New details emerged Monday about the man who was found dead in the rail yard behind the Duluth Depot. Duluth police believe the death was accidental.
FOX 21’s Dan Hanger talked exclusively with Zakayo Magomolla’s parents about their son and his recent and serious troubles with mental illness – an illness they ultimately believe took his life.
Sometimes it’s just best for a former assistant principal to describe your high school years – at least that's the case for Zakayo Magomolla, a 2011 graduate of Duluth East.
"Zakayo was fantastic from the moment I met him,” explained Tonya Sconiers, who was an assistant principal for Zakayo for one of his years at Duluth East.
“He had personality, he had charisma. He wanted people to feel good and to laugh and to play -- and he himself did those things,” Sconiers explained.
But somehow, three years ago while studying to be a police officer at UWS, Zakayo, who was 21 years old at the time, began to dramatically change.
Zakayo’s adopted parents, Rick and Brenda Caya, believe an "inner demon" of mental illness started attacking his mind, his deep love, and eventually his life.
"Part of what he did was he withdrew from family and from friends,” Rick said.
"Scary, very scary. And we would watch it and we couldn't help it,” said Brenda, who also works in the mental health profession as a therapist.
Both say Zakayo was in and out of medical treatment but eventually chose homelessness and no contact with people close to him for more than a year – until three weeks ago when he showed up at the front door.
"He needed some clothing and some things and a little money,” Rick said, while referencing the need for winter clothing.
But what they didn’t know at the time, was the random visit would be the last time together – forever.
"They found him; trauma to the head. And they found him dead," Rick said.
Zakayo’s body was found by rail road workers inside a fenced-in rail yard behind the Duluth Depot just before an 8 a.m. train excursion on Friday, Sept. 30.
The news of his death crushed his parents fight against his mental illness.
"How do you help them when they don't want to help themselves? And they don't know enough to want to help themselves. How do you do that? I mean, it's a real issue and it's not... there's no easy answer,” Rick said.
“We just don’t know enough. We don’t want to talk about it. We’re afraid of it, so it sets up this pattern where we can’t help people and so they end up not doing what they need to do to survive so they end up homeless and then because they are homeless they’re at risk for all these other things,” Brenda explained.
Rick told Hanger that after talking with police, it’s believed Zakayo accidentally slipped or fell off the canopy in the rail yard where he may have been sleeping. And on his way down, it's believed he took a fatal hit against a railroad crane below.
Meanwhile, as Zakayo’s parents plan his memorial, they’re hoping to celebrate his life while helping chip away at the stigma behind mental illness.
“Beyond awareness is truly seeking to understand what that looks like. What that feels like. What that experience is for people so we can provide the appropriate support,” Sconiers said.
“I think maybe if he had felt more comfortable or more accepted, he might have talked more about it and we might have been able to figure out how to help him,” Brenda said.
A public memorial is being held this Saturday, Oct. 8, at First Lutheran Church in Duluth.
Visitation is at 10 a.m., with the service at 11 a.m.