On a warm evening last year in late August, a crowd gathered at Edna Griffin Park in the River Bend neighborhood on the near north side of Des Moines. Into the street, organizers assembled them in a marching formation east towards Sixth Avenue.
Many of the participants had met previously during the summer, first in response to the extrajudicial killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and then to demand the restoration of felon voting rights in Iowa, to which Republican Governor Kim Reynolds had recently capitulated. As they marched, an established call and response rang out among the old Victorian-style homes: Black Lives — Matter! Say His Name — George Floyd! And then, all together: Justice for Abdi Sharif!
The crowd arrived at Sixth Avenue, beneath a blue sky, in an empty lot next to the old North Des Moines City Hall Building. Constructed in 1888 as the municipal center for the city of North Des Moines, it became incorporated into the wider city just two years later. Although occupied by various businesses in the past, the building had long been vacant and fallen into disrepair. Despite various promises to restore it through nonprofit coalitions and city funding, the building has served lately as an emblem of the city’s general neglect of the neighborhood.
A few volunteers among the crowd climbed up the wrought-iron fire escape to the roof of the building, where they hung banners across its weathered brick edifice. One read, “Find Breasia,” a call to continue the search for Breasia Terrell, the ten-year old Black girl who had gone missing in Davenport the month prior and has yet to be found. Another read, “Justice 4 Black Children.” Beneath the exposed and rotting wood awning of the entryway, a mourning altar for Sharif and Terrell had been erected, surrounded by flowers and other offerings. A candlelight vigil commenced as organizers invoked the names of the dead and missing. They called upon the crowd to uplift Sharif’s memory, do everything they could to support the ongoing search for Terrell, and protect the lives and safety of Black children throughout Iowa.
The Black Children’s Memorial was established 216 days after Sharif first disappeared, 107 days after his body was recovered from the Des Moines River, and 15 days after police declared the investigation into his disappearance and death officially closed. The ceremony was, in part, an acknowledgement of the 18-year-old Somali American who walked off one snowy night in January and how, in doing so, he changed his city forever.
Abdullahi “Abdi” Sharif has been described in the press by those who knew him as affable, sweet, and kind. He was considered not just a beloved son but an essential pillar in his family, which is primarily comprised of his mother and sister, Ifrah Sharif. The family emigrated to the US in 2006 as part of a refugee resettlement program, first living in Springfield, Massachusetts, where they made a lifelong friend and advocate in Emily Levine, a social policy expert. After a few years in Springfield, the Sharifs moved to Des Moines, where they had family and would be closer to the large Somali community in Minnesota.
Abdi Sharif grew up mostly in Des Moines. He was a respected and recognizable presence at Roosevelt High School, where he was a senior at the time of his disappearance. He enjoyed making music, producing beats. He had a great fear of water. He dealt with many of the same problems many teenagers struggle with as they come into adulthood. He worked hard to make his family proud as he attempted to make sense of his own life and, occasionally, struggled with mental health issues.
On January 17, 2020, Sharif left the Target store at Merle Hay Mall on Des Moines’ west side where he worked. He called his mother to tell her was not needed at work, but that he would stay there until 9 pm. He then walked off into a blizzard and was not seen alive again. The police officially filed a missing person’s report the next day.
At first, at least, the Des Moines Police Department showed only minor concern and little urgency in finding Sharif. On January 21, four days after Sharif’s disappearance, DMPD spokesperson Paul Parizek told the Des Moines Register that police had “found evidence that indicates his absence is voluntary,” but admitted that “taking recent weather conditions and his apparent lack of supportive resources into consideration, we are concerned about his welfare.” Despite that Sharif had only recently turned 18 and not yet graduated from high school, the Register headline on the short article announcing his disappearance read, “Missing Des Moines man’s ‘absence is voluntary.’” (The author of this Informer article worked at the Register from 2018 to 2019.)
“If they were doing their job, I wouldn’t have been hired.”
Initial statements given by the Sharif family to police detectives, as well as text and social media messages recovered from Sharif’s phone by the FBI that were handed over to the detectives last July, paint a conflicting and complicated picture of Abdi Sharif’s experiences and mental state before his disappearance. In August 2019, Sharif updated his Facebook cover photo to a picture of water with the caption, “I can see as much as I can hear… also my greatest fear is deep water, you can probably guess why.” When Levine texted him about flying from Boston to Des Moines for what was to be his upcoming graduation, he responded by saying, “This past year wasn’t so good for me honestly, I hanged out [with] the wrong crowd and I lost myself… but things are going to be different this time.”
