An edited version of this article is being republished courtesy of Howard University News Service.
Khalil Ahmad Azad wanted his long-time girlfriend, Carvona Henderson, to take five pregnancy tests to make sure it was real. He was going to be a father. It was all he talked about—a moment he waited for his whole life—until the early hours of July 3, 2022, when he was pulled over by police. It was the last time he would be seen alive.
Seven weeks later, his daughter was born. “He was just trying to do anything to see his child,” Henderson said.
The fatal traffic stop
It was almost 1:30 in the morning when officers in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, said they attempted to pull over a driver of a white SUV for “probable cause DWI.” Instead of a simple traffic stop, a chase ensued.
“We’ve got a vehicle that’s fleeing from me and looks like it’s gonna crash here… Driver’s bailing,” Officer Tony Heifort is heard saying on police body camera footage.
The SUV hit a curb and crashed into a tree. Azad, who reportedly had an active warrant at the time, fled, both in fear of his life and in hopes that he wouldn’t get arrested and miss witnessing the birth of his first child.
“He’s had run-ins where the police have beaten him before,” Henderson said. “So, he’s scared of the police.” In addition to the past run-ins and alleged brutality, Monica Lopez, a close friend of Khalil, recounts the times Azad spent in jail.
“Whenever I would go see him, he would tell me about instances with, not even just the police, but with the correctional officers that were in there about how they would be treating him,” Lopez said. “Like even with just small things, not letting him go out or putting him in solitary.”
According to police, during the traffic stop last July two passengers—a man and a woman—exited the car and told police they didn’t know Azad. The woman later said that she only knew him as “K” and that there were no signs of him being drunk.
“Driver bailed towards the lake, headed eastbound,” Heifort reported on his radio. A state patrol helicopter with a thermal imaging system, police K-9s and officers from the Plymouth Police Department were called onto the scene.
A hat was eventually found. However, after about an hour of looking, police claim they failed to locate Azad and never came into direct contact with him that day. “He’s long gone at this point,” Officer Joshua Heasley said minutes before turning off his body camera.
Azad was found lifeless, floating face down in Crystal Lake two days after his run-in with police. His skin, stained purple and blue, was swollen and disfigured. His eyes protruded from their sockets. His nose was slanted from being broken and his face torn with scars.
This was no longer the Azad who once stood six feet tall with brown locs and a warm, welcoming smile. He was unrecognizable.
“When I first saw the [autopsy photos], I literally had a physical reaction and jumped,” said Traheren Crews, founder of Black Lives Matter Minnesota.
“I mean, I had heard about this earlier in the summer. But to actually see it?… They said he was beaten worse than Emmett Till. Then once I saw the photos I was like, ‘Wow!’”
Liah Milli, a family friend, had a similar reaction. “I didn’t even know what to say. I thought it was a joke,” she said. “Nobody believed that was him…’Cause you know, Kalil was a handsome person. He was handsome.”
Lopez, like many others, thought it was unreal. “I just felt like I froze. I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t put it to him because it just, it looks nothing like him. His whole face is distorted. It’s not even the man that I know.”
“It’s something you literally see in a movie,” Henderson said. “You wouldn’t think that that could possibly happen to a human. It’s inhumane. I felt like somebody was stabbing me in the heart. That’s what it feels like when I see these photos.”
Demands for an investigation
Nonetheless, the Hennepin County medical examiner labeled his death an “accidental drowning” in spite of his family saying he knew how to swim.
“So they claimed he drowned, but he’s six feet tall and was found in like two or three feet of water,” Crews said. “[The report] says he had no life-threatening injuries, but we could see there’s a lot of injuries on his face. There was trauma to his face.”
“They said there was nothing on his body. There was. There were bruises on his body also. And his dreads were pulled from his scalp,” Henderson added.
The body camera footage that Robbinsdale Police Department released six months after Azad’s mother requested it, along with the medical report, only raised more questions than answers for his loved ones, which prompted them to demand an outside investigation of both the police department and the medical examiner’s office, along with the removal of their K-9 units.
“While watching the body camera footage a number of discrepancies also stood out to us,” Azad’s family wrote in a statement. “We also noticed parts of the audio cut out for significant amounts of time. In addition, we noticed skips, pauses and freezes of the body camera footage, with multiple moments of blurriness, which leads us to believe that the original footage was tampered. We are concerned because there were absolutely no time stamps on the footage we watched.
“We want full transparency about the agencies that were called to secure the perimeter,” wrote Azad’s family. “In light of the footage we received from Robbinsdale Police Department, we are also demanding footage from additional agencies involved: New Hope, Crystal, Plymouth, and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department & State Trooper Patrol.”
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is conducting an independent investigation of the Robbinsdale Police Department as it looks into the family’s claims that Azad was brutally beaten to death by police, mauled by K-9s, and thrown into the lake.
The departmental investigation comes months after Azad’s family attempted to gain coverage of his death through protests, vigils, and social media posts, but it was ultimately his haunting autopsy photos that created enough noise to push for some of the police footage to be released and the investigation to occur. This was a decision that did not come lightly, as they wanted Azad to be remembered for more than his mutilation.
“I met Khalil three and a half years ago,” Henderson recalled. “It was at one of our mutual friend’s parties. And honestly, when I saw him I just fell in love because his smile was so big.”
Milli also valued their friendship. “There were times where he didn’t even really have much, and he would offer me stuff,” she said. “He was respectful. He was not a person that started things. Sometimes he would defuse if people had conflicts.
“He would never try to pick a side. He would try to be the mediator so he wouldn’t make the other person feel uncomfortable. He was just a very good person,” said Milli. “I don’t even know why this happened to him. This just threw everybody off.”
“He was a very kindhearted person,” Lopez said. “Everybody that he cared about, anybody that came around him, he really cared for. He always just wanted to see anybody around him smile, like anybody, it [didn’t] matter if he just met you. He would really go above and beyond to, you know, make anyone around him happy.”
Memories of George Floyd
Minnesota police have been under a microscope since the 2020 death of George Floyd, a case of police brutality that ignited protests across the nation. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights would later find that a great racial disparity exists in how police handle Black individuals from a simple stop and search to use of excessive force and arrests.
Crews and Azad’s family are hoping that his death will further help spark a change in police treatment of Black people in Minnesota in addition to the consequences they face after another Black life is taken and a family is left to grieve without transparency.
“We want an independent investigation into any police-related shooting or incident resulting in death going back 20 years,” Crews said. “We want police to carry professional personal liability insurance. They don’t want bad drivers on the road; we don’t want bad cops on the force.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to support Azad’s daughter and his family with obtaining a lawyer. On March 25, Azad’s family and loved ones gathered to celebrate his life along the same shores where it ended. It would have been his 25th birthday.
Chrisleen Herard is a senior journalism major and psychology minor at Howard University. She covers criminal justice for Howard University News Service. Chrisleen, who has Haitian roots, was born in Brooklyn and reared in Boston. Her work can be viewed HUNewsService.com.