For as long as her mother can remember, Vanessa Zaman desperately wanted to meet her biological father.
Her mother, Saveeta Barnes, said that every year around her birthday, Zaman would ask to contact her father, Abdool Zaman. But her mother always denied her.
“I tried to give Vanessa the world,” Saveeta Barnes told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “But it didn’t matter because getting the chance to know her dad was everything to her.”
After her 18th birthday this October, Zaman, an award-winning writer who had just graduated at the top of her class from Amityville High School on Long Island, N.Y., took matters into her own hands. She moved out of the suburban New York home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and half-brother and, after contacting her father and talking “two or three times on the phone,” moved to Orlando, Florida to go live with her 39-year-old dad.
“Vanessa and I spoke about selecting colleges last year and she told me that she was going to Florida after school, but I didn’t really believe her until she was about to leave a couple months ago,” the mother of three said. “I know she invited her dad to her high-school graduation where he turned her down.”
But less than three months after reconnecting and moving in with her father, Vanessa Zaman and her 18-year-old cousin Leona Samlall were found dead last week, fatally shot in the head at close range during the middle of the day. Their bodies were found next to an apartment complex in Highland Springs, a working class suburb outside Richmond, Virginia.
The medical examiner's office determined the cause of death for both teenage girls to be gunshot wounds to the head and ruled the deaths homicides. On Friday, a magistrate judge in Henrico County, Virginia issued a warrant for Abdool Zaman’s arrest on charges of murder, setting off a nationwide manhunt.
On Tuesday morning, nearly a week after the girls’ deaths, Zaman was arrested in Queens, without incident, after New York City police and U.S. Marshall’s responded to a tip of his whereabouts, according to a senior New York City law enforcement official.
“My daughter was my whole life and now nothing will ever be the same again,” Saveeta Barnes said. “Vanessa was beautiful, smart, and caring, but now she is gone.”
The details and motive behind the death of the two girls remains unknown, police said, but they believe the two girls left Orlando after a familial dispute and headed to Virginia, where Samlall’s family currently lives.
Barnes explained that Samlall, who authorities confirmed was briefly on a missing persons list in 2016, was already living with Zaman in Florida when his biological daughter also decided to move in.
The two girls were cousins. Samlall’s mother was married to Zaman’s brother. They have since divorced.
When Vanessa arrived, the mother explained, she learned Samlall and her father had a three-month-old baby together.
“She called me horrified that her cousin and father had a child together but also seemed content that she was finally with the both of them,” Barnes said.
Authorities have not yet confirmed that the parents of the child—who is now in the custody of Samlall’s mother—are Samlall and Abdool Zaman. “We cannot comment on what we have learned about the relationship between Leona Samlall and Abdool Zaman because the investigation is ongoing,” said Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor.
Soon after moving, however, Vanessa Zaman told her mother she was worried for her cousin’s safety and believed that she was being abused by Abdool.
“Her life took a tragic turn when she found out that he was abusing his girlfriend. Vanessa wanted to protect Leona Samlall and left her father’s home,” Barnes said.
Along with the baby, the two girls took a bus to Virginia on Dec. 3, where Samlall’s mother and stepfather live in an apartment in Highland Springs.
Barnes said during the week they were in Virginia, Zaman told her mother the two girls believed they were safe and her Abdool would not find them.
“She had no idea her father was following her,” the mother said.
Around 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 11, authorities responded to a reported shooting one block away from Oakmeade Apartments, where they found the two girls outside on the complex grounds. The incident drew about a dozen police cruisers to the scene and forced a lockdown at nearby Highland Springs High School, police said.
Both girls were pronounced dead at the scene.
Based on a preliminary investigation, including witness testimony, police believe Zaman got out of his car and confronted the girls before shooting both in the head in a fit of rage. Officials declined to give any further information on the nature of the fight.
“It’s really heartbreaking for any mother, father, aunt, uncle, and it's not just affecting the parents, it’s affecting the entire community, because we’re all out here worried and stressed as to what exactly happened and we have to live here,” Schmere Scott, a neighbor at Oakmeade Apartments, told a local news station that week.
Barnes had talked with her daughter three hours before the shooting. “The last words she said to me were ‘Tell my brother I love him very much,’” Barnes recalled, adding that Vanessa had not seen her 2-year-old half-brother since October.
Zaman made his initial court appearance in Queens County Criminal Court hours after his capture, and he learned of his two counts of second-degree murder charges. As of Thursday he was being held without bond at the Vernon C. Bain Center, an East River jail barge in the Bronx, where authorities confirm he is planning to fight his extradition to Virginia.
His court-appointed attorney, Arielle Adams, did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Police investigators are currently working with U.S Marshals and police in New York to piece together what happened with the two girls, looking at his criminal past for possible clues.
According to court records in Orange County, Florida, he was charged in 2015 for allegedly stalking a woman after she declined to have a relationship. When he later parked outside her home after an argument, his accuser said in a police affidavit that Zaman texted her that “he would take a bullet and go to jail before he would leave the residence.”
When she called the police, Zaman resisted arrest and refused to identify himself to local police, the affidavit said. The local clerk’s office confirmed the charges were later dropped. The state’s attorney’s office did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment about why Zaman’s 2015 charges were dropped.
For Barnes, while she was never officially married to Zaman, she is not surprised by his behavior and the charges against him. The mother of three started a GoFundMe campaign immediately after Vanessa was pronounced dead, asking for funding to bring justice for her “slain daughter.” With the money, she hopes to build a memorial site for the two girls.
So far, Barnes said she is “touched” by the outpouring of support she has gotten since starting the campaign.
“Nothing will bring my daughter back, but I am so grateful to police and strangers who are standing up for my daughter,” she said.