Dominique Alexander, the mother of Isaac Childress III, holds an urn of his ashes on her south Minneapolis porch. Isaac, a bubbly 6-year-old boy who loved being outside, drowned in the Mississippi River last summer. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Last August, Don and Sondra Samuels accompanied a group of neighbor kids on a bike ride.

They left with five children. But only four came home.

When the excursion stopped for a break at Boom Island Park along the Mississippi River, the Samuelses allowed the children to get their feet wet. But as the kids waded in, a strong current swept away 6-year-old Isaac Childress III. A search team led by Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Water Patrol found his body two days later.

A year after Isaac’s death, Sondra Samuels’s insurance company agreed to pay $301,000 to Isaac’s family in what court documents refer to as a “wrongful death settlement.” 

On August 11, a Hennepin County District judge, Kristin Siegesmund, approved the distribution of funds. The petition that Isaac’s mother, Dominique Alexander, filed in court states that the boy’s death “was caused by the negligence of Sondra Hollinger-Samuels.”

In an interview with Sahan Journal, Sondra described Isaac’s death as a “terrible accident.”

“Don and I will never forget that day,” she said. “It’ll stay with us forever, as will Isaac. We will never not grieve, and yet we know that our grief pales in comparison to what Dominique and the kids and her family have gone through.”

Don and Sondra Samuels, who live on the same block where Isaac grew up, are well-known community leaders in north Minneapolis. In recent months, the couple have become the public faces opposing a ballot measure that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety.

Don previously served more than a decade on the Minneapolis City Council, where he worked to reduce crime as chair of the public safety committee. Sondra is the president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, a nonprofit with $12 million in annual revenue. The nonprofit partners with schools and community organizations to provide comprehensive social services for north Minneapolis children and families.

Isaac was a “NAZ scholar”: that is, a participant in the nonprofit’s support programming for kids. Alexander participated actively in Northside Achievement Zone parenting classes and community workshops. 

None of the media reports at the time of the drowning mention the adults who were present with the children on Boom Island. Documents obtained in recent days by Sahan Journal reveal that those adults were Don and Sondra Samuels. 

Until now, the couple have not commented publicly about their involvement in the case. A criminal investigation into Isaac’s death, led by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, is ongoing.

Witnesses who spoke to Sahan Journal described a harrowing scene, fighting against strong currents in an attempt to save both Sondra and Isaac from the river.

The Northside Achievement Zone, which Sondra leads, did not respond to requests for comment about its leader’s involvement in an accidental child death. Sondra declined to answer questions about NAZ’s response to the case.

A year after her son’s death, Dominique Alexander, 35, keeps thinking about what could have saved Isaac’s life. She wishes the city posted warning signs by that area of the river and provided more lifeguards. She wishes more kids and their parents knew how to swim. She wishes the bike ride had stayed in her north Minneapolis neighborhood. But above all, she wishes Sondra or Don had called her to ask if the kids could go in the water. 

“I know it was an accident,” she said. “But I just feel like, if you would have called, it could have been an accident that could have been prevented. Because I could have told you, no, they can’t go swimming. No, they don’t know how to swim. Why are y’all even there?”

‘Everything that he did was special to me’

Most mornings when he didn’t have to go to school, 6-year-old Isaac Childress would check in with his mother and say, “Mom, can I go outside?” 

None of the neighbors were awake. But Isaac wanted to go outside and ride his bike.

Isaac—or “Son Son” to his family—was “bubbly, loving, caring, fun, happy,” Alexander said. “Everything that he did was special to me.”

Six-year-old Isaac Childress III smiling from a climbing wall. Credit: Courtesy Dominique Alexander

Isaac and his sister Iz’anna, 17 months older, were inseparable like “Bonnie and Clyde,” Alexander said. “That’s his right hand,” she said, nodding at 9-year-old Iz’anna. The family sat outside on their south Minneapolis porch on a sunny early autumn afternoon, with the exception of 15-year-old Tyianna, who stayed inside. Nine-year-old Iz’anna, wearing a LOL Surprise Dolls T-shirt and white beads in her hair, clambered up onto the porch railing behind her mother. She held up her right hand as a demonstration. 

Her 2-year-old sister, Blessin, with red and white beads and a unicorn T-shirt, peered through the slats on the porch and called “Peekaboo!”

