother flew from Minneapolis to take the baby. Ahmed couldn't hold him. She couldn't breastfeed him. She asked her mom about the newborn day after day: "Is he okay? How is he doing?"
The boy would be fine; Ahmed, less so. She spent two years locked up for a crime she did not commit, and even after she returned home, depression and anguish darkened her life until she was found dead just shy of her 29th birthday.
Now a lengthy legal battle against the St. Paul police officer whose word helped put her in jail is nearing the end after a recent appeals court ruling in a related case. Ahmed was among 23 Somali Americans who sued officer Heather Weyker for allegationsthat led them to spend a collective 44 years behind bars for crimes of which they were never convicted. None has prevailed so far, and Ahmed's story illustrates how the courts have made it increasingly difficult to win redress against a cop who is federally deputized.
"If you violate somebody's rights within the Constitution, you should [face] the full effect of the law," Ahmed's sister Luula Ahmed said. "I don't care if you're part of the law. I don't care if you're a police officer. I don't care if you work for the government."
The FBI scored big headlines in 2010 when it announced that 29 people — all but one Somali — were indicted for participating in a gang-related juvenile sex trafficking ring transporting Black girls from Minneapolis to Nashville.
The case was also a major one for Weyker, a St. Paul officer who served on the FBI sex trafficking task force and helped lead the investigation. She spent years interviewing a troubled teen who was an alleged victim and key to the prosecution. And Weyker cultivated witness Muna Abdulkadir, who told her how the teen was prostituted. Hundreds of pages of court documents lay out how the case unfolded.
Ahmed had been friendly with Abdulkadir, but would later insist in court that she didn't know Abdulkadir had testified before a grand jury in a high-profile federal prosecution. All she knew, by her account, was that Abdulkadir was increasingly becoming an antagonist.
Ahmed claimed she had taken the fall for Abdulkadir on a marijuana possession misdemeanor, and that Abdulkadir made a bogus call to Burnsville police that got Ahmed evicted. Each 18-year-old accused the other of gossiping about them.
On June 16, 2011, Ahmed spotted Abdulkadir near the Karmel Mall and decided to fight her. Ahmed's friends Ifrah Yassin and Hamdi Mohamud followed.
Ahmed took off her earrings.
In the elevator of Abdulkadir's apartment building, she and Ahmed exchanged blows. Yassin joined in. Mohamud stood there. "It was honestly girl fighting, like pulling hair and pushing each other and scratching and stuff like that," Yassin testified.
The fight lasted less than 30 seconds. Then Abdulkadir came outside with a knife and used it to strike the windshield of Ahmed's car and slap Yassin on each cheek.
Ahmed's group called the police. Then Abdulkadir phoned Weyker in a panic, recalling in court, "I had a knife, and I just turned 18 not that long ago, so I was scared that it might mess up my record."
Weyker was in Nashville when she got the call. She would later say Abdulkadir was crying and breathing heavily.
Ahmed and her friends believed the Minneapolis officer who came to the scene treated them as victims — at first.
Then the officer received a message: Heather Weyker, 710 out of St. Paul, would like officers to call her ASAP.
Weyker told Minneapolis police that Abdulkadir was a witness in a sex trafficking case and that she had information that Ahmed and her friends had targeted Abdulkadir. Abdulkadir had told Weyker that Yassin accused her of using her testimony to put young men in their community behind bars.
Two FBI agents showed up. Abdulkadir was let go. The other three women were arrested and indicted on charges of conspiring to intimidate and retaliate against a federal witness and trying to obstruct enforcement of child sex trafficking laws. The Minneapolis officer alleged in his police report that Ahmed told him everyone knew that Abdulkadir had helped put all those Somali men in prison, though it would later emerge in court that the interview was unrecorded and he had mixed up her and Yassin when taking statements.
Prosecutors argued Ahmed should be detained until trial because she had been recently charged with assault — later reduced to a misdemeanor — in a separate case.
