The last time anyone saw Aniah Blanchard alive, she was at a Chevron station in Auburn, Ala., late on Oct. 23 in a gray dress and black leggings. Her roommate received several messages on Snapchat just before midnight, which appeared to show Blanchard, 19, with a young man.
Now, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against the man they say kidnapped Blanchard from the gas station and then fatally shot her.
On Monday, Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes announced a capital murder charge against 30-year-old Ibraheem Yazeed at a news conference. He had been arrested on a kidnapping charge and held without bond since Nov. 7.
“It’s heart-wrenching because Aniah is such a people person,” her father, Elijah Blanchard, told the Montgomery Advertiser in November. “For someone to try to take advantage of that, someone who was probably just trying to be nice and try to go home, it’s heart-wrenching.”
Blanchard grew up in Homewood, Ala., just outside Birmingham. She played softball in high school, and her father told the Advertiser she loved the sport so much he encouraged her to try out for the team at Southern Union State Community College in Wadley, Ala., where she was studying art and education. She was close to her parents and stepparents, including her stepfather, who used his role as a UFC fighter to urge people to look for Blanchard.
“Please help find my baby,” Harris wrote in an Instagram post in October.
About a week after the 19-year-old disappeared, police released surveillance footage showing a man wearing a camouflage sweatshirt at the gas station where Blanchard was last seen. It took only a day for police to confirm his identity.
Police soon zeroed in on Yazeed.
According to a probable cause affidavit, a witness told police he saw Yazeed force Blanchard into a car and then drive away from the gas station, WIAT reported. Yazeed matched that witness description, police said, and on Nov. 7, officers identified him as the man seen in the security footage inside the Chevron. The next day, the U.S. Marshals Service arrested him in Escambia County, Fla.
Yazeed has an lengthy criminal record, with arrests for assault, drug possession and robbery going back to 2011, according to court records. In January, Montgomery police arrested him and two others in connection with a brutal robbery and charged the trio with attempted murder for allegedly beating two men so severely that one of them almost died.
Hughes has publicly expressed frustration that a neighboring county allowed Yazeed to post bail on attempted-murder charges connected to the brutal beating and robbery of two men in a Montgomery hotel in January.
“Montgomery County has had their opportunity to deal with the defendant and that has resulted in him being free to come to Lee County and commit yet another violent criminal offense,” Hughes wrote in court records published by the Advertiser, responding to a motion from Yazeed’s attorney requesting a lower bond. “The State believes he wants to get back to Montgomery because that is where he has friends and where he has been allowed to evade prosecution.”
After police arrested Yazeed, the search for Blanchard continued. The amount of blood found in her car suggested she had been severely injured. On Nov. 25, officers found Blanchard’s body in the woods near Highway 80 in Shorter, Ala. A medical examiner confirmed the victim’s identity and said the cause of death was a gunshot wound.
“My life’s never going to be the same again without her,” Blanchard’s mother, Angela Harris, said to people who had gathered in Homewood to pray for her family, AL.com reported. “She’s never going to get to have my grand-babies that I wanted her to have, see her get married and be a teacher and be a softball coach. She made life better for all of us.”
Police and prosecutors have been silent on a possible motive for the alleged abduction and murder.
Since his arrest, Yazeed has faced death threats and had to be secluded in solitary confinement for his own safety, his criminal defense lawyer said in a motion to reduce his client’s bond and move him to a jail in Montgomery. His attorney, Elijah Beaver, argued Yazeed had never been convicted of any of the violent felonies he has been charged with over the past nine years.
“Mr. Yazeed instead has a history of being wrongfully accused of serious offenses by the State and held in jail for long periods of time on insufficient evidence, later to be released without being formally charged,” Beaver wrote in court documents.
Beaver did not immediately return a request for comment on the new murder charge early Tuesday.
Two other men have been arrested in connection with the alleged murder, for disposing of evidence and lying to police, the Advertiser reported. Antwain Shamar Fisher, 35, allegedly threw out evidence and gave Yazeed a ride after Blanchard’s death. David Lee Johnson Jr., 63, allegedly misled police about his son’s role in driving Yazeed to Florida in the days after the alleged murder. His son has not been charged with a crime.
Hughes said his office will seek the harshest penalty possible against Yazeed.
“It is my intention that the response to this horrific crime serves as a warning,” Hughes said Monday, the Auburn Plainsman reported. “To anyone who believes they want to come to Lee County and engage in violent criminal behavior, you will certainly be dealt with, and the consequences will be severe.”