The family had lived on Hillside Avenue in north Minneapolis for five years, since Isaac was a toddler. “He knew every neighbor in the neighborhood,” Alexander said. “Every kid in the neighborhood knew who him and my daughter was. He played basketball with the older boys across the street. He just wanted to be outside in the open.”

Like many young boys, Isaac liked trucks and buses, and dreamed about being a construction worker. Alexander believes he would have grown up to be a mechanic; he loved to take things apart and put them back together.

The only boy in the family, Isaac seemed to look after his mom and sisters. He and Iz’anna respected their teenage sister, Tyianna, as a “second mama.” 

“Even if he had two, three dollars or some pennies, he would tell us, Mom, I’m gonna take care of you with this,” Alexander said.

“Or he’d be saying, Mom, I’ll buy you a car,” Iz’anna chimed in.

“Or he’d say Mom, I’m gonna buy you a house,” Alexander said.

Alexander raised Isaac as a single mom, but she wasn’t alone.

“He came from a loving household,” Isaac’s mother, Dominique Alexander, says. “Anything that he didn’t have, I would figure out a way to get it, whether it was a want or a need.”

“He has a stepfather that stepped up and was there for them,” she said. “You get with a single mom that has kids, you got to take them as a package. That’s what he did.” 

His stepfather helped support Isaac with school, discipline, and potty training, and Isaac loved him as a father. Isaac’s extended family was active in his life, too. Recently, some cousins had come to stay with the family.

“He came from a loving household,” Alexander said. “Anything that he didn’t have, I would figure out a way to get it, whether it was a want or a need.”

Isaac came from a loving family. Clockwise from top left: his mother, Dominique Alexander; 2-year-old Blessin Starr; 9-year-old Iz’anna Childress, who considered him a twin; and 15-year-old Tyianna Alexander, the family’s “second mama.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A couple looks to transform north Minneapolis 

Sondra and Don Samuels purchased their five-bedroom home on Hillside Avenue in 1998 and raised three of their four children there. They lived across the street and down the curving block from Alexander’s family. 

Growing roots in north Minneapolis was part of their theory of social change.

“Both of us knew that place mattered, and change has to come from a place,” Sondra told Mpls.St.Paul Magazine last year. “It can’t be airlifted down—that’s not sustainable. You might get a relief, but you’re not going to have sustained transformation if people on the ground are not part of that transformation.”

In 2005, Sondra became president of the PEACE Foundation, a nonprofit Don had founded to reduce violence. That mission grew after they saw a presentation about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York–based nonprofit with a record of success providing extensive support services to kids and families. The Samuelses decided to adopt that model and turned the nonprofit into the Northside Achievement Zone. 

Most families the Northside Achievement Zone serves are Black. Coaches work with families from a child’s birth through high school, connecting them with tutoring, career and financial support, mental health resources, and housing opportunities. The nonprofit employs nearly 50 staff.

Sondra Samuels, CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, holds an infant-sized T-shirt with a college graduation year during an evening Theater of Public Policy performance in 2012. All infants in NAZ programs receive these shirts. Credit: Tony Webster | CC BY 2.0

In 2020, the nonprofit organization served more than 2,000 kids and nearly 1,000 families. One of those families was Alexander’s. She joined when her oldest daughter, now 15, was in second grade.

“Every type of class that they had, I graduated from,” Alexander said.

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Northside Achievement Zone states its goal is to end multi-generational poverty in north Minneapolis. And the organization points to results: higher levels of access to early childhood education, better kindergarten readiness, and improved academic proficiency. 

In 2015, Wilder Research, a nonprofit research and evaluation group, projected a $6.12 return on investment for every $1 spent on Northside Achievement Zone programs. 

Former Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges called the Northside Achievement Zone a national model for “effective strategies for eliminating racial and place-based disparities.”

“If you are depressed and want to do something that will have a lasting impact for the common good,” Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column after the murder of George Floyd, “check out the NAZ website and hit the donate button!

For decades, the Samuelses have spoken out against violence in their community. Over the past year, they have become the most vocal defenders of the embattled Minneapolis Police Department and the reform efforts of its first African American chief, Medaria Arradondo. They took their message against defunding the police to an array of media outlets, from the New York Times to Fox News

In April, as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin stood trial for Floyd’s murder, Sondra told CNN that Floyd’s killing was a symptom of deep racism affecting every part of the community.

“Our children are the ones who are suffering the most,” she told CNN’s Poppy Harlow. “They are dealing with trauma all the way around, and they are looking to the adults to protect them. And it’s something we’ve all failed to do.”