In the police case file, Detective Brian Mathis noted on January 23, two days after Sharif’s disappearance, that Ifrah Sharif told him there were at least two separate occasions when her brother was depressed and contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge (she confirmed with the Informer that she recalled telling Mathis about at least one of these occasions).
Available data from Sharif’s cell phone signal, though not precise, last placed him near the Euclid Avenue bridge over the Des Moines River, a fact the DMPD was aware of even before the FBI provided exact GPS data from his phone. Police requested a review of security camera footage from the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority of the bus stop nearest to the place where Sharif was last seen but found nothing indicating he had taken the bus. According to Ifrah Sharif, police gave the family the impression that no video footage from DART buses could be recovered at all.
Early in the investigation, the DMPD was content to wait and see what evidence emerged, but the Sharif family wanted police to take more action to find their son. With assistance from Levine and their Iowa House representative, Ako Abdul-Samad, the family put up a reward for information leading to Sharif’s whereabouts and raised money to hire Stephanie Kinney, a private investigator with law enforcement experience based in Clinton. In an interview with the Informer, Kinney put it bluntly: “If they were doing their job, I wouldn’t have been hired.” According to her, police were convinced from the jump that Sharif was a runaway and likely a suicide.
Over the course of February 2020, Kinney led searches through areas that were believed to be Sharif’s last known locations based on his likely travel pattern and the data recovered from his cell phone signal. Hundreds of volunteers helped with these searches, a way for the Des Moines community to come together in search of some kind of solace, as well, in this tragedy. As local interest in the case grew, Kinney was shadowed extensively during the investigation by Andrea Sahouri, a breaking news reporter with the Register who focused mostly on crime and policing. Sahouri covered the searches extensively as they happened. Kinney claimed that when Parizek saw Sahouri was spending time with the private investigator, his attitude toward her changed.
“She rode with me a few times while I was conducting the investigation and went on almost all the searches as well,” Kinney said of Sahouri. “When Parizek found out that she was hanging out — he went on almost all the searches as well — he was a complete dick to her. He stopped talking to her, would not give information, and was very short in his answers to her.”
Parizek refuted this idea. “Ms. Kinney’s statement is inaccurate, and it is odd that you would present this concern in this fashion given that Andrea, and the Des Moines Register, are extremely capable of speaking for themselves. You might want to present that question to them. In short, I had several conversations with Andrea during this investigation. That’s far from unhelpful.”
In a statement to the Informer, Sahouri said, “I think there was a misunderstanding between Stephanie and me. Sgt. Parizek told me any information withheld was to protect the investigation,” but added she was “not going to comment” on any instances in which Parizek had been terse with her.
As the searches continued through February of last year, a belief that the police didn’t care or weren’t investigating the Sharif disappearance with adequate resources began to grow, particularly at Roosevelt High School. Comparisons were made between the Sharif investigation and the investigation into Mollie Tibbetts, a white, 20-year-old college student in a small eastern Iowa town who disappearance in 2018 resulted in a wildfire of viral articles and amateur sleuthing.
In early March, DMPD higher-ups decided that Kinney was to be shut out of the investigation as part of a larger strategy of restricting information about the case in general, including with the Sharif family, ostensibly because police had reason to believe that Sharif’s death may have been tied to a larger homicide investigation (Kinney also believed at the time that Sharif’s death was related to criminal activity and, to some extent, still does). In a phone call recorded by Kinney between herself and Jake Lancaster, the lead detective investigating the Sharif case and primary author of its case file, Lancaster apologetically informed Kinney that a decision beyond his control had been made to cut her off from information sharing with the department. Kinney responded with confusion and anger.
In this call, Kinney and Lancaster went back and forth over whether Sharif had run away with his estranged father, a theory Lancaster seemed to support, or if his disappearance was connected to drugs and gang activity in Des Moines, as Kinney believed. “I think he’s fucking dead,” she said on the call. At one point, Lancaster told Kinney he’d defended her with his superiors. “We’re not putting snow boots on and walking through the forest, but that’s something that she’s willing to do,” he said he told them.
Lancaster also told Kinney that he had tried to assuage their fears about working with a private investigator by assuring them she was investigating on behalf of the family, and not probing the department itself. He said his superiors were worried that she was telling the press information they didn’t want to get out. “I personally don’t think this is a homicide investigation,” he replied when Kinney asked him what he thought about the case. “I don’t think you’re stepping on our toes and you’re not taking credit for what we’ve done.”
