Episode 009: Aesha Muhammad

September 13, 2021

On a cold winter morning, a toddler is found crying on the doorstep of a church. He only knows his name and one chilling fact: “Mommy died.” Who is the boy, and what happened to his mother?

Episode Media
Aesha Amera Muhammad (Facebook)
Aesha & Amaru Muhammad (Philadelphia Daily News)
Aesha & Amaru Muhammad (Philadelphia Daily News)
Philadelphia Daily News cover story, January 12, 2001
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime! This week I am bringing you a case of a missing woman whose son may hold the key to what happened to her.

On December 3rd, 2000, the parishioners at Liberty Temple Church in East Orange, New Jersey, were in the middle of their Sunday morning service when they heard someone banging loudly on the church door. This was especially odd because the door to their leased space above the auto parts store was not usually locked during services. When a deacon went to see who was who at the door, he was shocked to find a crying toddler alone on the doorstep. The small boy was dressed for the winter weather in jeans, a blue sweatshirt, black coat and boots, and a black skullcap. He appeared to be unharmed, but clearly upset.

The deacon immediately brought the boy to the Reverend Robert Jiggetts, who assumed he had just wandered away from the church service and that his family must be looking for him. The pastor brought the boy before the congregation and asked who he belonged to, but no one had ever seen him before. Between services, church members found the boy a fresh diaper and a change of clothes. They tried to question the child, but the only thing he could tell them was his first name – Amaru.

When no one in the afternoon church service claimed the boy, Reverend Jiggetts called the East Orange Police Department. Detectives immediately began investigating the strange situation. Who was Amaru, and where was his family? Why had someone left him alone on a church doorstep in the middle of winter?

Officers from the Special Victims Unit trained in interviewing children were called in. When they questioned Amaru, what he told them was chilling: “Mommy died… They were fighting. Mommy was bleeding… Mommy got hit with a rock.”

Amaru was put in foster care while police searched for his parents. But it would be days before he was reunited with his family, who were frantically searching for him nearly 100 miles away.

In West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the family of 23-year-old Aesha Muhammad were concerned. They had not heard from Aesha in nearly a week. This was not like her at all; Aesha was extremely close to her siblings, who formed an important support system for her and her 2-year-old son, Amaru. She talked to her family regularly, and was generally a very responsible person. She was enrolled in cosmetology school at Venus Beauty Academy and was working at a salon to pay her bills.

Aesha rented a room from her father’s half-brother, 57-year-old Charles Dockins. She had moved into his boarding house so she could be closer to the beauty academy, but it was a difficult situation for Aesha. Dockins was renovating the big house on 56th Street, and Aesha had agreed to pay rent in order to help out with the costs, but she and Dockins rarely saw eye-to-eye. Aesha was tired of the arguing and constant tension in the house, but the location was convenient and it gave her a place to bring Amaru.

Aesha shared custody of Amaru with his father, 32-year-old Anthony McClain. Anthony, who worked as a handyman, kept Amaru during the week while Aesha attended school and worked in the salon; Aesha kept Amaru on the weekends. The week after Thanksgiving, Aesha asked Anthony for more time with Amaru. They decided that Amaru would stay with Aesha for a week and a half, from November 27th to December 8th. Aesha was excited to have her son for more than just a few days at a time.

But at some point during the next few days, things took a turn. On Wednesday, November 29th, Aesha called her sister Gadirah, complaining that Dockins was getting on her nerves and she was ready to move out. Her sister was supportive and said that Aesha could come live with her. They made tentative arrangements and agreed to talk the next day. But when Aesha called on Thursday, her sister wasn’t home. Instead, she spoke to her brother Solomon, telling him that Dockins was “acting crazy” and had thrown her dinner in the trash. Aesha was done; she had packed up her things and was leaving. She asked Solomon to come pick her up, but he didn’t have a car. He told Aesha that he would ask their sister Wakhita to help. But when Wakhita tried to reach Aesha, all of her calls went unanswered.