Since August 2020, the Samuelses have filed three lawsuits against the city of Minneapolis. The first, last summer, accused the city of not meeting its minimum police staffing requirement. The latter two, both filed in recent weeks, charged that proposed ballot language for a charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety did not provide enough detail to voters. 

Former Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels in 2020. Credit: Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Sondra’s activism against neighborhood violence has consistently focused on children.

“For the last year, I and my neighbors have watched Black mothers react with incredulity when their child is killed in community violence and not by a white cop,” she told the New York Times’ Friedman. “Their tragedies do not trigger citywide protest rallies, people don’t say their child’s name and there are no citywide demands that this has to stop.”

Mentors to kids on the Northside

The Samuelses mentor kids in the community. “We’ve kind of co-raised a generation of children,” Sondra, 55, told Sahan Journal. 

For 24 years, she said, they’ve regularly taken neighborhood children on trips. They became godparents to one group of kids who lived across the street. In one case, they chaperoned a child on a visit to Canada. Another child lived in their home for four years.

As neighbors, the Samuelses welcomed Isaac and Iz’anna to play in their backyard. Sometimes Sondra gave them books. In the early months of the pandemic, Sondra spent more time at home on her front porch and often saw the kids playing. When some cousins came to stay with Alexander’s family, the Samuelses noticed the kids did not have enough bikes to go around. One August day, they brought bikes for the cousins, which a friend of Sondra’s had donated. 

That week, Isaac’s group kept coming over while Sondra was working. She promised the kids they would do something together that weekend. The kids kept ringing the bell.

“I finally asked Don if we could get them out of the neighborhood for an afternoon,” she said. A woman had recently been murdered on their block; she thought the kids could use a change of scenery. They offered to take Isaac, Iz’anna, and their three young cousins on a bike ride. 

An eyewitness account: ‘When I entered the water, I remember the boy raising his arm’

On August 29, 2020, Maurice and Veronique Sarano were enjoying a walk in scenic Boom Island Park. Maurice Sarano, a retired cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, had just taken a job at the Minneapolis Heart Institute and moved to Minneapolis from Rochester. He and his wife Veronique, a physician at the National Institutes of Health, were taking in the sights of their new city. They strolled under cottonwood and ash trees along a gravel path connecting downtown’s Nicollet Island with Boom Island Park, in northeast Minneapolis. By 6 p.m., the temperature was a comfortable 75 degrees with a light breeze. It was a beautiful summer evening in Minneapolis.

Just before the Saranos crossed onto the pedestrian rail bridge, two Black adults with a handful of children biked past them, also enjoying the summer air. The Saranos took the group for a family: perhaps an aunt or a neighbor along with an older man, chaperoning a group of cousins. “They were laughing and having a great time,” Maurice said.

From the steel trestle bridge, the water looked calm. As the couple walked across the bridge, they saw that the biking group had stopped at a boat launch area. The kids were playing in the water, staying within a few yards of the shoreline.

“The water is very slow at the border, and is falsely reassuring,” Maurice said. “And then when you’re a little further, it becomes, very quickly, extremely intense with a current that is extremely strong.”

The site where Isaac went into the water from various vantage points. The spot is now marked by a teddy bear memorial. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Then, the Saranos spotted one little boy lose his balance and take a few steps backward before falling into the water. The current pulled him away.

“We saw very quickly that this moment of joy was turning to tragedy,” Maurice said.

The woman watching the children ran into the water toward the boy. Veronique told her husband, a strong swimmer, to run after them. He left his shoes on the side of the river and jumped in downstream, hoping to catch them. 

From the river, Maurice could see the woman, floating in the water. She had caught the boy. But now she was struggling. 

“She was almost drowning,” the cardiologist said. “I thought she was going to die.”

He swam into the strong current until he was almost close enough to reach the pair, who were just three or four yards from the shore. But he didn’t make it in time. 

“She couldn’t hold onto him, and she let him go,” he said. “She tried really hard to get him.”

The river was so turbid that they couldn’t see where the boy had gone. 

“When I entered the water, I remember the boy raising his arm, and his head was above the water, but two seconds later, his head was under the water,” Maurice said. Even if the boy had been close to him, there was no way to know. “I couldn’t even see my hands in the water because it’s so muddy.”

Other passersby stopped to help, too, including a woman who jumped in the river to help the woman who’d lost the boy.