“Abdi’s family brought Ms. Kinney into the investigation and the decision was made to share the progress of the investigation with her,” Parizek told the Informer. “As the investigation continued, the decision to limit the content shared with Ms. Kinney was made due to tips received that indicated that there may have been criminal activity involved, and concerns that she was not adhering to the professional expectation of not sharing information that, if released, could compromise the integrity and progress of the investigation.”
Toward the end of the call provided to the Informer, Lancaster told Kinney that Parizek had been asking him repeatedly to assure him that the Sharif family was “pro-police.” Lancaster responded by telling him they had been communicative with the family and they were happy. Lancaster then said the directive had changed, and he had been ordered to withhold information about the investigation from the family. “Now we’re not going to give them any information,” he said. “How do you think that’s going to make anybody pro-police?”
“A family’s feelings about the police have no bearing on our investigations,” Parizek said in response to a question about his concerns as related by Lancaster. “With any investigation that is high-profile, I am always concerned about the content of information that may be released by a family member, whether unintentionally or due to the actions of an unscrupulous journalist, to the media, maybe out of frustration with the investigation’s progress or a misunderstanding of procedures. This concern has increased with the volume of reporting biased against the police.”
“I felt comfortable saying how I felt,” Ifrah Sharif said when asked if she had faced pressure to appear “pro-police.” “In the beginning they were working with us pretty well. Then it just started to be really clear that they were not responding to my questions, that I didn’t know if they were following leads Stephanie brought to them. It just felt very confusing. Me and mom would call. Mom would ask me all the time to text the lead detective and we wouldn’t hear back, or we’d just get a call when other people pushed for us. It became very confusing and we would hear things later from other members of the community.”
With the DMPD withholding information in an attempt to manage the Sharif family and their private investigator, a new problem emerged. With no meaningful leads or information coming in to move the case forward, fantastic and untrue rumors circulated and grew more prominent in the community. People began repeating the false assertion that a Target employee had been fired after they found security footage showing Sharif being hit by a car and then abducted (according to Kinney, there were no cameras in the Target parking lot and the only footage turned over by the store showed Sharif leaving the store itself).
Parizek took to a unique venue in mid-March to give the most extensive interview about the Sharif investigation since it began, participating in an approximately 45-minute-long segment of Missing in the Metro, a podcast operated by an iHeartRadio-owned Des Moines sports and talk show radio station, KXnO. The podcast was started in 2019 and featured Parizek along with his wife, Heather Burnside — a radio host at KXnO who mostly focuses on sports — and Ross Peterson, a local real estate agent and occasional sports radio host who also produces the talk radio program of Jan Mickelson, a crass political commentator in the vein of Rush Limbaugh. The podcast brought the true crime investigative sleuthing that’s become a popular genre of audio entertainment in the past decade to central Iowa, exploring cold cases from the Des Moines metro area, most of them decades old. But in 2020, only three Missing in the Metro podcasts would be released and they exclusively focused on the Sharif case.
In this first installment of the podcast, Parizek claimed that there was no known history of mental health issues or of troubling behavior exhibited by Sharif prior to his disappearance. Repeatedly, Parizek emphasized how hard the DMPD was working on the case, that “smart” detectives were “losing sleep” because of it. He discussed for the first time the supposed “cultural hurdle” the police faced in communicating with the Sharif family, explaining that the family didn’t “have a great command of the English language.” The two hosts and Parizek also brought on the student editor of the Roosevelt High School paper with whom Parizek worked to address rumors and anger among the student body about the apparent inaction of the police. Although Parizek called the comparisons to the Tibbetts case “way out of line,” it’s Burnside who circled back multiple times to express a personal sense of anger about this.
Despite being shut out of the police investigation, Kinney continued to organize search parties and investigate leads concerning Sharif’s disappearance. Case notes show that Lancaster and the DMPD continued to follow leads, checking up on tips submitted with no substantial results. As March turned into April, the Des Moines River thawed. The search parties continued with the DMPD turning down Kinney’s requests for search dogs (she provided her own). They also refused to use their resources to explore the river despite Sharif’s last cell phone signals indicating he’d been nearby, requests made from Kinney and the Sharif family to police to make use of those resources, and that it had become practically the only place that hadn’t been searched yet.
After all of Kinney’s and the community’s searching, after all the dedicated man-hours following up on leads from the police detectives, Sharif’s body was found on May 4 by a kayaker in the Des Moines River near Prospect Park who saw his blue Nikes floating up above the surface. It took two days to identify the body. Almost as soon as the Sharif family was given the news, an eager Parizek informed the media, incensing Kinney and Levine.
“We couldn’t have stopped the fact that he’s not alive, but we could have found him a lot sooner.”