"I'm not trying to be away from my kids for a long time," Ahmed told the judge. "And I'm pregnant. I'm not trying to be in jail. You can put me on house arrest. I'll stay somewhere that I won't get outside. Please just don't take me to Tennessee."
She was shipped 800 miles away to a jail in Nashville, where the sex trafficking case was being prosecuted. There she shared a cell with Mohamud, her best friend.
Ahmed gave birth to a son named Sakaria in December, weeks after her 19th birthday.
"Having a child in prison [brought] a lot of trauma on her," her mother, Isha Ahmed, recalled during a phone interview from Kenya, with a daughter translating from Somali. "And as a mom, I had to fly out and … strip her away from her child, when that wasn't a rightful position that anybody should have been in."
Charges against Mohamud were dropped following confusion about her age. Her mother didn't know Mohamud's actual birthdate in Somalia and DNA testing indicated she was likely a juvenile; her lawyers said she was just 16 when detained.
Ahmed was incarcerated for two years.
Facing a jury was risky. Fewer than 1% of federal defendants went to trial and won acquittals, according to the Pew Research Center. Prosecutors offered Ahmed a plea deal allowing her to go home rather than face up to a decade in prison if convicted.
Ahmed refused. She insisted she was innocent.
So in July 2013, she and Yassin went on trial together. Ahmed acknowledged on the stand that she often used fights to settle beefs, but insisted that her confrontation with Abdulkadir was personal, not over a federal case. Ahmed and Mohamud said they hadn't even known the trafficking defendants; Yassin had gone to middle school with some.
Defense attorney Ben Perry asked Weyker why she had taken Abdulkadir at her word, given that the witness had a record of not telling the full truth to law enforcement.
"That's all I had at the time," Weyker testified.
The jury found Ahmed and Yassin not guilty on all counts. The women jumped up and down, crying and laughing and running around the defense table.
The main sex trafficking prosecution was starting to fall apart, too.
Six defendants were acquitted at jury trials. Three more had their convictions reversed by judges.
Then came an explosive ruling.
The U.S. Court of Appeals concluded in 2016 that the government's two alleged victims, who had served as the primary witnesses, were unworthy of belief. It called the claims of sex trafficking and prostitution "likely a fictitious story."
The appeals court noted the district court's opinion that Weyker likely exaggerated or fabricated key aspects of the story in her interviews with one of the troubled teens claiming to be victims, and that it had caught Weyker lying to a grand jury and during a detention hearing. Prosecutors dropped charges against the remaining defendants.
The St. Paul Police Department put Weyker on leave and launched an internal probe. She returned after five days, moving to non-investigative work.
Twenty-three Somali Americans — including Ahmed, Yassin and Mohamud — individually sued Weyker for violating their constitutional rights. (A 24th plaintiff was of Asian descent.) They spent 44 years in detention and close to a half-century more on government monitoring, and described how false sex trafficking charges ravaged their lives.
Partners left them. One couple temporarily lost their children to foster care. Branded as child molesters, others faced violent retaliation in jail; a plaintiff said another inmate split his head open. The prosecutions derailed their schooling, their careers, their reputations. The ordeal, as one man put it, was "Kafkaesque" — he expected it in Somalia, not here.
A south metro teenager said federal agents stormed his bedroom at midnight and brought him to a detention center where Weyker threatened that he would face prison for a long time if he didn't cooperate. He and other defendants, he said, were chained together and driven to Nashville. While held at an Illinois jail on the way, he became afraid after a TV report of the charges aired and inmates banged on the walls and chanted "chomo," slang for child molester. His girlfriend dumped him. The man said he became a shell of himself after prison: sad, scared, untrusting. Hennepin County records show he was committed to a mental institution this year.
The lawsuits reveal a portrait of deep trauma that persisted for years — something Ahmed's family saw in her, too. Once cheerful, Ahmed deteriorated. She spent a lot of time in her room.
"Howa was depressed, she was stressed, she had these … moments where she would just cry," her sister Luula recalled. "She had really bad anxiety."
