They might have looked like two 13-year-old boys out for a friendly bike ride last Friday afternoon in Black Rock.
But police say Jean Sanchez was leading Ameer Al Shammari to a former golf park where he promised to return Al Shammari's new iPhone, which Sanchez had allegedly stolen earlier in the day.
When they arrived at the overgrown field, Sanchez beat and strangled Ameer, according to law enforcement sources and friends of the slain teenager's family.
Ameer's hands were bound, and toxicology tests are being conducted to determine whether he was sexually assaulted as he was being killed, law enforcement sources said, though no formal charges have been made to an sexual assault.
Police said Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico, confessed that he killed Ameer, whose family moved here from Iraq 18 months ago to escape the violence there.
Buffalo Homicide Detectives Michael Mordino and Patty Wrest charged Sanchez, a seventh-grader at Bilingual Academy 33 on Elk Street, as an adult with second-degree murder at about 3 a.m. Tuesday.
Numerous tips from the public, images from a city surveillance camera at Amherst and Peter streets, and around-the-clock work by the Homicide Squad brought about the arrest, according to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, who spoke briefly at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
The phone, which Ameer's parents recently gave him as a reward for working hard at school and improving his English, has not been recovered.
Ameer, a seventh-grader at Waterfront Elementary School 95, lived on Peter Street one block over from Sanchez' home on Germain Street. They knew each other but were not considered friends, authorities said.
“Sanchez had taken the phone from Al Shammari earlier Friday, and Al Shammari went over to his house and was demanding the phone back. Sanchez apparently was worried his parents might hear what was happening, and he told Al Shammari he would take him to where the phone was,” a law enforcement source said.
Neighbors of Sanchez were shocked to learn that he had been charged in the killing, saying he never behaved violently.
“I was really close to Jean. I've known him since he was a baby,” said Luis, a 19-year-old who declined to give his last name but who lives in the same two-family home as the Sanchez family. “He's not someone who is on the streets. He is not violent.”
Sanchez is one of four children. His mother works as cleaner and his father is unemployed, Luis said.
“The police told me not to speak to anyone about what happened, but Ameer came around looking for his cellphone and put Jean's little brother in a headlock,” Luis said. “I feel sad. This is not something I expected.”
Authorities said they had no information about the headlock allegation.
Friends of the Al Shammaris dismissed the idea that the boy would mistreat anyone.
“If Ameer had gone back looking for his phone, he didn't go back fighting. He went back begging and crying, worrying that his mother would be upset because the phone had been taken,” said Samir Rizek, a family friend who had attended the funeral and burial for the boy earlier Tuesday.
Relatives and friends found it hard to believe that only one person was responsible, recalling stories circulating in the neighborhood that a group of teenagers or young adults had confronted Ameer and taken his phone Friday.
At the news conference, when Derenda was asked if more arrests were expected, he would only say that the investigation is continuing and that the case is disturbing, given the ages of the suspect and the victim. The mayor asked the community to continue praying for the Al Shammaris.
Three police officers returned Tuesday to the former Tee to Green golf facility on Amherst Street near Churchill Street and were searching the area where Ameer's body was found at about 3 p.m. Saturday by a man walking his dogs.
A teacher who had taught Sanchez a couple of years ago, speaking anonymously, said she and all the other teachers she has talked with were deeply upset. She acknowledged he had trouble in school but said they never saw him heading toward anything violent.
The teacher described Sanchez as a quiet boy who, toward the end of the time she taught him, was beginning to have problems in school. Other school employees she spoke to, the teacher said, mentioned that his behavior continued to deteriorate..
“He kept going down, down, down …” the teacher said. She explained that there was no obvious trigger for his problems that she knew of but that he had experienced more than one school suspension. None, to her knowledge, were for aggressive behavior or thefts.
Neighbors described Sanchez as about 5 feet, 6 inches and of medium build, while Ameer was said to be of a smaller build and 5 feet, 3 inches tall.
If convicted of second-degree murder, Sanchez faces a minimum prison term of five years to life and a maximum of nine years to life, because he is 13, according to Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.
The minimum for murder defendants 16 and older is 15 to life and the maximum is 25 to life. Defendants 12 and younger cannot be prosecuted as adults.
Sanchez appeared before City Court Judge Debra L. Givens at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday with a public defender and a Spanish translator at his side. The attorney entered a not-guilty plea to a single charge of second-degree murder on the boy's behalf.
James F. Bargnesi, chief of the district attorney's homicide bureau, recommended Sanchez be held without bail, and the judge agreed. A felony hearing was scheduled in Givens' courtroom for 2 p.m. Friday, and Sanchez was returned to the Youth Services Detention Center on East Ferry Street.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Ameer's family experienced an emotionally draining day. It began with a funeral at a West Side mosque, then continued with burial at a Cheektowaga cemetery.
The parents of the slain boy were so grief-stricken, according to Zihia Rizek, a close friend, that they both collapsed in the Connecticut Street mosque.
“It was so sad. The mom fainted and the father fainted. It was horrible.”
As mourners left the mosque, they chanted in Arabic, “In God we come and onto him we will return.” Cars in the funeral procession had photos of the boy taped to their windows and black ribbons tied on the antennas.
At the cemetery, Ameer's two brothers, Ihab, 22, and Saif, 20, refused to leave their little brother's grave, according to Samir Rizek, Zihia's son.
“The brothers had to literally be dragged away from the grave and as cars started to leave, they kissed the pictures of Ameer that were taped to the cars,” Samir Rizek said. “I looked at Ameer in his casket, and he looked like an angel. He was glowing.”
Later at the Al Shammari home, the bereaved father, speaking through an interpreter, expressed gratitude to the police for making an arrest.
Ali Kadhum, executive director of the newly formed Iraqi American Society, described the family as shattered by their son's death.
“The father told me he is not able to carry this sadness,” said Kadhum, who also serves as president of the Buffalo Immigrant Refugee Empowerment Coalition.
Of Sanchez's arrest, Kadhum said, “It's very sad – a 13-year-old charged with the murder of another boy. But people also are relieved that it was not gangs or professional criminals. There has been a lot of fear about the safety of other children.”
Malikah Muhammad, a family friend who attended the funeral, said word quickly spread through the community about Al Shammari's death, and dozens came out for the funeral, including his school principal and teachers.
“It made me feel warm inside. It says a lot about our community,” Muhammad said.
Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela Brown met with family members and friends early Tuesday evening, and the district issued a statement urging peacefulness and recognition of the sanctity of life:
“We are in despair over the criminal act that resulted in the loss of one beloved student from Waterfront 95 and the arrest of another from Bilingual Academy 33.
“While we heal as a community, we must recognize that we must all do better to impress on our young the concept of peace and the sanctity of life.”
Members of the District Crisis Team will join Student Support Teams in the affected schools to provide counseling for as long as it is required, according to the statement.
News Staff Reporters Jay Rey, Melinda Miller and James Staas contributed to this report.
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