While Maurice Sarano swam into the river after Isaac, Veronique Sarano helped shepherd the other children to shore. She recalled that the children were shivering and wailing. “There is a human distress that you just can’t forget,” she said. “The kids were very young, but they understood what was going on.”

Veronique, meanwhile, had gone to shepherd the other children out of the water. The older man on shore seemed distraught and unable to swim. He kept asking Veronique if her husband knew how to swim. She assured him that he did. The children were shivering and wailing.

“There is a human distress that you just can’t forget,” she said. “The kids were very young, but they understood what was going on.”

The children kept crying out the name of the boy who disappeared into the water: “Isaac, Isaac.” Veronique took a jacket from around her shoulders and put it around the arms of a little girl who was shaking from a combination of cold and distress.

Law enforcement, including the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department and Minneapolis Fire Department, arrived along with an ambulance and patrol boats. The search grew to include the Minneapolis Police Department, Minneapolis Park Police, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. But Isaac was gone.

“Five seconds more in the arms of the lady, I could have caught them both and I could have helped them to the shore,” Maurice said. “But when he was gone without an adult to hold onto him, that was it.”

The woman, who had been helped to shore, seemed “beyond destroyed,” Veronique said. “She was howling and screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.”

She recalls that Maurice hugged the woman. “I remember that because of course, this was COVID,” she said. “But you don’t think about that when you’re in a situation like this.”

“She was desperate, howling,” Maurice said. “And we told her that it was not her fault.”

‘I kept finding him and losing him’

In an interview, Sondra Samuels described a beautiful day, before the accident. The biking group stopped for gelato along the river. They rode to Boom Island Park, where Sondra had taken kids before. Then, the adults “kind of caved in to them getting their feet wet in a little area of the Mississippi where I have seen other people getting their feet wet as well,” Sondra said. “It looks like a little swim area.”

As the kids played in the water, Isaac and one of his cousins got a little too far out, she said. “They both dropped off on a drop-off point,” she said.

Sondra, the only swimmer in the group, went after them. She was able to reach Isaac’s cousin, but Isaac slipped out of her grasp two or three times.

“I kept finding him and losing him,” she said. Finally, she couldn’t see Isaac anymore, and she was herself beginning to drown. “And he was lost,” she said. “It was a terrible accident.”

“We weren’t swimming, we were just getting our feet wet,” Sondra Samuels said. “It was shallow, up until it wasn’t.”

She hadn’t asked any of the children’s guardians if they could go in the water, she said. But they never intended to swim. “We weren’t swimming, we were just getting our feet wet,” she said. “It was shallow, up until it wasn’t.”

Sondra and Don think of Isaac and his family every day, she said. “Our hearts are broken.”

Report cites ‘inadequate supervision’

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tracks boating and drowning deaths across the state. The agency’s “water accident report” provides an almost clinical account of the drowning.  

Don Samuels and Sondra Samuels offered to take a group of children on a bike ride to Boom Island “to get away from the Northside shooting and violence,” the report says. Alexander, the mother, told investigators she thought the bike ride would take place in their north Minneapolis neighborhood, and not extend to the Mississippi River. Alexander told authorities that she never let her children go into lakes and rivers.

Sondra told investigators they stopped near the water for a break at a spot she knew from jogging around the area. When the kids asked to go in the water, she gave them permission to put only their feet in. After about 10 minutes, Sondra said, the kids started to move out too far. Some of them started to struggle in the water. She went into the water to try to help Isaac, but he was pulling her down and he eventually “went under.” The current was strong, she said, and she did not realize how deep the water was there.

Don stayed on shore, the report said, because he did not know how to swim.

Four factors contributed to the probable cause of the accident, according to the DNR document: swimming in unknown water; physical failure or exhaustion; lack of swimming proficiency; and “inadequate supervision.”

The search

Alexander was home, watching TV in bed with her cousins and oldest daughter. They were starting to think about ordering food when they got a phone call from one of the younger cousins on the bike ride, calling from a bystander’s phone.

The call was confusing and hard to hear. He said something about the police and somebody being in the water, Alexander recalled. The bystander called back and explained what was happening.

They didn’t know which child was in the water, but the group ran out the door and headed to the park.

“I didn’t find out that it was my baby until we was halfway there,” Alexander said.

It took a few panicked minutes to find the spot where Isaac had disappeared. When she saw caution tape, she ran toward it. At the bottom of the hill, she saw a stretcher and started crying. She understood that Isaac was gone.

