June 12, 2024

“How am I?” asked Saleemah Graham-Fleming, whose daughter, Sanaa Amenhotep, was abducted, tortured and murdered by three fellow teenagers she thought were her friends. “What a question.”

“How am I? I’m here and that’s the message I want to send to grieving parents in my position: Survive.”

“Survive, survive, survive,” she repeated as a prayer, a mantra, and a commandment.

Survival is a triumph for the mother, who endured three weeks of uncertainty and despair after her 15-year-old daughter vanished on the evening April 5, 2021, in the middle of her spring break.

Family of Sanaa Amenhotep and supporters gather in Martin Luther King Park in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, May 1. People from across the country came to Columbia to show the Amenhotep family support.

Family of Sanaa Amenhotep and supporters gather in Martin Luther King Park in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, May 1. People from across the country came to Columbia to show the Amenhotep family support.

She told her story to a small group of reporters in an intimate interview inside the personal office of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, whose department spearheaded the search for her daughter.

Sitting on the couch, less than two weeks after Nicolle Sanchez-Peralta, Treveon J. Nelson and Jaylen S. Wilson were sentenced to a collective 185 years in prison for Sanaa’s abduction and murder, Graham-Fleming reflected that the last time she had sat there was when Lott told her they had found her daughter’s body.

It was a “full circle moment,” Graham-Fleming said.

The sentences brought a turbulent mix of emotions for Graham-Fleming.

“I was mad because I actually felt sorry for those kids. Because I felt like I was betraying my daughter,” Graham-Fleming said. “I was quickly reminded that I’m not just Sanaa’s mother. I’m a mother. So I can never celebrate the demise of children, of young people.”

Sanaa had gone outside to take pictures and never returned, Graham-Fleming told media in 2021. Unknown to her at the time, Sanaa had been abducted by Sanchez-Peralta, Nelson and Wilson, who convinced Sanaa to get in a stolen car with them.

Her daughter loved and trusted all three teens, Graham-Fleming said, but she was especially close to Sanchez-Peralta. Even though Graham-Fleming didn’t approve of the relationship, her daughter would say, “She doesn’t have anybody, I’m going to be her friend.”

“What was going through Sanaa’s mind when she (Sanchez-Peralta) threw her (Sanaa’s) phone out of the window while I was calling her?” Graham-Fleming asked.

The three teens drove Sanaa at gunpoint 46 minutes away to a secluded, wooded area near Batesburg-Leesville in Lexington County. Once there, the three teens violently beat Sanaa before shooting her 14 times.

“Five broken ribs. A broken femur. Two fractured bones in the legs. An eye out of the socket and a broken face,” Graham-Fleming said. Her daughter was alive for 90 percent of her torture. “A 15-year-old girl had to run to her death with those injuries.”

Her body was left in a shallow grave until she was found three weeks later.

Sanchez-Peralta, 19, was found guilty of kidnapping and murder following a trial in May. She was sentenced to 65 years.

Nelson, 20, and Wilson, 20, pleaded guilty early this year to charges of murder, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Both were sentenced to 60 years in prison. The sentences must be served in their entirety and do not allow for parole.

But the sentence was not the end for the mother who has found faith and purpose as an advocate in the years since her daughter’s death.

“Justice expands beyond the courtroom,” Graham-Fleming said. “The sentence is just a morsel of work that needs to be done, not just here, but nationwide with the way that young people treat each other.”

Friends and family of Sanaa Amenhotep release balloons in her memory at Doko Meadows in Blythewood.

Friends and family of Sanaa Amenhotep release balloons in her memory at Doko Meadows in Blythewood.

Shortly after Sanaa’s murder, Graham-Fleming founded M.O.S.T. Outreach, which stands for Mothers of Slain Teens, to help advocate for other parents whose children have been killed or gone missing.

“This is a club that nobody wants to join,” Graham-Fleming said. “The encouragement I would give to a family is to not give up and to lean in on law enforcement and even to reach out to private investigators if you can.”

Drawing on the model she said Lott set in the search for her daughter, she has advocated for law enforcement to treat every missing child case as if it was a worst case scenario. More than anything, she emphasized that families needed and deserved closure when a loved one goes missing.

“The worst feeling in the world is to not know where your loved one is,” Graham-Fleming said, “I had a sigh of relief when Sanaa was at least located and I knew where she was. I was devastated at what happened, but at least I can say ‘Oh my baby is here.’”

Sanaa Amenhotep and her mother, Saleemeh Graham-Flemming. Amenhotep was killed on April 5, 2021.

Sanaa Amenhotep and her mother, Saleemeh Graham-Flemming. Amenhotep was killed on April 5, 2021.

This message has been well-received, Graham-Fleming said. Members of law enforcement have reached out to her to say that they’ve changed their policies since hearing from her.

But Graham-Fleming is also eager to expand her group’s work into helping troubled teens and their families. “It’s easier to build children than it is to repair adults,” Graham-Fleming said, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist who died in 1895.

As part of this effort, she founded the Cakie Scholarship in Sanaa’s memory — Cakie was Graham-Fleming’s nickname for her daughter. The scholarship provides money for a Columbia-area student to attend a trade school.

But the scholarship and M.O.S.T. are just one part of Sanaa’s legacy. For Graham-Fleming, her daughter lives on in family Girl Nights, every Friday, in birds and butterflies, and sometimes the smell of her daughter that washes over her like she could reach out and touch her.

“You can end the body, you can you can damage flesh,” said Graham-Fleming, “but spirit never dies.”

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