Howard pleads not guiltyA Jamestown man pleaded not guilty in the murder of an 18-year-old Somali refugee at a preliminary hearing Thursday in Southeast District Court in Jamestown. Leron “Ra Ra” Howard, 34, is accused of murder and criminal conspiracy in the April 30 death of Abdi Ali Ahmed. Murder and criminal conspiracy are both Class AA felonies.
A Jamestown man pleaded not guilty in the murder of an 18-year-old Somali refugee at a preliminary hearing Thursday in Southeast District Court in Jamestown.
Leron “Ra Ra” Howard, 34, is accused of murder and criminal conspiracy in the April 30 death of Abdi Ali Ahmed. Murder and criminal conspiracy are both Class AA felonies.
Judge Thomas Merrick found probable cause, meaning sufficient reason to believe a crime was committed and sufficient reason to believe Howard committed it. The case will be assigned to a judge and later set for jury trial.
About 30 people attended the hearing, including members of the Somali community, law enforcement officials, media and Jonathan and Michelle Cave. Their daughter, Jamestown resident Janelle Cave, 22, is also accused of murder and criminal conspiracy in relation to Abdi’s death. Her preliminary hearing is set for Monday.
Ahmed’s body was found in a ditch near Spiritwood, N.D., the morning of April 30. About 20 people live in the city of Spiritwood, which is located about 10 miles east of Jamestown.
Officials said Ahmed died of a blunt force head injury. Ahmed also had stab wounds in his abdomen and rib cage as well as defensive wounds on his wrists.
Ahmed moved to the United States in 2006 to escape violence and civil war in Somalia, family members had said. He’d lived in Jamestown for a few months before his death, staying with various Somali families and enrolling in Jamestown Public Schools.
Cave and Howard lived together along with a third roommate in a trailer house in Western Park Village.
Stutsman County State’s Attorney Fritz Fremgen questioned witness Arnie Rummel, who works for the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and assisted with the investigation.
Rummel said investigators located Ahmed’s body around 11 a.m. April 30 about a mile north of Interstate 94 and about a half a mile west of County Road 62. Rummel said the body was in a ditch and surrounded with water and mud.
Rummel said he was unsure how Ahmed got to that area, which is rural. The nearest home is about a quarter of a mile away.
Howard’s court-appointed attorney, Steven Mottinger, questioned if Ahmed was forced to the ditch or if he went there on his own volition. Mottinger argued that if the cause of death was a head injury, then it’s possible the injury could have been caused if a person bailed out of a vehicle on his or her own as opposed to being forced out by another.
“In my opinion, it’s more like they were dragged by a vehicle,” Rummel said.
Officials connected Howard and Cave to the murder through Spiritwood resident Delmonty Jones. Jones lives about a quarter mile from where Ahmed’s body was located and knows Howard and Cave because the two attended barbecues at Jones’ house. Jones told officials Howard and Cave stopped at his house around 5 a.m. April 30, saying they needed to hide a body.
“He explained that he didn’t want to get involved in whatever they were doing and he didn’t believe that something did happen,” Rummel said.
When officials originally questioned Jones, Jones told them he didn’t believe a person was killed. Rummel said Jones later approached a Stutsman County deputy, saying Howard and Cave brought a sword or a long-bladed knife into his house, so if the body was stabbed, he may know who did it. Both were wearing gloves. Jones told investigators that Howard and Cave had asked to dump the body into Jones’ abandoned well.
Mottinger, Howard’s attorney, questioned how Howard and Cave would know Jones had an abandoned well, because the well was located in an ungrazed pasture about 60 yards from the house.
Jones also described the vehicle the two drove as a larger white Buick, which matched the description of Cave’s vehicle, Rummel said.
Investigators went to the area of the couple’s trailer home as well as checking Cave’s license plates. Cave and Howard were arrested in separate vehicles that day. Howard was the passenger in a vehicle driven by Kayla Zimney. Zimney is pregnant by Howard, Rummel said.
Before Howard’s arrest, Rummel said Howard and Zimney disposed of a black sweatshirt. Howard also disposed of items like a piece of wood painted or lacquered black, tennis shoes, a red shirt and socks in trash receptacles throughout Jamestown.
When investigators searched the trailer house, they found a stand for a sword as well as matching smaller swords. The black board may have been part of that stand. Rummel said investigators believed the stand had been moved recently because it was dusty in one place and clean in another. Hands may have touched it, removing the dust. The size of the board missing from the stand was similar in size to the board found in the trash.
The tennis shoes found in the trash were Air Jordans, which is a brand Howard wears, Zimney had told investigators, Rummel said. A DNA analysis found Ahmed’s blood on the outside of the shoe and Howard and Cave’s DNA on the inside, Rummel said.
Investigators also found droplets of blood in Cave’s white Buick. DNA results indicated the blood was Ahmed’s.
One Jamestown resident said she saw Zimney throw a black sweatshirt away, which the woman retrieved and turned in to police. Rummel told the court Howard was wearing a dark-colored sweatshirt the evening of April 29, according to surveillance footage from the Office Bar in Jamestown.
Howard and Cave were there with Ahmed that evening and later attended a “college party” that night and possibly into the early hours of April 30 according to witness reports, Rummel said. Rummel said the tape shows no sign of argument or disagreement between Howard and Ahmed.
Following Howard’s not-guilty plea, a judge will be assigned to the case and a jury trial set. For a conviction, a 12-member jury must unanimously agree that Howard committed the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
Both Howard and Cave are in custody at the Stutsman County Corrections Center and held on $450,000 bond.
A Class AA felony is punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment without parole.
Sun reporter Katie Ryan-Anderson can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org