“We were waiting all day to find out if it was him or not,” Kinney said. “Within 12 minutes of the family knowing, they released the press report to the whole world. I just thought it was really shitty that they didn’t give them time to process the information. The detective was still sitting on the couch and I got the text and I said, ‘Are you shitting me right now?’ It’s the most disrespectful thing they could have done.”
The amount of time it took to discover Sharif’s body, which the medical examiner determined had been in the river since his January disappearance, also upset the family.
“We couldn’t have stopped [the fact] that he’s not alive, but we could have found him a lot sooner,” Levine said. “One thing I will never be able to live down is that I couldn’t let his mom see his body. It was so decomposed. She wanted to see it so badly but I made that decision and it’s not fair.”
A well-attended funeral ceremony was held for Sharif in the drizzling rain at the Islamic and Cultural Center Bosniak in Granger, where members of his family expressed a desire for more answers in the case, noting Sharif’s well-established fear of water as a reason why it seemed unlikely his nephew would willingly enter the river.
“It’s Ramadan … I had been praying for an answer, even if it’s a body,” Ifrah Sharif told the Register. “At least we can bury him.”
In a 15-minute episode of Missing in the Metro released on May 11, Parizek again joined Peterson and his wife, Burnside, to address the new developments. He responded to criticism about how long it took for Sharif’s body to be found and the DMPD’s inability or unwillingness to use its resources to search that section of the river, saying that it “wasn’t a lack of effort or attention, just the way the elements played out. … Nobody missed it, it just wasn’t there to be seen.”
“When we have solid, affirmative information that someone has entered the river and may be in danger, we deploy our rescue resources, and this happens many times a year,” Parizek told the Informer in defense of the DMPD’s decision not to search the water. “Absent that information, or any preliminary indication that Abdi may have had suicidal ideation, we investigated this case as if he was a missing person that was alive.” Although the case notes indicated Ifrah Sharif shared with a detective that Sharif had expressed suicidal thoughts, Parizek went on to essentially place blame instead with the Sharif family.
“As the investigation went on, we learned that preliminary information provided to us by those closest to him was not forthright and subsequently impacted decisions made by investigators,” he said. “The lack of honest communication early on did not impact the outcome of this tragedy; however, it could have facilitated a more rapid path to closure for all involved.”
“Are we ever going to know whether he walked there on that cold night or took a DART bus?” Burnside asked her husband during the May episode of the podcast. “I’m assuming these are all leads detectives followed up on?” At this point, Parizek said he believed that Sharif walked to the Euclid Avenue bridge.
Levine continued to advocate for keeping the case open after the discovery of Sharif’s body, armed with information from Kinney and the cryptic texts about the “bad crowd” Sharif had told her he had fallen in with. She called the DMPD and contacted Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie as well as each member of the City Council. Police were not pleased by this. “They screamed at me,” Levine said.
In a call that corresponded with case notes detailing a mid-May reconnection with Kinney, police detectives Lancaster and Mathis allowed her to present her many theories. Kinney believed that Sharif was associating with Des Moines gang members and potentially was witness to a homicide, events that may have contributed directly to his death. The DMPD’s gang intelligence department told detectives that Sharif was not a known associate of any of the individuals they were monitoring, so the theory was dismissed.
Sharif’s body had been recovered with no evidence that there was any criminal element to his disappearance. Still, police were uncertain how he had reached the Euclid Avenue bridge after he left Target that January evening. But Levine’s anger and advocacy on behalf of the Sharif family would prove to represent a growing anger among the Des Moines community at how police had handled the investigation.
On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recorded killing George Floyd. The widespread protests against police brutality that began cropping up in almost every major city in the United States evoked Floyd’s name repeatedly, but it also became clear that each city was expressing outrage at unique injustices suffered at the hands of their local police departments.
In Des Moines, protesters were concerned about allegations that police had been deliberately targeting Black people in traffic stops and arrests. But there was also a sense of frustration about the ways in which the police withheld resources or didn’t investigate certain cases to the fullest extent. One such case concerned DarQuan Jones, a Black man who was the victim of a racist assault at the hands of violent white men on the city’s south side. The assailants were arrested and charged only after a protest was held advocating for Jones in June. With the discovery of Sharif’s body so long after his disappearance and just weeks before Floyd’s murder, tensions between the Des Moines community and the police department were escalating and primed to boil over.
