It’s a death case that is still being investigated, but it’s heating up conspiracy rumors all over New York. Last week, police found a body identified as the 65-year-old Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam floating in the Hudson River. She was a New York State of Appeals judge, and the first female Muslim judge in the United States.
Police were called to investigate the incident in the river near Harlem, around 1:45 pm on Wednesday, April 12. A body was found washed ashore in the Hudson River. She was removed by the Fire Department, where she was pronounced dead. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt with the word, “Canada” in red letters, and black sweatpants and tennis shoes. She was found to have a MetroCard in her pocket.
“We have a middle-aged woman deceased in the water with all her clothes on, with no signs of homicide or suicide,” NYPD Sgt. Brendan Ryan told ABC News on Tuesday, April 11. “When a body is found floating in a river, it is deemed suspicious in nature. Absent any clear signs of criminality, the cause of death is determined by the medical examiner.”
Salaam’s husband had reported her missing the day before, and she was positively identified. But what’s troubling about the case, it that the corpse showed no signs of trauma. Original claims were that the death was “suspicious,” but now police say they don’t believe the death was criminal. Police tentatively think it was suicide, based on reports of depression.
“We’re looking it at as a suspicious death at this point. We haven’t found any clear indications of criminality, but at this point, we can’t say for sure. We’re hoping if anyone could shed any light into the hours before her disappearance, it would help us establish what happened,” said Stephen Davis, NYPD Spokesman.
She had a depressive episode a few weeks earlier and was taking medication for it. Her husband, the Reverend Gary Jacobs, doesn’t believe this to be true, and the autopsy in still inconclusive.
“These reports have frequently included unsubstantiated comments concerning my wife’s possible mental and emotional state of mind at the time of her death,” Jacobs wrote in a statement. “Those of us who loved Sheila and knew her well do not believe that these unfounded conclusions have any basis in reality.”
He is pleading with local authorities to help get to the bottom of her death. NYPD is going through surveillance footage, but have so far been unable to find any conclusive evidence on the incident. They are able to see her walking up to the river the night of April 11, but the video appears inconclusive at this point. She did have water in her lungs, which means that she was alive when she went into the river. She also had a few minor bruises on her neck, but not enough to suggest she was strangled. She was last seen Monday, April 10 around 7 p.m. where she left the house after spending a week in New Jersey with her family.
“I now join with the NYPD in asking anyone in the neighborhood to step forward with any information that might help us determine what may have happened during those hours before her death,” Jacobs wrote.
Jacobs is an Episcopalian minister, and Salaam was originally born Sheila Turner but changed her name when she married a Muslim man. Conflicting reports of her faith abound, but the prevailing sentiment was that she never officially converted. Until her death, however, she was known as the first female Muslim judge.
“Sheila has not been a practicing Muslim for the past 20 years e her family said in their statement. “She continued to use her first husband’s surname professionally. We will forever remember witnessing her happiness as she united in marriage to an Episcopal priest last year.”
Media attempts to contact her first husband, Sharif Abdus-Salaam have been unsuccessful.
“I think of Rudyard Kipling when I think of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam,” former New York Governor David Patterson said. “To walk with kings and maintain the common touch, that’s why I’ll miss her the rest of my life.”
Abdus-Salaam was originally from Washington D.C., and a 1974 alum of Barnard College. In 1977, she received her law degree from Columbia Law School, and worked for a pro-bono law firm for several years. She was a New York Supreme Court judge in Manhattan for 14 years.
She was well loved by the legal community in New York, and her death was not anticipated in the least. Her death, if ruled as a suicide, is shocking to those who knew her. If it is, however, it brings up interesting questions. American culture shies away from the topic of suicide, and particularly when it comes to someone who is a successful leader in the community. But, with hate crimes on the rise, wouldn’t a black Muslim woman who took a tough stance on crime be a prime target?