When Mohammed Ali Mohammed was a young teenager living in Utah, he did what he describes as “very, very horrible things.” What any person would describe as very horrible things.

The Somali refugee, then 14, raped two women he had never met on back-to-back nights in Salt Lake City. He pleaded guilty and spent seven years in a juvenile detention center, working to rehabilitate himself. Along the way, he won allies who considered him a changed man.

A Utah judge decided he was worth taking a chance on, and instead of sending him to an adult prison as his victims wanted, she ordered him put on a strict probation. He was free … for a few minutes.

On the day he was released, he was arrested by immigration agents and sent to a detention center in Colorado. He spent a year there before a judge ordered recently that he be deported to Somalia — a place he’s never been.

Those who support Mohammed, like the volunteers he met while he was serving time at the Utah juvenile detention center, question whether it’s really justice to spend seven years trying to rehabilitate young Mohammed, only to deport him.

But Mohammed is more optimistic.

“Honestly, I’m just thanking God right now having half of my freedom,” he said in a phone call from Somalia. “I’m thanking God right now and trying to live my life as good as I can, you know, and just move on.”

‘Somalia is not our home’

How the Mohammed family members made their way to Utah is a story not uncommon among refugees. It began with a civil war in the early 1990s.

They were targeted and persecuted, their home attacked. A mortar killed Mohammed’s grandparents. The parents took their children and sought refuge in Yemen, where Zahra Mohammed gave birth to two more sons — her youngest, Mohammed, was born in 1997.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Zahra Mohammed, pictured here in 2012, said her son Mohammed Ali Mohammed was 14 when police say he raped two women at knifepoint. But she did not believe he was guilty. Mohammed pleaded guilty to charges and spent seven years in a juvenile detention center before a judge in 2017 ordered he be released and put on probation. He was arrested by ICE agents the same day he was released, and was deported to Somalia in early December.

But the family experienced tremendous violence in Yemen as well. When Mohammed was 3, the family’s home was attacked by Yemeni boys, Zahra wrote in a court affidavit. Mohammed hid, but he was able to see attackers kill his brother with a machete.

The young boy also witnessed a rape, according to court testimony, and was himself a victim of sexual abuse.

Mohammed’s parents divorced after living in Yemen for several years, and Zahra took three of her sons to live in the United States in 2009.

“Yemen is not our home,” Zahra wrote in the affidavit. “Somalia is not our home. My son’s home is in Utah, where he can be with the only family he has.”

At this point, Mohammed was a young teenager, and his mother wrote that he had difficulties acclimating. He didn’t speak English. He couldn’t understand the culture.

And then, in August 2011, 14-year-old Mohammed, armed with a knife, committed those horrible acts.

His crimes

Mohammed approached a woman he had never met before on the night of Aug. 14. She was outside her Salt Lake City home with her dog when he came up behind her and held a 4-inch switchblade to her throat. He threatened to cut her if she made any noise.

He then took the woman behind her home and raped her as she screamed in pain.

The next night, Mohammed broke into another woman’s home. He looked through drawers in the house before raping her, according to court records. He then forced her to go to an ATM and withdraw $400 for him.

Police used surveillance footage from the ATM to identify Mohammed and arrest him. He would later tell investigators he wanted the money so he didn’t have to wear stained clothes on the first day of ninth grade.

A year later, when he was 15 years old, Mohammed pleaded guilty to rape, sexual assault and kidnapping charges in both juvenile and adult courts. This allowed for a “blended” sentence, a chance to receive therapy and services in the juvenile system while still a minor, but allowing the possibility for a judge to send him to adult prison if necessary when he turned 21.

He would spend six more years at the Wasatch Youth Center. During that time, he got a high school diploma, an accomplishment he never thought possible. He learned carpentry. And he spent time in therapy, which he now says he loves — a way to “relieve what’s all in my chest.”

It was about three years into his stay at the youth detention center that Robert Crawford met Mohammed. Crawford and his wife, Rene, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had been assigned by their faith to volunteer at the center. They led Sunday church meetings, but would also help the boys by doing things like tutoring them in reading and fitting them for suits to wear to court.

Crawford bonded with the young man. He only found out later what Mohammed’s crimes were — but to him, it didn’t change their relationship.

Mohammed became like a son to him.

Sentencing

Crawford first started giving Mohammed pep talks in mid-2017, telling him later that year he would have to give the speech of his life.

Mohammed was about to age out of the juvenile system. He would go before 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease and ask to be released and allowed a chance at probation. On the other side of the courtroom, victims would ask that he be sent to adult prison.

As 20-year-old Mohammed stood at the podium that November morning, his hands and legs shackled together, he told Trease he knows now that what he did was horrible. He was a monster then. But he said he’s learned through the years in the youth detention center.