A protest gathering on the banks of the Des Moines River near the police station on May 29 led to minor property destruction in the downtown and East Village neighborhoods after police tear-gassed a marching crowd. The next day, another group marched west down University Avenue from the city’s northeast side and culminated in protesters lying down on the bridge that crossed the river where Sharif’s body had been found. As the crowd chanted Floyd’s and Taylor’s names, several protesters raised homemade signs bearing Sharif’s name.
On the evening of May 31, protesters marched across Des Moines’ west side to the parking lot of the Target store where Sharif was formerly employed and last seen before his death. A Facebook event promoting the protest had a banner image that explicitly tied the event to Sharif’s disappearance, calling for people to come and protest for Sharif.
Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement who was present at the Target protest, said it was directly inspired by the Sharif investigation. “I know for a fact that it was,” he told the Informer. “That’s what I saw on Snapchat. Someone made a graphic that said, ‘Protest at Merle Hay Target for Abdi.’ That’s why the protest was there.”
Police responded to the gathering in the Target parking lot by dispatching droves of armored vehicles and riot-ready officers. The splashing of water on a police vehicle was met with pepper spray and arrests. Tear gas pushed protesters back toward the mall. Store windows were broken and the outer walls of the Target graffitied. Around 8 pm, Sahouri, the Register reporter who had shadowed Kinney while reporting on the Sharif investigation, was pepper-sprayed and arrested by police. She was charged with “failure to disperse” and “interference with official acts.” Sahouri is set to be tried on these charges in Polk County District Court on March 8 despite widespread and high-profile calls for their dismissal.
In an email sent to Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert, Parizek justified Sahouri’s arrest by saying he had seen her “a considerable time after the dispersal order/ arrest warnings were announced over the PA” and blamed Sahouri, saying she was “wearing casual clothes and displayed no media credentials.” But Parizek had no trouble recognizing her. He noted in the email that Sahouri’s then-boyfriend attempted to intervene in her arrest as well, telling officers she was a “Register reporter,” a clarification to which the officers apparently paid no mind. At the end of the email, Parizek said he believed Sahouri was at fault for not coordinating her coverage of the protest directly with him (as various television reporters were often seen doing) and having the temerity to observe and report from among the crowd.
Well into the night, police chased a dwindling number of protesters around the Merle Hay area in armored vehicles while deploying tear gas and pepper spray as they continued to make arrests. For members of the community already angry with the way the Sharif investigation was handled, this show of force only exacerbated their outrage.
“The property damage wasn’t important,” said Jalesha Johnson, an organizer tasked with overseeing Des Moines BLM’s organizational culture. “I think what’s important is that there wasn’t much manpower extended towards finding Abdi and when the Target was trashed there was a tank and 50-some police officers spending their days watching over a mall. I think that, for me, is what’s important over those events. The police are capable of producing results and expending energy and choose not to, often when it comes to Black people. They choose to do so when it comes to property.”
Internal DMPD emails obtained by the Informer reveal that the department was well aware that the Merle Hay protest was planned specifically in response to the outrage over the Sharif investigation. Instead of acknowledging and attempting to address that, however, the department focused on other retail centers. Malls and other shopping centers in the Des Moines metro area were boarded up and monitored to protect them from supposed threats that never materialized.
Although a live-updated article covering the protest noted the demonstrators were chanting Sharif’s name, a subsequent Register article written about the Merle Hay protest that was based almost exclusively on information provided by police never mentioned Sharif’s name and instead promoted an unproven narrative centered around “outside agitators.”
When asked why the DMPD had not addressed the evidence indicating the Merle Hay protest was directly connected to the Sharif investigation, Parizek demurred. “It has been made very clear that the riots and looting at Merle Hay Mall were attributed to a variety of sources of anger,” he said. In the aftermath of the protest, the words “Justice 4 Abdi” were found written in blue graffiti on the side of the Target building.
As the nascent Des Moines BLM began to coalesce into an organization, Sharif’s name was raised often among the protesting crowds. Cries of Say His Name — Abdi Sharif! and Justice for Abdi! could be heard echoing between downtown office buildings as protesters marched through the empty streets. His name was present on the steps of the Iowa Capitol, where law enforcement unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds of protesters night after night in June. On the south side, on Ingersoll Avenue, on the dark residential east-side streets as police chased protesters, his name could be heard.
“When we started to speak up about the things we desire for Black people and the ways Black people are treated, it was always more than George Floyd and always more than Breonna Taylor,” Johnson said. “They were important and vital pieces of certain people waking up to the ways Black people are treated, but the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] community have known and will continue to know the ways in which the police do not help and actively harm them.”
