Ten-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud was running for his life down Sycamore Street at about 5 p.m. Tuesday when a concerned neighbor stopped to try to help.
Seeing the boy's stepfather chasing after him, the neighbor helped the man, Ali Mohamed Mohamud, catch up with the child.
The boy didn't want to go home with Mohamud.
"I told the boy, 'Daddy promises nothing is going to happen,' " the neighbor later told The Buffalo News.
"The boy said to me: 'No, he always says that.' "
Less than six hours later, Abdifatah was dead, brutally beaten, and his stepfather, Ali Mohamed Mohamud, was under arrest.
The boy was tied to a chair with duct tape, a sock stuffed in his mouth, and he was beaten with a stick or blunt object in the basement of their Guilford Street home, near the Broadway Market, authorities said.
The stepfather was angry because the boy, a fifth-grader at the International Preparatory School on Clinton Street, had fallen behind in his homework, law enforcement officials said.
The neighbor, a mother of young children, sobbed as she recalled how she intervened, persuading the boy to go with his stepfather and even driving them back to their house.
"Your daddy says everything will be OK," the neighbor recalled telling the boy, asking that her name not be published. "I may have been the last person to see that little boy alive."
During the short ride home, she said, the stepfather offered repeated assurances that Abdifatah would be fine.
"I told the boy, 'You go home, and if something does happen, you let me know tomorrow morning,' " the neighbor said.
Mohamud, 40, a native of Somalia who has been in the United States for a decade, was charged with second-degree murder. Police investigators were shocked over the viciousness of the beating, according to Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who struggled Wednesday to find words to comment on the case.
"Every homicide is bad, but it is particularly hard to deal with for first responders, police and others, when it is a 10-year-old child," Derenda said. "In talking to investigators, I was told it was one of the most grisly crime scenes that they can remember, and some have been here 40 years."
Erie County Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty, at Mohamud's arraignment Wednesday, told City Judge Diane Wray that Mohamud admitted beating his stepson to death.
"The defendant admitted he tied up his 10-year-old stepson, admitted that he put a sock in his mouth, put duct tape over the mouth and beat him to death with a stick or similar blunt object," Finnerty said.
Ferry Fillmore District Police Officer Christopher Fields, responding to a call from the boy's mother of a missing person, entered 30 Guilford St. at about 10:40 p.m. Tuesday and searched the house.
In the basement, he found the child's body, partially hidden under a blanket.
Mohamud, a security guard who is employed by U.S. Security Associates and worked at The Buffalo News, had left the house in a red Subaru Forester. He called his work supervisor, asking him to meet him at the newspaper.
The supervisor tried to find out what was wrong during the phone call, but Mohamud refused to say, according to a report the supervisor later filed.
At 11 p.m., the two met at the newspaper, and Mohamud confessed to the killing, according to the supervisor's report.
"I have a lot of problems and killed one of my kids," Mohamud told the supervisor, according to his report.
Mohamud had come to The News to remove his possessions from his work locker, the supervisor reported.
Police in the area spotted Mohamud's vehicle parked near The News building and approached the Scott Street entrance.
The supervisor told police that Mohamud was in the building and led them to him in the locker room. Mohamud then stood up, and police handcuffed him.
At Buffalo Police Headquarters, Mohamud cooperated with Detective Sgt. James Lonergan and provided police with a statement "indicating his involvement in the death of his stepson," Detective Chief Dennis J. Richards said.
But none of this could comfort the neighbor who had tried to help the boy she spotted running down Sycamore with his school knapsack.
"It wasn't normal," the neighbor recounted. "I was trying to pull over, but there was traffic behind me. Then I saw his father on the other side of Sycamore. He was running after him and trying to stop cars to get across the street and catch him."
When the traffic had finally passed her eastbound car on Sycamore, she swung around and drove up to the stepfather, heading toward Jefferson Avenue.
"I asked, 'What's going on?' and he said his son was running away and he was trying to catch him. He asked if I would give him a ride, and I did. He said he didn't want anything to happen to him.
"We spotted the boy on Jefferson, and he was trying to jump over a fence. The father got out of the car and held him by the hand. The boy said to me he wanted to go to a family member's house on Auburn Avenue.
"He said: 'I don't want to go back with him.' He would not sit in the back seat of the car with his father. He said he wanted to sit in [the] front seat next to me. I told him, 'You come home with me and we'll wait for your mother, or if you have the phone number, we'll call your family on Auburn.' "
At that point, the neighbor, an immigrant from Africa like the Mohamuds, said the boy calmed down a little.
By 5:20 p.m., she said, she had pulled up in front of the boy's house, and the stepfather and boy went inside.
The neighbor sobbed Wednesday recounting the episode.
Mohamud is married to the boy's mother, Shukri Bile, and both have children from previous relationships for a total of six children, according to police, neighbors and acquaintances.
Richards declined to comment on a motive, but neighbors said the father could be very strict, especially when it came to the youngsters doing their homework.
"The father wanted him to study and study. He told me, 'I check his homework every night, and his grades are going down,' " said Tariq Butt, whose family watched Abdifatah's two younger siblings after their brother's body was discovered.
Butt, an acquaintance of the Mohamud family, said the stepfather had confided in him that he was upset with Abdifatah for falling behind in his homework.
"I always had this feeling that the father was strict," Butt said, and added that Abdifatah was a well-behaved youngster.
Back on Guilford Street, as neighbors congregated to discuss the death, Johnny Alexander offered this explanation for a killing that defied logic:
"You just never know what's going on in people's homes."
Mohamud is scheduled to return to City Court at 2 p.m. Monday. He is being held without bail in the Erie County Holding Center.