THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE — As he stood at the courtroom podium Monday morning, his hands and legs shackled together, 20-year-old Mohammed Ali Mohammed admitted he did “very, very horrible things” six years ago.
At age 14, the Somali refugee sexually assaulted two women at knifepoint on consecutive nights in Salt Lake City. He attacked one woman who was standing outside of her home, and, on the following night, broke into another woman’s home and assaulted her there before demanding she go to an ATM and withdraw $400 for him.
“I was a monster,” Mohammed said Monday in 3rd District Court. “I didn’t know what I was thinking. I was a very stupid kid.”
But now, after six years in a secure juvenile detention facility, Mohammed says he’s learned a lot and is ready to show he’s a different person than the boy who assaulted the two women in 2011.
“There is nothing that I could say or do that could restore what I did to them,” he said. “The only way I can show them I’ve changed is how I live my life.”
Judge Vernice Trease gave him the opportunity to do just that, opting to sentence Mohammed to five years of probation instead of a term at the Utah State Prison.
The sentencing comes a month before Mohammed’s 21st birthday — the time when he would age out of the juvenile system and could no longer be housed at the Wasatch Youth Center, where he has been since he pleaded guilty to rape, sexual assault and kidnapping charges in 2012.
He pleaded guilty to charges in both adult and juvenile court, allowing a “blended” sentence that would give him the chance to receive services in the juvenile system, but still give the judge the option to sentence him to adult prison, if necessary.
However, Trease told the defendant Monday that he would not go to prison, and instead sentenced him to strict probation — requiring weekly check-ins with the court and his probation officer, no internet access and ankle monitoring, among other restrictions.
If he violates his probation in any way, Trease said, she “won’t bat an eye” in sending him to prison to serve consecutive sentences on the three crimes he pleaded guilty to in adult court.
“I won’t let you down,” Mohammed told the judge at the end of the hearing.
Mohammed’s sentence was not what prosecutors or victims had sought.
One victim told the judge that she is “terrified” at the thought of Mohammed being out on the same streets where she lives. The woman, who was assaulted inside her home, asked for the strictest sentence that the judge could impose, saying that she has to live with flashbacks and fear every day.
“He did adult crimes,” she told the judge tearfully, “and should have an adult sentence to match what he did.”
Prosecutor Coral Sanchez-Rose said it wasn’t difficult for her to ask for a prison sentence for Mohammed, because of how vicious his crimes were.
She said the other victim wasn’t in court Monday because prosecutors have lost contact with her. At the time of the assault, the woman was a college student and doing well, Sanchez-Rose said. But afterward, she fell into drug use and got in trouble with the law.
“We just lost track of her,” Sanchez-Rose said. “I don’t know if she’s homeless, I don’t know where she’s staying at; we’re unable to contact her. Clearly, this has had a great impact in her life.”
That victim told a judge in 2012 that she, too, wanted adult prison for Mohammed. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Supporters of Mohammed, mostly staffers and volunteers at Wasatch Youth Center, painted a different picture of Mohammed on Monday. He is a leader in his unit, they said, and his peers look up to him. He is well-liked, and has come a long way in understanding empathy and taking responsibility. He also trained in carpentry while at the detention center and has a job lined up.
He has a “kind and gentle soul,” said Robert Crawford, a branch president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who volunteers at the detention center.
“I would trust him with my life,” Crawford said, “and we want to continue to help him. We will do everything in our power to help this young man.”
Mohammed was born in a Somali refugee camp, where he saw his brother killed by a robber, witnessed a rape and was himself the victim of sexual abuse, according to testimony at earlier proceedings.
On Aug. 14, 2011, in Salt Lake City, the teen came up behind a woman who was outside her house with a dog and held a four-inch switchblade to her throat. He threatened to cut her if she screamed, the charges state, then raped her behind the home.
The following night, the boy broke into another woman’s home. He looked through drawers in the house before raping the woman, according to charging documents.
The teen then forced the woman to go to an ATM and withdraw money for him, according to charges.
The ATM machine’s security camera eventually led police to young Mohammed. 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 school classes.