Iz’anna, screaming, explained to her mother that the children had tried to pull Isaac back to save his life. But he was too far in.

The search began Saturday night and lasted for 40 hours. On Sunday, a thunderstorm rolled in. Alexander kept a sleepless vigil at the site. By Monday morning, she had been in a car at Boom Island for two days. She had just gotten home to change her clothes when she received a call: The water patrol had spotted Isaac’s body near the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. She returned to the river.

“We walked a mile and a half from where he went in,” Alexander said. “They wanted me to drive, but I didn’t want to drive, I wanted to walk. I wanted to walk and I wanted to feel where he went in at, and how far he went.” 

She wouldn’t be able to feel what it was like to be under the water, she said, but she could trace the path her son’s body had traveled on foot.

As the boy’s grandfather helped the search team retrieve Isaac’s body, Alexander waited at the top of the hill, hardly able to breathe. Paramedics gave her oxygen. She could hear the medical examiner talking to her, but could not process what she was saying. 

“I wanted to pick him up,” Isaac’s mother said. “I wanted to take him home. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that he wasn’t breathing.”

“I wanted to pick him up,” Alexander said, her voice thick with tears. “I wanted to take him home. I just couldn’t deal with the fact that he wasn’t breathing.”

The medical examiner had told her she could not touch Isaac. But she allowed Alexander to give Isaac, cold from the river, a kiss.

“That was the last one,” Alexander said.

Legal experts say endangerment charges rare in drowning cases

Isaac’s disappearance in the river and the search for his body appeared in the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press, Kare 11, WCCO, Fox 9, and KSTP. 

“I was not here,” Alexander told reporters, sleep-deprived, shaking and clearly distraught. “My baby would have never, ever been around no water.”

The incident report that night from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office lists Don Samuels as a witness. It lists Sondra Hollinger-Samuels under a different category: suspect. 

The possible charge: felony child endangerment. More than a year after Isaac drowned, the case remains open. 

Don and Sondra Samuels told Sahan Journal they are unaware of any criminal investigation and declined to comment on the Sheriff’s Office incident report.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office said the requested documents, with the exception of the heavily redacted incident report, are “criminal investigative data”—that is, not public while the investigation remains ongoing. 

Lacey Severins, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, confirmed the case is under active investigation. The county attorney’s office is reviewing the case, she said. The office declined to release data for that reason.  

Without the release of additional police records, it is impossible to know whether Sondra Samuels remains a suspect in this case, whether charges will be filed, or whether in the eyes of the law any crime occurred.

In interviews with Sahan Journal, legal experts described a high bar for possible criminal charges, based on the available facts. Prosecutors, who have access to interviews and investigative material that has not been released, have a fuller set of facts that will shape their decisions.

Sahan Journal presented a local law professor and a former judge with the main witness account and a summary of the documents, without sharing the names of the individuals involved in the case.

The legal citation on the incident report cites a specific category of child endangerment: “A parent, legal guardian, or caretaker who endangers the child’s person or health by intentionally or recklessly causing or permitting a child to be placed in a situation likely to substantially harm the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health or cause the child’s death.”

Kevin Burke, a retired Hennepin County district court judge, said the child endangerment statute is typically used to charge parents who leave children in unattended cars, drive drunk with kids in the car, or leave out guns or drugs in a way that children can access them.

But these charges are sometimes used in drowning cases, too. For example, in 2018, an aunt left her 3-year-old niece unattended at an Arden Hills lake while she went to the bathroom; the child nearly drowned. The aunt was charged with felony child endangerment, and ultimately convicted of a gross misdemeanor.

Joanna Woolman, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and executive director of the law school’s Institute to Transform Child Protection, said negligence alone was not enough for criminal charges.

“In Minnesota to be charged criminally with child endangerment, or child neglect, it has to be reckless, intentional, willful, knowing, something like that,” Woolman said.

In this case prosecutors might want to know if the caregivers had been to that part of the river before without problems, whether the water was shallow, and whether there were any signs indicating it was unsafe to swim, she said. If they weren’t aware of the strong currents or steep drop-offs, Woolman said, “I think it’s going to be hard to hold them responsible for that specific information.”

Burke, the retired judge, was reluctant to address whether a drowning case could lead to child endangerment charges.

“I don’t really know whether anyone is charged for that,” he said. “Based on my own experience, it isn’t. But I was only a judge for 36 years, so what do I know.”

