BROOKINGS – Brookings Police are looking for anyone who was in the area on the evening a boy drowned in a retention pond on 12th Street South, Chief Dave Erickson said in a press conference Wednesday.
The investigation into the death of Molu Zarpeleh, 10, is ongoing, Erickson said, but as of now, there is no evidence that his death was anything but accidental.
“We base our decisions based on facts and evidence and right now, we just don’t have any evidence that indicates what exactly happened,” Erickson said.
The autopsy revealed the boy drowned, but did not show any signs of foul play, Erickson said. Toxicology tests are standard in an autopsy, but those results are still pending.
An earlier report of another child reportedly witnessing Molu being pushed into the pond was found to be false when the child admitted he had made up the story, Erickson said.
The last time Molu was seen on video or in person, he was alone and riding his bike toward home, Erickson said.
The police have video of several individuals walking in the area and are asking those people to come forward. Erickson stressed they are not suspects but are being sought as potential witnesses. They might have seen something without realizing its importance to the case, said Lt. Marci Gebers, head of criminal investigations for the department.
The first report came in to authorities at 10:28 p.m. Thursday, July 2, when Molu’s father reported him missing, according to a press release from the BPD.
Molu’s bike and sandals were found near a retention pond on 12th Street South.
The Brookings Fire Department arrived shortly before midnight, and members of the dive team began searching the pond. The search of the pond was suspended about 3 a.m. due to safety concerns, poor lighting and murky water. Officers remained on scene for the rest of the night for security.
About 7 a.m., the search resumed, and the fire department pumped approximately 300,000 gallons of water out of the pond, which was estimated to be about 18 feet deep maximum. The dive team located Molu’s body in the pond around 8:40 a.m. July 3.
“The Brookings Police Department has been very active with the investigation regarding the tragic death of Molu Zarpeleh and would like to update the community on the progress of the investigation,” Erickson said.
“Our investigators have canvassed the area multiple times seeking witnesses and video footage that could possibly provide us with some lead or answers. Unfortunately, it was determined that there is no video footage that directly shows the privately-owned pond in the 1900 block of 12th Street South where Molu’s body was recovered,” Erickson said.
“We have located video footage that covers areas adjacent to this pond, but the quality is poor due to the distance from the camera to the area where we are focused on. We are currently working with an outside agency to have the video footage enhanced,” Erickson said. “We’re waiting on some of that video to be returned to us.”
“Early on in the investigation, detectives received information that a child said that he had witnessed Molu being pushed into the water. Detectives interviewed the child who later disclosed to them that he had fabricated the story,” Erickson said.
“The investigators have employed the assistance of a nationally accredited child advocacy center where a forensic interview was completed with the child. The results of this interview match the statements given to our investigators early in the investigation, that what he had said was a fabricated story and that he did not see anyone push Molu into the pond,” Erickson said.
“The last time Molu was seen, on video, was at 6:44 p.m., across the street from the Boys & Girls Club near the city retention pond, located in the northeast corner of 12th Street South and Southland Lane,” Erickson said.
“On this video, Molu was seen riding his bike northbound towards his apartment building. A witness in the area also verified seeing Molu riding north towards his apartment building at that time,” Erickson said.
“This is the last confirmed time that Molu was seen on video or by witnesses that we’re aware of,” he said.
“We are looking for anyone that may have been in the area on 12th Street South between Southland Lane and 22nd Avenue or in the 1000 or 1100 blocks of Southland Lane between the hours of 6:44 p.m. and 11 p.m. on July 2,” Erickson said.
“I want to thank all the community members that were willing to assist us by speaking with our detectives as we have been conducting this investigation,” Erickson said.
The autopsy performed on July 7 showed Molu drowned, but did not turn up any evidence of foul play, Erickson said. Part of any autopsy is a toxicology screening, which is testing the blood for anything that shouldn’t be there, like drugs.
“We have not received that back yet. We don’t expect that there will be anything,” Erickson said.
“Since that portion of it isn’t technically completed, there isn’t a final ruling as to the cause of death, but it would appear at this point that, yeah, it was from drowning,” he explained. “There were no other indications of trauma on the body.”
When asked if there was anything that leads officers to suspect that Molu’s death is suspicious in any way, Erickson said no.
“There has been no evidence or witness statements to lead us in that direction,” he said.
Erickson addressed rumors regarding whether Molu could swim and why he’d be near water if he could not.
“What the family is telling us is that he did not know how to swim,” Erickson said, adding, “Only Molu has those answers” as to why he was near the pond.
“There’s a lot of theories of what could have happened. … We just don’t know,” Erickson said.
“We do know that he enjoyed catching frogs (which) are typically located by ponds and wet areas, so that’s a theory,” he said.
“We do know … from video footage from across the street from the city pond, that he was seen there with other children earlier in the day, playing near the city pond, so it’s not that he avoided those areas completely,” Erickson said. “A lot of children in that area play around those ponds frequently.”
Erickson said the video from the B&G Club that shows Molu leaving the area at 6:44 p.m., shows “he was with a group of children in that area prior to leaving, but he did leave alone.”
Erickson confirmed that the last time Molu was seen on video or by a witness, he was alone; and there is no evidence so far to show he was pushed or coerced into the water.
The pond looks much different today than on the day Molu drowned, Erickson said.
“On that day, the water would have come up a lot higher than it does today,” he said. “The edge of the pond directly inside the water then would have had a slight drop-off to a gradual slope.”
After that gradual slope the pond went out approximately 16.5 feet and “then it was a hard drop,” Gebers said.
“It dropped off to a much deeper portion in the center of the pond. That deeper portion is where his body was recovered from,” Erickson said.
He addressed rumors “that his body was left there overnight. We did not know the night of (July) 2 for sure he was in that pond. Dive team from the fire department did their best that night to attempt to locate him.”
The pond was lined with plastic, “and it was very slippery,” Erickson said.
The dive team from the Brookings Fire Department trains in area lakes on how to locate people who may be thrown from vehicles into bodies of water or accidently become submerged, so they are experienced in water rescue.
“The rescue team from the fire department was having a very difficult time keeping their footing, and it was turning very unsafe for them,” Erickson said. “That’s why the decision was made to suspend the search efforts at that point until they could get some of the water drained the next morning.”
Once the water was drained, the crews re-entered the pond and were able to locate Molu’s body and “recovered him immediately once he was found,” Erickson said.
Although police believe Molu’s death was an accident, they are continuing the investigation.
“There are a few other avenues that Detective Gebers and her crew are going to be following up on,” Erickson said.
“We really want to make sure that we have every conceivable possibility covered in this investigation before we say that the case would be closed,” he said. “We’ll see where those lead us.”
More interviews can be conducted, as well as seeking out anyone who might have been in that area, Erickson said.
The police department has video and has posted pictures on its Facebook page of people walking in the area. They’d like to identify the people and talk to them about what they might have seen. Sometimes what doesn’t look important to a civilian could be important to a trained investigator, Gebers pointed out.
“I want to make it very clear: that these photos of these people does not suggest that we think in any way that they are a suspect in this case. It’s solely as witnesses to this case,” Erickson stressed.
If no more evidence is found, “at some point, the investigation would be closed,” Erickson said. “We’re going to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before we make that decision.”
“I have spent quite a bit of time with Molu’s family the past couple of weeks. Molu was loved by many in our community and had a bright future ahead of him,” Gebers said.
“Our hearts hurt for Molu’s family, and we will do everything in our power to find the truth, whatever the truth may be,” she said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]