But when the young man got off work late Thursday and stopped by a Circle K convenience store in Peoria, Ariz., police say he was followed inside by a stranger who was threatened by his taste in music.
Michael Adams, 27, told investigators he heard Al-Amin listening to rap in his car before entering the store — a genre that makes him feel “unsafe” — according to a probable-cause statement reviewed by The Washington Post. Adams further claimed he had been attacked in the past by people who listen to rap: specifically, “blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.”
According to the statement, Adams called those enjoyed rap a “threat to him and the community.”
Police and witnesses said around 2 a.m., the man approached Al-Amin from behind as he stood at a soda machine, using a pocketknife to slit his throat and stab him in the back. The teen stumbled out of the store, bleeding, and collapsed near the gas pumps, where onlookers tried desperately to save him, according to the statement.
Authorities found Adams a short distance away and said he admitted to the attack, telling investigators Al-Amin did not say or do anything to provoke him. According to police, Adams — who had been released from prison two days earlier — said he needed to be “proactive rather than reactive” to prevent Al-Amin from killing him first.
Adams has been charged with first-degree premeditated murder. Police would not confirm Al-Amin was the victim, though it has been reported widely and his parents have interviewed with local media.
“Why would you take somebody’s life? Over what? What was the point of it?” a man who identified himself as Al-Amin’s father told 12 News. “I don’t understand it.”
As news of the incident gained traction Monday and #JusticeForElijah trended on social media, many questioned why the killing was not being treated as a hate crime. For some, the incident drew comparisons to the 2012 killing of Jordan Davis, who was shot at a gas station over an argument involving music coming from a vehicle carrying Davis and three other teens, in what became known as the “loud-music trial.”
Davis’s killer, Michael Dunn, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“Another one of our children has been murdered in a heinous and unprovoked way — the DOJ must investigate this hate crime immediately,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) wrote on Twitter on Monday evening. “RIP Elijah.”
“He was very proud of being black and very proud of his family and his culture,” Seth Matsueda, who said he was a friend of Al-Amin’s, told the Arizona Republic. “We were talking about the future and business one day, and he was saying he wanted to show the world that a young black man could make it.”
Al-Amin was upset by racism against black men, he said — an issue that Matsueda believes was at play in his friend’s death.
Officer Brandon Sheffert, a spokesman for the Peoria police, said detectives on the case concluded that, even though Adams mentioned multiple races in his confession, the incident did not meet the threshold for hate crime charges.
“It’s an ongoing investigation, and charges can be changed or amended. It’s not completely off the table,” Sheffert said. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which announced Tuesday that it had filed charges, says a hate crime charge would not be filed separately in Arizona but can result in a harsher sentence. If convicted of first degree murder, Adams would face life in prison or death, the office said in a statement.
Others, including Al-Amin’s family, were unhappy with reports quoting Adams’s attorney, Jacie Cotterell, who said her client had known mental-health issues upon his release from prison July 2. Cotterell, who did not return a message requesting comment from The Post, has asserted Adams was released without access to medication and other resources essential for his well-being.
“My client is a very unfortunate young man. He suffers from what are some obvious mental illnesses; he’s been ill served by the state,” Cotterell told ABC15.
Al-Amin’s family told local media the reported mental health issues are not a sufficient excuse for the teen’s death.
“The fact that someone is trying to claim that that’s the reason why my brother’s life was taken is just an excuse and it doesn’t help, it doesn’t lend any type of consolement, it doesn’t help at all,” Mariah Al-Amin told ABC 15. “I feel like the 17 years he spent on this earth, he made the most of it and he did more for anybody than most people do in their whole lifetime.”
In a statement, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder challenged the attorney’s account, writing that Adams was not designated “seriously mentally ill.” Online records show Adams has had numerous run-ins with police, and ABC 15 reported he was released July 2 after being held on previous charges, including aggravated assault.
“Prior to his release, Inmate Adams was provided contact information for services in the community such as continuing care, housing, welfare as well as other community resources,” Wilder said. “The tragic death is terrible, and Mr. Adams will have to answer for his alleged actions.”
Adams will appear in court again July 15. His bail is set at $1 million, according to the Times.
While Adams awaits trial, Al-Amin’s community is reeling. Family gathered Monday at the Islamic Community Center in Tempe to pray and mourn, the Associated Press reported.
Elijah was interested in going into hotel management or aiding with his family’s business helping those with disabilities, Mariah told the Arizona Republic. “His main thing was he wanted to make money because he wanted to take care of us,” she said.
He was turning 18 in just weeks, she said. The family is still planning a party in his honor — with music.
Matsueda said Al-Amin — a “big fan” of rap — introduced him to rapper Joyner Lucas when they worked at Taco Bell. And Al-Amin’s older sister Mariah told the Arizona Republic that her brother listened to Tupac, DMX and Nipsey Hussle, the same musicians as their father, Raheem.
“He even dabbled in music himself,” Matsueda said.
Elijah’s mother, Serena Rides, told a local news station that she takes solace in the fact that her last words to her son were “I love you.” He said the same back to her.
“I’m so numb and hurt to the core of my soul,” she said. “But I have to stay focused because I know that’s what he would want and to make sure justice is served for him.”