Northside Achievement Zone: no response to wrongful death settlement

Organizations that work with children typically conduct training with staff and leadership on practices to protect child safety and welfare.

Sahan Journal made repeated attempts on Monday to contact Northside Achievement Zone’s staff and board members to ask about its safety policies and its handling of the accidental death.

Has the organization discussed the involvement of Sondra Samuels in the drowning of Isaac Childress—a neighbor and also a participant in the organization’s programs? Have employees and families been informed? No one from the organization or the board responded before press time.

Lilia Panteleeva, president of Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, said the situation isn’t clear cut. 

“If I was on this board of the organization, I would want to wait and see what the conclusion of this investigation is before raising any questions about the current status and employment of the executive director,” Panteleeva said. 

She emphasized that people “should not erroneously jump to the wrong conclusion.”

“Our society tends to criminalize people on baseless rumors, talks, social media, and many times it ruins people’s lives and careers,” she said.

Sondra declined to answer questions regarding leadership discussions at Northside Achievement Zone about the accident, or how NAZ parents should view what happened.

“I wasn’t acting as a NAZ employee,” she said. “I was acting as a neighbor.”

‘The river is an animal’

Days after Isaac’s body was found, the Saranos attended a memorial service hosted by the community group A Mother’s Love, based in north Minneapolis. Veronique recalls how they released balloons and placed teddy bears at a spot near the river. Alexander was so distressed she seemed “almost extinct,” Maurice said.

A month or so later, Maurice received a call from police investigating the case, wanting to know whether it had been a “negligent homicide,” as Maurice recalls. He told them he didn’t think so, because the woman had jumped into the water.

“She really tried and almost died trying to catch this boy,” he said. “It was pretty clear that it’s an accident, that this boy fell backward. It’s unfortunate that they were there. It’s unfortunate that the person who was with them couldn’t run faster. It was unfortunate that she couldn’t hold on to him. It was unfortunate that I couldn’t catch him. So close. It’s instants that make a difference, but that’s how accidents happen.”

“I remember his little face above the brown water and he was swallowed by the river, like the river is an animal,” Maurice Sarano said. “And he disappeared, and I couldn’t see him anymore.”

Maurice believes the area needs some clear signs to warn of dangers. “The place is not labeled to warn people that this is very, very dangerous,” he said. “That was the fatal decision, was to swim in the water there. Even an adult, it could have happened to me. It could have happened to anybody.”

The Saranos live in downtown Minneapolis, and often take neighborhood walks along the Third Avenue Bridge or the Stone Arch Bridge, over the Mississippi. “There’s not a time when we’re by the river that we don’t think about it,” Veronique said.

“When we look at the river, I always remember him,” Maurice said. “It’s not something that you forget. I remember his little face above the brown water and he was swallowed by the river, like the river is an animal. And he disappeared, and I couldn’t see him anymore.”

As doctors who think about public health, the Saranos are troubled by the well-documented racial disparities in drowning. Black Americans are 1.5 times as likely to drown as whites, according to a June 2021 report by the CDC that studied drowning deaths in people 29 and under. Those disparities are even more pronounced among children. Black children aged 5–9 are 2.6 times more likely to drown than white children, according to CDC data. Black kids 10–14 are 3.6 times more likely to drown.

“There is an issue of going in the water when people don’t know how to swim,” Maurice said. “Many tragedies occur every year because of that. But it’s not just that. There is the issue of that area of the river that is not well marked, and it’s very dangerous.”

“The decision was made long ago, decades at least, to post signage where people can swim (our authorized beaches) as opposed to where they cannot swim,” a spokesperson for the Park Board said.

Robin Smothers, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, said that the parks superintendent holds authority for sign placement in that area. But generally, she said, the Park Board does not warn people not to swim.

“The decision was made long ago, decades at least, to post signage where people can swim (our authorized beaches) as opposed to where they cannot swim,” she wrote in an email to Sahan Journal.

Some of the city lakes have safety signs warning of drop-offs, she said. But the lakes have no current, she said, and do not change from day to day. “This is in contrast to the Mississippi River where currents, water levels, fallen tree branches (and trunks) and other objects in the moving water make it different every day,” she said.

Twenty-two miles of Mississippi River shoreline run through Minneapolis; 16 of those miles lie within Park Board jurisdiction. To Smothers’s knowledge, the Park Board has no safety signs posted in any Mississippi River natural areas.