“Abdi’s case is important to understand the different intersections of systemic racism,” said Matè Muhammad (formerly known as Matt Bruce), an organizer with Des Moines BLM who has been heavily targeted by the DMPD. “This is not something that’s just about anti-Black racism, but is about Islamophobia, about xenophobia, about controlling the culture and the politics and the color and the sound of communities. Abdi’s case is important so people can understand exactly how people get marginalized in a society.”
As Des Moines BLM marched through the summer, the protesters raised up Sharif’s name alongside Floyd’s and Taylor’s. In response to the uproar expressed by the protests at Merle Hay and elsewhere, the Republican-controlled state Legislature moved quickly to enact modest police reforms.
“It doesn’t make it hurt less, but there’s no question that we want to know it could be held up as an example of why younger Black kids who may go missing or need help from the police in the future should be treated with respect and considered important,” Ifrah Sharif said of the protest movement’s success in drawing attention to how the investigation of her brother’s disappearance was handled. “I hope it does help other young Black kids.”
While the Des Moines BLM movement continued to push their immediate goal of ending Iowa’s felon voting rights ban, as well as the long-term goal of defunding the DMPD, the Sharif investigation did remain open since questions about the case were still unanswered. Most of Lancaster’s case notes from June and July were concerned with dismissing tips that Kinney provided. No real progress was made until the FBI returned to local police in July with information recovered from Sharif’s phone, which was found along with his body in May.
The GPS data recovered by the FBI clarified that Sharif had taken a DART bus from the Merle Hay area up towards Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and then walked the short distance to the Euclid Avenue bridge from which he had either fallen or jumped. This information led detectives to review DART footage again and discover they had missed this crucial piece of video evidence, the absence of which had allowed for extensive speculation.
According to the case notes, this evidence had been overlooked because the initial request for DART footage from the bus stop nearest Sharif’s last known location had been reviewed but it hadn’t shown Sharif on the bus. After revisiting the DART footage after the FBI provided further information, police realized that a full video from the bus route that night did, in fact, exist and showed Sharif boarding the bus at a stop just a little further along the route. It was simply either not provided to the DMPD or not examined sufficiently by detectives when they requested it in January.
“That would have saved us months and months,” Kinney said. “Why, at the very end, does this footage come around?”
“I think they assumed we are very different when in fact we all just wanted answers and wanted Abdullahi back.”
“They had told us that it was impossible to find the [DART video] evidence since the beginning,” Ifrah Sharif said. “They kept telling us it would be impossible because it gets deleted after a certain period of time. So all of this definitely feels very different from the truth. I don’t think they tried and this is a good example of that.”
When asked about this seemingly glaring oversight, Parizek defended both the detectives and DART. “In the early days of the investigation, detectives did review video from DART,” he said. “The quantity of video reviewed was based on information known at that time, and their estimation of how far Abdi may have walked. After the recovery of his body, and the subsequent review of his cell phone data, they learned that he had got on the bus at the next stop east.” Parizek indicated that the DMPD was not considering any changes to their process for reviewing DART security footage in missing person cases.
Along with text messages and other data recovered from his phone, the FBI discovered that Sharif had taken a picture of the Des Moines River shortly before falling to his death. He had attempted to upload the photo to Instagram, but his data had stopped working just before the upload was completed.
With the missing DART footage answering the crucial question of Sharif’s movements, the DMPD officially closed the case on August 5. This happened to be the same day that Governor Reynolds announced her capitulation to BLM demands and lifted the ban on felon voting by executive order. BLM’s organizing apparatus was tied up most of the day with a Des Moines City Council meeting concerning approval of ammunition funding for the DMPD. It was a meeting that would clock in as the council’s longest-ever, an 11-hour continuation of that Monday’s council meeting, conducted over the video-conferencing platform Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic, which had been abruptly ended by technical difficulties.
The Register’s Sahouri published her report on the closing of the Sharif case that evening. Along with disclosing police’s finding that he had either committed suicide or fallen from the bridge and that there was no evidence of criminal involvement, Sahouri also included quotes from Sharif’s family expressing their anger and frustration over how police handled their lost son’s case.
“You can’t stop someone from dying, but what really hurt me is my son being in the water for over three months without [police or the government] doing anything meaningful about it,” Sharif’s mother told Sahouri through a translator. “He was right here in this city while his body was withering away. … What they said was not something I could believe. They treated me as if I was a child.”
On the same day that the case was closed and Sahouri released her final report on the investigation, the latest episode of Missing in the Metro was also released, once again featuring Parizek and his wife, Burnside, alongside Peterson. In the episode, Parizek deviated from the official DMPD statement that Sharif either fell or jumped from the bridge, expressing to his co-hosts that he firmly believed Sharif committed suicide. In agreeing with her husband, Burnside speculated that the family didn’t want to face it because “there’s a lot of shame in it.”