At first, the family assumed that Aesha had just changed her mind and decided to stay at the boarding house after all. They continued to leave messages for Aesha with Charles Dockins, but when they still hadn’t heard from her by Sunday, they knew something was wrong. The siblings called their father, David Muhammad, who was living in Atlanta at the time. He immediately boarded a plane and flew to Philadelphia to help with the search.

The family went to the boarding house and talked to Dockins directly. He told them that Aesha had packed up and left with Amaru. When they looked at the room she had rented, they found that it was completely cleared out. The only things left were a dresser, a bed, and a fitted sheet on the mattress.

Aesha’s family was confused. How had Aesha managed to get all of her things and Amaru out of the boarding house without a vehicle? Had Aesha found someone else to pick her up after talking to Solomon? And why had she left without letting any of them know where she had gone?

It would be several more days before they had any clues. On Saturday, December 9th, Wakhita went to visit her husband at the East Jersey State Prison. He told her that he had seen Aesha’s son Amaru on the news and that police were searching for the boy’s family. Wakhita was shocked. The family thought that Amaru was with his mother, that Aesha had taken the boy with her when she left the boarding house. At least, that’s what Charles Dockins had told them. How had the mother and son become separated, and how had Amaru ended up in New Jersey?

The family immediately contacted the East Orange Police Department. After the state Division of Youth and Family Services vetted their claims, Amaru was returned to his father. The family was overjoyed to have Amaru back, but they still had so many unanswered questions. Anthony McClain told reporters, “I have never had to deal with this much stress. I am happy we found Amaru but we have to find out what’s up with Aesha. She would not drop off Amaru at that church unless it was life-threatening.”

And that was the crux of the matter. Aesha was a loving mother who would never have willingly abandoned her son. The toddler’s story of seeing his mother bleeding and possibly dead brought an even greater sense of urgency to the case now that detectives knew who his mother was and that she was indeed missing.

Unfortunately, there is little information about the investigation into Aesha’s disappearance. On January 10th, police used cadaver dogs to search the boarding house on 56th Street, but it’s unclear what they found, if anything.

We do know that detectives questioned Charles Dockins multiple times in connection with Aesha’s case, and each time he told a different story. Early on in the investigation, police scheduled him for a polygraph exam, but Dockins didn’t show up. He was on parole at the time after having been in prison for burglary and aggravated robbery, but after Aesha disappeared, so did Charles Dockins. Six months later, police stopped him in Camden, New Jersey, and discovered he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He was taken back to prison and denied parole.

In December of 2002, two years after Aesha disappeared, her case was assigned to the Philadelphia Police Department Homicide Division’s special investigations unit. Lt. Mark Deegan, the commander of the unit, told reporters, “She’s been missing a long time. She was a competent and caring mother and, after putting our heads together, we’ve taken over this case because it appears foul play might be involved.”

Sadly, even with this renewed attention, no suspects have ever been named, and no one has ever been arrested in connection with Aesha’s case. Although reports indicate that 2-year-old Amaru named his mother’s killer, that person has never been publicly identified.

In the 21 years since Aesha went missing, her family has never forgotten their beloved daughter, sister, and mother. In 2016, a teenaged Amaru wrote a touching tribute to his mother on her birthday, saying that he knew she was watching over him and that she would live through him forever.

Aesha Muhammad deserves to be found. She would now be 43 years old. At the time of her disappearance, she was 5’8” tall and approximately 135 lbs. She has black hair and brown eyes. She has a gap between her upper front teeth and a small linear scar on her abdomen.

Aesha’s father David is desperate to find out what happened to his daughter. “My daughter’s gone. I just want to recover her. If anyone could help bring this to closure, bring this to an end, they could bring peace to us.”

If you have any information about the disappearance of Aesha Muhammad, please contact the Philadelphia Police Department at 215-686-8477 or submit a tip online at phillypolice.com.