Where the Park Board has left a void, the community group A Mother’s Love has stepped in to fill it. By the bike path near the boat launch area, a heavily graffitied Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sign advises: “Public Water Access.” Taped to the official sign is another, newer sign, printed out on computer paper and tucked for safekeeping inside a plastic sleeve.

The homemade sign has been somewhat crumpled by the weather, but its message remains legible. “In memory of 6-year-old Isaac,” it reads. “Please do not swim or wade in river. Accidents do happen. Swift current with many drop-offs.”

Below the sign, a memorial for Isaac kept watch: teddy bears and toy trucks, damp from an overnight shower. A ribbon hung on the metal post, missing the balloon it once held.

The only official sign at the site where Isaac disappeared into the water is this public water access sign from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A taped sign from the community group A Mother’s Love, warning of dangers, hangs underneath. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

The aftermath: ‘Money ain’t gonna bring my baby back’

Alexander didn’t hear from Sondra Samuels that night, and hasn’t heard from her at all since, she said. Don sent a typewritten letter, which she found impersonal. (The Samuelses said the letter was from both of them. Sondra said she had never spoken with Alexander before the incident, and coordinated the bike ride with Alexander’s cousin.)

She knows that if Sondra were to be charged and convicted, she might receive a light sentence based on her clean criminal history.

“If they give her probation, I feel like she should not be able to work with kids or vulnerable adults ever again,” she said.

She and her oldest daughter, Tyianna, have discussed starting a foundation or nonprofit to provide free swimming lessons for kids and parents. They envision providing a backpack of swimming supplies—life jackets, goggles, and swimsuits or swim trunks—as a gift for completing the course. Right now, those discussions remain in early stages.

But Alexander also wants to see more action from the government to prevent future tragedies, like signs and lifeguards.

“What is the state doing to prevent this?” she asked. 

Isaac isn’t the only child to lose his life in the river in recent years, she noted. “Granted, it should be common sense: no, don’t go in this river. But for people who don’t have common sense, why not have a sign?”

Alexander understands why she was entitled to the settlement money. But she still didn’t feel right accepting it.

“Money ain’t gonna bring my baby back,” she said.

But Alexander felt obligated to pursue a claim, through the Minneapolis firm TSR Injury Law. She knew the $301,000 settlement, divided into annuities for her and her daughters, would help her girls. Isaac had often talked about helping support his family. “I just keep replaying that over in my head, that this is him taking care of us,” she said.

Without Isaac, the duplex on Hillside Avenue where the family had spent five years no longer felt like home. She could see Don and Sondra’s house from her front walk. Alexander and Isaac’s sisters started staying in a hotel.

“I just couldn’t be there,” Alexander said. “Knowing that she lived across the street from me, knowing that this is where I raised my babies, and one is missing. It just didn’t feel right.”

They moved into a house in south Minneapolis in December, shortly before what would have been Isaac’s seventh birthday. Iz’anna hadn’t wanted to play outdoors since her brother’s death. After the family moved, she started to go outside again.

Inside the home, Tyianna lounged in a chair, browsing her phone. Iz’anna practiced TikTok dances. And Alexander showed Sahan Journal the memorial she keeps to her only son.

A photo of Isaac at his kindergarten graduation, on the memorial table his family keeps for him. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Tyianna, now 15, tries to cover up her feelings about Isaac’s death by distracting herself with schoolwork and friends, Alexander said.

Iz’anna missed a whole year of school last year; it was hard for her to go by herself, when she had always gone with Isaac.

Blessin, the youngest, was only 1 when Isaac vanished into the river and doesn’t fully understand what happened.

Still, Alexander said, the loss greatly affected the babbling, energetic toddler. “She sees things that we don’t see,” Alexander said. “We could be anywhere, she can look in the sky, point and tell us that she sees him, but we don’t see him.”

Blessin recently ran up to something no one could see and gave it a hug, calling “Son Son, Son Son!” Iz’anna told her mom that her younger sister was hugging Isaac. “Oh yeah, that was him,” Alexander agreed.

Blessin isn’t the only one who sees her brother. “I see him every day,” Iz’anna told Sahan Journal. “Even on the school bus.”

On the porch, Alexander looked out to the street where children sometimes ride their bikes. “I miss the mornings waking up, and he’s saying, Mom, can I go outside. I just want to hear it one more time,” Isaac’s mother said. “I ain’t never gonna get that back.”

Joey Peters and Andrew Hazzard contributed reporting to this story.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.