The Real Story Behind the Somali Who Crashed Arizona Border Checkpoint

Right-wing news sources and their readers did not hold back after news broke last year of a Somali man who ran a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona and tried to run over an agent.

"Why is he still alive?" pondered American Infidel of in an article about the April 22, 2016, incident near Green Valley. "He should have been shot and killed."

"They shoulda ventilated his scrawny Somali posterior! Then dragged his carcass over through the pucker bushes and left him for the vultures." wrote a reader of, "Calamity Jane."

"Anyone not stopping at a customs station should be shot while trying to escape," internet reader "Mahou Shoujo fired off in response to an article on

But it turns out that the Somali, 30-year-old Abdalla Ahmed Elmi, did not mean to hurt anyone.

Elmi is a naturalized U.S. citizen, good student, and hard worker.  He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis in 2014. The checkpoint incident was the result of Elmi failing to take his medications.

In federal court last week, Elmi received one year of probation for misdemeanor assault on a federal officer for the crime.

The initial court paperwork filed by the U.S. Border Patrol in April 2016 made Elmi look like the type of person that President Donald Trump wants banned from the country.

click to enlarge Certificate of naturalization for Abdalla Elmi, as provided by his family. - COURTESY OF ABDALLA ELMI'S FAMILY
Certificate of naturalization for Abdalla Elmi, as provided by his family.
Courtesy of Abdalla Elmi's family
The confrontation between Elmi and agents began at about 8:30 p.m., records show, when Elmi drove northbound into the immigration checkpoint near Amado on Interstate 19. Instead of stopping as required, Elmi punched the accelerator on his black Honda Civic and drove through the checkpoint.

Border Patrol vehicles gave chase to Elmi, who sped up to 90 miles an hour as he approached Green Valley. Agents used their vehicles to box in Elmi's Honda, bringing him to a stop. But Elmi refused to get out of his car.

When an agent tried to break his window, Elmi drove the car into a Border Patrol car with a service dog inside, causing agents "to jump out of the way in order to avoid being hit," court records state.

It was a small piece of news, but it fed the stereotypes of Trump supporters and anti-immigrant types.

Right-wing news sites passed it on enthusiastically. The stories were fueled by an incident in December 2015, when a Somali national had been arrested for attempting to smuggle Mexican immigrants across the border.

The media cannot be blamed for one aspect of their coverage: The Border Patrol stated in a court filing that Elmi was a Somali citizen.

But many news sites embellished from there, with news writers and readers apparently assuming Elmi was an undocumented immigrant who had blasted through a port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although federal paperwork never mentioned Elmi's religion, Breitbart News assumed for its headline about the incident that Elmi must be Muslim.

Other assumptions by right-wing writers and readers attempt to be ironic, describing how the media would make Elmi out to be a hard case who deserves sympathy. In fact, their comments were sometimes not far from the truth.

One reader on an article in speculated that the media would claim about Elmi, "he was just lost and this was some big laughably ridiculous incident ..."

Elmi actually was lost, according to his supporters, but the incident was not laughable.

Phoenix New Times interviewed
a family member who asked not to be identified and Elmi's private attorney for this article. Elmi said at first he would comment, but later declined to be interviewed.

The family member — a local professional — said Elmi was totally disoriented and out of his head when he began driving to Los Angeles and found himself on I-19 north of Nogales.

"There were multiple, contributing factors to why he lost his mind" that day, the relative said.

click to enlarge After Elmi's arrest, anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller questioned in an article on her website that Elmi "would have become a solid, hardworking, loyal citizen?" Yet Elmi was a hardworking, U.S. citizen — who happens to have a mental illness. - PAMELA GELLER VIA WIKIPEDIA
After Elmi's arrest, anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller questioned in an article on her website that Elmi "would have become a solid, hardworking, loyal citizen?" Yet Elmi was a hardworking, U.S. citizen — who happens to have a mental illness.
One factor, the relative went on, is that Elmi worked incredibly long hours managing a group home before his April 22, 2016, psychotic break — up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, in her May 2016 article about Elmi, wonders, "Do you think that if he had made it into the U.S., he would have become a solid, hardworking, loyal citizen?"

Yes, that's exactly what he became, Elmi's relative said to New Times and in statements he filed in federal court.

In the early 2000s, Elmi was in a refugee camp in Somalia. Then he got the chance to come to the United States. After arriving, he worked on his English skills and eventually applied for citizenship. He became naturalized in 2008.

Elmi received a scholarship after graduating with an associate's degree from Phoenix College and enrolled in Arizona State University's nursing school. He was achieving a 3.8 GPA when his mental-health nightmare struck, his family member said.

Elmi had a "breakdown" at his Tempe home in 2014 and was later found by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge to be "persistently or acutely disabled." He was ordered into treatment.

He responded to his medication and got a job, but on April 21, 2016, Elmi had another breakdown. His family reported him missing. They soon received word of his arrest south of Tucson and rushed to visit him in jail. And they arranged to hire Tucson attorney D. Jesse Smith to replace a court-appointed defender.

Two weeks later, with Smith on the case, the court ordered a $2,400 mental-health evaluation on Elmi that showed the Somali was mentally ill but that he could be treated with medication.

"I put him on the stand — he seemed reasonable, and the judge gave him a break," Smith said.

Elmi was subsequently released from detention.

Smith and the family member agreed that the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office also began to see Elmi as a sympathetic case. More importantly, it was obvious that Elmi had "no motive" to attack officers, and that his story of a mental breakdown was true, Smith said. That's why prosecutors agreed to a plea deal that included no jail time for Elmi, he said.

"I think there was a big misconception" among some media outlets, the family member said. "The way they portrayed him was not right."

Elmi "is someone who demonstrates compassion, integrity, loyalty, and dedication to service," the family member said. "He has a great personality and is kind to many who have come to know him."

For now, Elmi is living in Seattle and is in good health. He's working full time and has been accepted into an undergraduate degree program at the University of Washington, the family member said.

That's hardly what the media expected.

After hearing of the incident last year, right-wing activist Nick Short tweeted, "Is it just the norm now for Somalis trying to kill agents on the border?"

His question can now be answered: No, it is definitely not the norm.

click to enlarge A sample of comments on about Elmi's case in 2016. - BREITBART.COM
A sample of comments on about Elmi's case in 2016.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.