Parizek also accused the Sharif family of not wanting to face the fact that Abdi “wasn’t being the son they wanted him to be.” Despite claims from Kinney and Levine that police consistently used his infrequent use of marijuana as a way to blame him for his own disappearance, Parizek characterized Sharif’s use of the drug to the podcast’s hosts as something common for young people to experiment with and blamed the Sharif family for not being understanding (this conflicted with the DMPD’s public position on marijuana, shown most recently when they effectively shut down an effort by the City Council to decriminalize the drug).
“It’s a valuable piece of information for us, but the sad thing is it doesn’t change the outcome,” Parizek said when asked by Peterson about the DART footage. He went on to claim that the family withheld important information about the investigation from the department. “That communication problem between the family, there’s no pointing fingers, but that was a big problem in this case. … I think the family is really struggling with the fact that it was a suicide.”
On the podcast’s iHeartRadio page, Levine pushed back against Parizek’s placing of blame upon the Sharif family. “The police have been so much less than helpful,” she commented. “It makes me so sad that they focus more on their image than on actually respecting our family.”
Ifrah Sharif was also frustrated and confused by Parizek’s repeated claims that communication with the family was a central issue that prevented a quicker resolution to the case.
“We have been constantly available and responsive to provide answers to any questions there may have been,” she said. “My uncle and I and many family members, including Emily [Levine], speak English and would often be left asking [the DMPD detectives] to respond. … I think they assumed we are very different when in fact we all just wanted answers and wanted Abdullahi back.
“We wanted to be partners all along,” she continued. “They could have more languages people on the force know how to speak, like ours. There are a lot of different languages people speak in Des Moines. Maybe learn more about us and get more involved. We would welcome them. I think they assumed we are very different when in fact we all just wanted answers and wanted Abdullahi back.”
In a response to a request for comment, Parizek vehemently pushed back against the idea that his willingness to extensively discuss the Sharif case on the Missing in the Metro podcast benefited his household or privileged his wife (while Parizek’s marriage to Burnside since 2017 is fairly well-known, she does not identify herself as his wife in any of the three Missing in the Metro podcasts covering the Sharif case). He also denied that the podcast produced any kind of revenue despite each episode beginning with an advertisement furnished by iHeartRadio, the owner of the KXnO radio station and Burnside’s employer.
“It’s pretty simple; nobody is getting paid to do the podcast, and it generates no revenue for any of the participants,” Parizek told the Informer. “It is an entirely volunteer effort. The podcast isn’t published because of my wife, but because of the Des Moines Police Department’s creative outreach effort, and the commitment by two long-time radio hosts to give back to the community. Your suggestion that there may be improprieties is not only naive, but ill-informed. There are no advertisers, no sponsors, and when you hear commercials they are generated by the app, not the podcast.”
KXnO representatives declined to comment on whether or not the Missing in the Metro podcast was considered a volunteer effort on Burnside’s part or an aspect of her general duties as a radio station employee. They also declined to comment on whether or not the advertisements included in the podcast on iHeartRadio’s audio player contributed revenue to the station. They also declined to comment on whether or not the station has any sort of guidelines for disclosing conflicts of interest between hosts and interview subjects.
Parizek found questions presented by the Informer about his use of the Missing in the Metro podcast to discuss the details of the Sharif case throughout 2020 and his choice to provide in-depth access to an editorial project run in part by his wife particularly offensive, attacking the reporter who presented these questions personally. “You have established yourself as a person who will, for your personal benefit, take advantage of people with vulnerabilities, so there is no surprise that you will continue that practice by exploiting the tragedy that the Sharif family has had to endure,” he said.
With the battle to restore felon voting rights in Iowa achieved and the Sharif case closed, Des Moines BLM considered their next move as an organization and decided it was evident that a memorial to Sharif and other Black children was necessary.
“We were weighing all the different issues,” Muhammad said, “and we just felt like, if we were going to get back in the streets, especially after having dealt with so much violence, we needed to speak on an issue that speaks to the absolute core of the movement.”
When another organizer suggested focusing on something for the children, Muhammad brought up the old North Des Moines City Hall Building, which was to him symbolic of the city’s neglected Black community. The memorial was to be not a moment for mourning, but a promise made to uplift Black youth in Des Moines and prevent what happened to Sharif from happening again.
