Three former Columbia-area residents were handed lengthy prison sentences for the kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Sanaa Amenhotep.
Nicolle Sanchez-Peralta, Treveon J. Nelson and Jaylen S. Wilson were sentenced Tuesday for abducting and killing Amenhotep, who vanished from outside her home in Columbia, South Carolina, in April 2021. She was found three weeks later in a shallow grave in Lexington County.
The murder of Amenhotep, who was remembered for her bright and bold personality, and the subsequent arrest of three other teens, who were friends of Amenhotep’s, sent shock waves through the Midlands and galvanized activists in the Black community who criticized law enforcement’s response to her disappearance.
“The abduction and murder of Sanaa Amenhotep shocked the conscience of our community. A crime of this nature will not be tolerated,” said 11th Circuit Solicitor, Rick Hubbard, who prosecuted the case along with his deputy, Suzanne Mayes. “Our hearts are with the family of Sanaa and we pray that this conclusion will bring some measure of justice.”
Sanchez-Peralta, 19, was found guilty of kidnapping and murder following a trial in May. She was sentenced to 65 years.
Nelson, 20, and Wilson, 20, pleaded guilty early this year to charges of murder, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. Both were sentenced to 60 years in prison
The sentences must be served in their entirety and do not allow for parole.
“I am sending a message,” stated Judge Debra McCaslin, a circuit court judge. “Our youth is killing our youth.”
Amenhotep, the daughter of a prominent anti-violence activist from Newark, New Jersey, moved to South Carolina after her cousin was killed there in a shooting.
On the evening of April 5, 2021, Amenhotep, a ninth-grade student at Richland Northeast High School was on spring break. She had asked her mother, Saleemah Graham-Fleming, if she could go outside to take some pictures when she was coerced by her “best friend,” Sanchez-Peralta, into a stolen car with two teenage boys, Nelson and Wilson, her mother wrote in an online memorial.
Investigators determined that after pulling out of the neighborhood, Amenhotep was driven almost an hour away to a secluded location in the Leesville area of Lexington County. Her phone was then deactivated and discarded by her kidnappers.
Testimony presented during the trial of Sanchez-Peralta established that Amenhotep was beaten and was shot 14 times at the crime scene. The defendants buried her body in a shallow grave.
“This young lady with so much potential and promise was brutally tortured and killed by her peers,” Hubbard said. Wilson and Sanchez-Peralta were under the age of 18 at the time of the murder.
Amenhotep’s body was found on April 29, 2021, in a wooded area of Batesburg-Leesville, near Interstate 20. Her family mobilized a widespread effort to find her, calling on law enforcement, the press and social media to help find their daughter.
Amenhotep’s father, Sharif Amenhotep traveled from New Jersey to Columbia to organize searches of abandoned hotels and canvassed gas stations and other businesses looking for his daughter.
In a statement released to the press, Hubbard thanked both the Lexington and Richland County Sheriff’s Departments for their assistance in the investigation. But following Amenhotep’s abduction, many in Columbia’s Black community were critical of what they characterized as a slow response from law enforcement.
“We need to have more accountability and more community, not just as a Black people but as human beings,” said Amenhotep’s mother, Saleemeh Graham-Flemming. “If it was just me, my daughter might have still been missing.”
Activists at the time called on the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement generally to show more urgency when Black children are reported missing and to treat these cases as abductions when parents say they believe it’s a kidnapping case.
Since her daughter’s death, Graham-Flemming has started the “Cakie Scholarship,” named after Amenhotep’s nickname. It raises money to send at-risk youths to trade school on a full scholarship.