What became of Weyker? The St. Paul Police Department's Internal Affairs investigation did not result in any discipline, and by 2017, she returned to investigative roles. She now works in the burglary unit making over $110,000, and a police spokesman said she declined to comment for this story.
The St. Paul police spokesman said the department cannot comment on personnel matters but that "we understand the questions being raised and wish there was more that we could say about those involved."
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen dismissed nearly every suit against Weyker, often concluding the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the complaints failed to plausibly allege a violation of constitutional rights.
Plaintiffs would have better odds if they could sue Weyker as a local officer acting under state law. But because Weyker had been simultaneously serving on an FBI task force as a deputy U.S. Marshal, the courts designated her as a federal employee, with a much narrower judicial standard under which to sue. It didn't matter that the form deputizing her said, "This appointment does not constitute employment by ... the United States government."
"Once they get that federal agency connection, it's the kiss of death," said Robert Bennett, an attorney for many of the plaintiffs.
Ahmed and her friend Mohamud had the best chance.
Ericksen denied Weyker's motions to dismiss the women's lawsuits in 2018, saying they plausibly alleged that Weyker violated their Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure by the government and that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity. But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Weyker in 2020.
The Supreme Court last month declined to hear Mohamud's case, in which Ahmed was named as an interested party. The top court's decision in June that a Border Patrol agent had immunity from an innkeeper's suit because he was a federal official — along with other judicial activity in recent years — also further constrains people's ability to hold federal law enforcement legally liable for constitutional violations.
A police officer's participation in a federal task force — an increasingly common arrangement nationwide — has "become blanket immunity for anything they do," said Ahmed's attorney Andrew Muller.
Ahmed's case also rested on a looming decision by the Eighth Circuit on Yassin's suit. That appeal claimed Weyker acted only as a local officer when she intervened in the MPD's response to a fight, and that she had gone well beyond the scope of her federal authority and therefore could not be immune from liability.
Weyker insisted her involvement was tied to her duties with the FBI's trafficking probe. Her legal counsel from the U.S. Department of Justice noted in court filings that on the day of the fight, she and the Minneapolis officer had a conference call that included the federal prosecutor in the trafficking case, as well as another member of the FBI task force.
"The evidence from Yassin's criminal proceedings does not show any wrongdoing by the defendant, Heather Weyker ... [she] did not violate any clearly established constitutional right," her lawyers wrote.
Yassin's attorney Joshua Newville argued in his appeal that Weyker had manufactured the federal link. He wrote: "To give Weyker the benefit of her fabrications during a litigation aimed at holding her accountable for them would border on absurd."
The appeals court sided with Weyker on July 14, however, and attorneys now have the option of seeking a review of the decision by the full Eighth Circuit or appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yassin was not available for an interview because of the ongoing litigation. Mohamud remains too traumatized to speak to the media, her attorney said, adding that the charges left a stain on her reputation and in background checks. Abdulkadir could not be reached for comment.
As the cases made their way through the courts, Ahmed went to see her mother in Kenya. Ahmed didn't like family seeing her struggle, but her mother could tell she was down. Ahmed moved to Columbus, Ohio, for a new start last summer.
She still spoke of justice.
Then a family member found her dead at home on Sept. 15, 2021. Police ruled out suicide or foul play. The county coroner concluded that she died of fentanyl intoxication, though her sister disputed that. Relatives said Ahmed had a heart condition, and they believe the pain and stress of the past decade also contributed to her fate.
Luula Ahmed and other relatives recently reflected on the ordeal at Thompson County Park in West St. Paul, where Hawo Ahmed used to come. What would her life have become if she hadn't been jailed on federal charges at such a young age? Why had the system made it so hard to hold law enforcement accountable in court?
Her sister insists that the courts must give citizens a fair opportunity to sue police for constitutional violations. And by keeping Weyker on the police force, Luula said, the message to all the people incarcerated in the sex trafficking case is that "their pain doesn't matter. Their trauma doesn't matter."