“What I wanted to do was make sure that every activity we did at the Black Children’s Memorial was intentional and was directing energy towards these children with us,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want it just to be a place for us to mourn. I wanted us to come together to actively decide that we would do more to make sure there wasn’t another name for us to learn another name like Abdi Sharif or Breasia Terrell through such tragic circumstances.”
But the question lingered: What, exactly, was to blame for the death of Abdi Sharif? And what would “Justice for Abdi” actually look like?
While Kinney remains convinced that the DMPD did not follow up on all the leads she provided and still believes Sharif had been caught up, perhaps unintentionally, in some kind of criminal activity, in the end no one person could be held responsible for the systemic problems that contributed to the struggles Sharif faced before his death.
An entry in Lancaster’s investigation case notes illuminated one instance in which Sharif’s problems were apparent to someone outside of his immediate family and the structural limitations that prevented this person from acting effectively. Shortly after his body was recovered, a Roosevelt High School teacher reached out to the DMPD about an interaction between him and Sharif that took place a few months before his disappearance.
The teacher, whose name was redacted, said he had taken Sharif aside to address problems he was having with his grades. He was failing four of his five classes and had stopped turning in homework assignments even when given time to do them in class. Sharif had proven himself a good student prior to this. The teacher said he believed this failing was intentional, indicating that Sharif was struggling with something beyond the teacher’s awareness.
When he confronted Sharif about his failed grades, Sharif told the teacher that “next year this isn’t even going to matter” and asked him “why don’t you just forget about me?” The teacher told the detective he tried to contact Abdi’s parents but never heard back.
In response to a question about translation services for students with non-English-speaking families, a Des Moines Public Schools representative said the school system offers translation services through bilingual family liaisons to assist teachers in communicating with these families, though this representative did not specify if any of these liaisons specialized or were fluent in the Somali language. It’s also unclear from the report in the case notes if this teacher made use of those resources. If he didn’t, it’s unlikely Sharif’s mother received or understood the message at all.
“I don’t see that many programs for the Somali community,” Ifrah Sharif said. “We tend to take care of one another and don’t know where else we can turn for much other community support or engagement. We are doing OK. We work hard and try to keep going, but it would be great to see more ways for my little siblings to access community programs and be more a part of the non-Somali community. Abdullahi had a lot of friends who weren’t Somali who loved him, and that was because of his personality and his being in a pretty diverse school.”
“Look at this case to see exactly how a Black boy was treated when he went missing,” Cavil said. “The comparison is tired, but look at how Mollie Tibbetts’ case was handled. It’s true. Just ask yourself: What would have happened if Abdi was a white girl and not a Black African boy?”
To many like Cavil, the way the Sharif case was handled illustrates the stark inequities between how law enforcement investigate missing persons in Iowa. But police were not solely responsible for the amount of attention his case received. Despite Levine’s advocacy, no members of the Des Moines City Council made an effort to publicly discuss the case, nor did Mayor Cownie. Despite the city’s outpouring of grief and local media coverage, Sharif’s disappearance didn’t go viral nationally as the Tibbetts case did. When Tibbetts’ alleged murderer was identified as an undocumented immigrant, conservative politicians across the state, including Reynolds, used the case to justify their calls for further immigration restrictions (against the Tibbetts family’s wishes). Only Abdul-Samad, often tasked with speaking for the entirety of Des Moines’ Black community, advocated for the Sharif family from the beginning.
For the Des Moines BLM organizers, Sharif’s disappearance and the DMPD’s handling of the investigation is indicative of the broader failings and inequities of the criminal justice system. To them, in a country where the police have been tasked with the responsibilities of dealing with broad and complex issues, their inability to adequately address these problems produces limited and often pre-determined results.
“Their original reason for existing was to keep people locked up and keep Black people in slavery,” Johnson said. “Now their goal is to keep Black people in the prison system. So if their agenda is not aligned with general public safety, they’re going to move in ways that work against people’s sense of safety in this city. We want entities that were created and exist to help BIPOC people and ensure the safety of all the people that live in this city.
“To all of the people that believe that they are doing good work when they are calling for justice for Abdi Sharif, it’s not possible,” she continued. “I don’t think that we can do anything for a dead person. I think all we can do now is make sure that nothing like this happens to any other BIPOC boys in our community and do the work to support his family and do what we can to move forward in this life. If you think that people who are harmed deserve healing, understand that that’s not going to be found at the hands of any law enforcement in this state.”
Featured photo: A group coordinated by Des Moines BLM marches through the River Bend neighborhood of Des Moines to the Black Children’s Memorial on August 20, 2020. Photo: Aaron Calvin/Iowa Informer