“There is nothing that I could say or do that could restore what I did to them,” he told the judge. “The only way I can show them I’ve changed is how I live my life.”

Crawford was there, too, and told the judge he would trust Mohammed with his life. Mohammed was a kind, gentle soul, the man told Trease.

But then there were those who tearfully pleaded with the judge to send Mohammed to prison. One of his victims said she was “terrified” at the thought of Mohammed being out on the same streets where she lives. She has flashbacks and lives in fear every day.

The judge ultimately decided to give Mohammed a chance. He would be released but on a strict probation. If he messed up, Trease said she “wouldn’t bat an eye” at sending him to prison.

That day in court was “way too many feelings at once,” Mohammed says now. With everything on the line, he felt relief when he heard Trease announce her decision. But he saw the other side, the pain that’s still felt because of his actions.

He left the juvenile detention center the next day.

Crawford remembers being stressed, trying to make sure Mohammed had things like a bus schedule so he could get to his new carpentry job he would start that week. He also bought Mohammed a welcome-home gift, a custom Miami Dolphins jersey with Mohammed’s name and favorite number printed on it. He bought it for the young man after remembering when Mohammed had cried years earlier at a Christmas celebration when the couple gave those at the youth center a blanket with their name embroidered on it. Mohammed had never had anything with his name on it before.

But Crawford would never get the chance to give him that gift.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Crawford holds the Miami Dolphins jersey that he intended to give to Mohammed Ali Mohammed. Crawford volunteered at the juvenile detention center where he met Mohammed, who he said had become like a son to him. Mohammed was deported to Somalia after 30 minutes of freedom, after serving six years behind bars for a crime he committed when he was 14 years old. Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018.

A new life

Mohammed ended up having 30 minutes of American freedom.

After he was released from the detention center, he went to the Adult Probation and Parole offices and was met by immigration officers.

Mohammed had come to the country legally, but his felony convictions made him deportable. He knew it was possible when he took the plea deal years ago — but he was disappointed to be arrested so soon, he said, before he could spend even an afternoon with his family.

They shipped Mohammed to a detention center in Colorado, where he sat for almost a year.

His victims have previously said they wanted him deported. Prosecutors have since lost contact with one of the women, and the other woman declined to comment for this story through a victim advocate.

Mohammed’s immigration attorney, Adam Crayk, said they tried to stop Mohammed’s deportation. But because of the seriousness of his crimes, there was only one way he could stay: He had to prove that if he was sent to Mogadishu, he would be persecuted or tortured by the government because of his Christian beliefs.

The judge ruled against him in October. He would be sent to Somalia.

Crayk said they weren’t allowed to argue that Mohammed had changed or that he committed his crimes when he was young. The pages and pages of letters of support from the Crawfords, Mohammed’s future employer and others meant nothing. The outcome wasn’t justice, Crayk said.

“Do I think what he did was egregious and horrible? Yes,” he said. “But he spent seven years rehabilitating himself. He’s had more support than anyone I’ve ever seen. All these people were backing him. That’s what frustrated people so much.”

It was a disappointment for Mohammed — and for those who supported him and grew to love him. Crawford had hoped the immigration judge could have considered the circumstances of Mohammed’s case before making her ruling.

“He is the model of what the justice system is for,” he said. “He had learned. He had changed. He had become what he was intended to be.”

The night before he left the United States, Mohammed had a dream, he later told Crawford. He’d traveled from Somalia all the way to London, and the Crawfords had come to visit him. He showed Rene and Robert around the European city. He was hopeful.

And just after Thanksgiving, he was put on a plane and dropped off a world away.

Now, he’s starting to settle into a place with family members, he said, but it’s been difficult to understand the language after being surrounded by English speakers for so many years.

(Photo courtesy of Robert Crawford) Mohammed Ali Mohammed poses in front of a Somalian flag imagery in this undated photo.

And he’s already seen the harsh realities of the country. A taxi driver robbed him on his first day in Somalia, threatening Mohammed and a friend with a handgun before they handed over handfuls of cash. When Mohammed tells this story, he puts a positive spin on it. He calls it “a good experience.”

“It made me realize where I’m at,” he said. “It’s not a joke out here.”

But he said he’s still hopeful for his future. While he can never return to the United States — a $100,000 warrant for his arrest has been issued if he ever comes back — he hopes to soon leave Somalia for someplace where more people speak English. Maybe Kenya or Europe.

He hopes to use the skills he learned to work in carpentry, and he might come back to Somalia later as the country improves.

“That’s my goal is to have a good job where I can build houses,” he said, “and do something that is important to people.”

In the United States, he still has some people cheering him on. They wanted him here, to live his life as a man who was redeemed and rehabilitated, but they’ll still love him from afar.

“We’ll continue to do everything in our power to help him,” Crawford said. “And I hope his dreams come true, and he can show us around London someday.”