A new book documents efforts to help fulfill the aspirations of a St. Louis Park student killed in a landslide during a field trip in St. Paul.
Jon Kerr, a Minnesota author and journalist, became involved in the case of a landslide at Lilydale Park that led to the deaths of Peter Hobart Elementary School students Mohamed Fofana, 10, and Haysem Sani, 9, through his role on the leadership committee of the Friends of Lilydale Park.
Kerr, who currently lives in Northfield but resided in St. Paul at the time of the 2013 tragedy, said the city had long neglected the park and that his group “at certain points warned the city about certain problems that unfortunately came to fruition.”
Kerr wrote a series of articles for City Pages detailing such problems. A cover article he wrote in 2014 had the title “The Shame of St. Paul: How Mayor Coleman’s City Hall Tried to Spin the Deaths of Two Children.” A 2015 article he wrote contained the headline “St. Paul Ignored Obvious Warnings Before Landslide that Killed Two Kids.”
St. Paul approved a $1 million settlement to the families, the largest settlement of its kind in city history at the time. The St. Louis Park School District agreed to pay $80,000 each to the families of Mohamed and Haysem and another $40,000 to the family of a child injured in the landslide.
The family of Mohamed decided to use money from the settlements to build a school named after him and a small medical clinic in his father’s home country of Guinea. Mohamed had visited the west African nation to see his grandmother, family attorney John Goetz said after the settlements.
“He was really moved by the poverty and profound need for education and other aid, and he told his parents he hoped when he grew up he could do something for the people there,” Goetz said.
Mohamed had written a story for a school assignment about his desire to help people in his father’s native land, the attorney added.
Through his research and in delivering contributions from the Friends of Lilydale Park to the families of Mohamed and Haysem, Kerr came to form a relationship with Mohamed’s family.
Kerr traveled with Mohamed’s father, Lancine Fofana, to Guinea to view building progress last year. The experience, along with his investigative efforts, contributed to his new book “Mohamed’s Dream: Overcoming tragedy & cover up from the Midwest to West Africa.”
A book release event is planned 6-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at Muddy Paws Cheesecake, 3359 Gorham Ave., St. Louis Park.
In the book, Kerr discusses his visit to the site of the incident five years later with Mohamed’s parents as well as his visit to Guinea.
In the preface, he writes, “Nothing can change what happened in Lilydale Park on May 22, 2013. But hopefully this account will help increase understanding and also help prevent similar events in the future. This would also be an outcome that would honor Mohamed.”
In an interview, Kerr said, “I wanted the book to tell the complete story about what happened at Lilydale Park. That’s kind of my investigative reporter step, finding out more about the incident and how it was or wasn’t investigated.”
Investigators hired by the city concluded the city could not have predicted a landslide that killed the two students, despite prior concerns expressed by city employees.
Kerr used data practices requests to learn more about how the city handled stormwater runoff in construction projects, which he believes may have led to the landslide.
“They had been warned by their own staff,” Kerr pointed out.
For example, the city’s investigation said that a St. Paul forestry supervisor observed enough erosion that he warned colleagues that “the whole hillside is at risk to slide in heavy rain.”
Documents Kerr obtained through formal requests also indicated that geologists disagreed with the city’s argument that the landslide had been natural and unforeseeable.
In the book, Kerr also relates Mohamed’s story in the scrapbook he made for the school project. Mohamed had dreams of becoming president so that he could create change in Africa, Kerr said. He wanted kids in Guinea to have access to the benefits he enjoyed in the United States, like soccer fields and decent clothing, Kerr explained.
The school in Guinea is still under construction while a committee works to plan funding for teachers and supplies, he noted. The school would be on the outskirts of the city in an area in which students currently would have to walk 2 miles to attend “anything approaching a school,” Kerr said. The family hopes the school can educate hundreds of students in kindergarten through high school.
While Mohamed did not specifically mention a clinic in his scrapbook, Kerr said that the family decided to fund one due to the state of medical facilities in the area. They also envision that the school could serve as a community center with vocational training for adults.
For the book, Kerr interviewed individuals with ties to Peter Hobart Elementary School about their lives before and after the incident and the efforts to provide a positive impact through the relationships that formed with the Fofana family.
“They’re such an amazing family,” he said, pointing to their efforts to turn the ideas in Mohamed’s scrapbook into a fitting memorial through the school and clinic.
Kerr said his trip to Guinea became eye-opening as he visited the site of the school, which is situated in an area experiencing a turbulent gold rush. He said many people send children into holes with buckets to search for remnants of gold – a dangerous undertaking.
“Most of them will never go to school,” Kerr said. “There are constant dangers and horrible things that happen there – violence and prostitution and so on.”
Lancine Fofana’s father sent him to school, helping him learn about engineering and come to the United States to complete his degree and for work. Here, he met Mohamed’s mother, Madosu Kennah, a refugee from civil war in Liberia.
“They were making the American dream until this horrible tragedy occurred,” Kerr said.
Rather than turning bitter, he said, “They decided they were going to make something positive of this.”
Haysem’s family also planned to use the settlement funds for altruistic purposes, with the plan of founding an orphanage in Ethiopia, according to the family’s attorney, Paul Godlewski, after the settlements. Haysem had visited the east African nation when he was 6 years old.
“He was a pretty bright kid, and he was really pretty shocked about people in Ethiopia – kids who didn’t have parents and were in the street begging,” Godlewski said. “He said he wanted to go back and start an orphanage. Now that he’s passed away, his mom and dad will do just that.”
Haysem’s family chose not to participate in Kerr’s book.
Of the story of Mohamed’s family, Kerr said, “It is a bittersweet story, clearly, but I think there really is a sweet side that there are a lot of people trying to make the best of it. I think that side should be known as well as the true history of what happened there.”
Copies of Kerr’s book will be available at the Sept. 20 event at Muddy Paws. The book will be available at mightycause.com/story/Landslide and Amazon.com. Proceeds will benefit the school and clinic in Guinea.