The family of 19-year-old Buffalo State College student and Bronx native Saniyya Dennis says she’s alive and are refuting that she committed suicide as stated by a district attorney. They say evidence they have proves something else happened to her and that they have not been granted access to evidence law enforcement officials and others have on the case.
Dennis has been missing since April 24 when law enforcement officials said she left her college dorm. Her family has not been in contact with her since then. Police said her cell phone last pinged on April 25 in Niagara Falls near Goat Island. Her father, Calvin Byrd, went to Niagara Falls to search the area for his daughter.
Last Thursday, without her family present or their prior knowledge, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn announced Dennis was presumed dead by suicide, even though her body has not been recovered. Flynn claimed Dennis got into an argument with someone law enforcement believes to be her boyfriend, who has not been named a suspect.
On April 24, during a text conversation with the man, Flynn said she discussed suicide and presented a timeline of possible events leading up to her alleged suicide. When Flynn introduced himself to the family, he said he was taking over Dennis’ case and mentioned nothing about suicide or press conference.
“My office and our partners in law enforcement have found no evidence of any criminality in this case,” Flynn said in a statement. “All evidence indicates that Saniyya ended her own life, but the investigation into her disappearance will not be closed until she is found.”
Dennis’ family immediately released a statement challenging the DA’s findings. They said enough wasn’t done to find her and believe foul play is involved. They are also raising questions about the validity of the text messages found on her phone.
“Upon careful review and consideration of the allegations presented by District Attorney Flynn regarding the issues surrounding the disappearance of Saniyya Dennis, we respectfully disagree with his presentation and were shocked by his assertion that he shared information with our family regarding her disappearance and his findings of suicide,” the statement said.
Sherri Jefferson is the executive director African American Juvenile Justice Project (AAJJP). She provided the AmNews extensive material refuting the DA’s findings and said the family is not in denial but was denied evidence.
“What the family is going through is described in three words: shock, disbelief and betrayal,” Jefferson told the AmNews. “Shocked they had to learn about allegations of suicide and death by way of social media and media representatives contacting them for a statement, disbelief that they would not have had the opportunity to be invited to participate in and confer with the prosecutor prior to him making a statement about alleged findings and betrayed by a justice system and the university system who were supposed to provide their child with protection and to ensure for the family that this search would be done with due diligence.”
Jefferson told the AmNews that no video exists of Dennis in Niagara Falls. Days before the press conference, police showed the family a camera shot of a ‘black dot’ at the falls claiming it was Dennis that could have been debris or a water drop.
A spokesperson for the Erie County District Attorney’s office told the AmNews that members of their office met with Dennis family’ last Wednesday afternoon to provide information on the investigation into her disappearance. Due to national news coverage and public interest about the case, they informed Dennis’ family that their office would provide an update to the media. No further information was given to the AmNews about evidence.
A Buffalo State College spokesperson referred the AmNews to the DA’s office when questioned for information about the investigation.
The family says they never saw the video of Dennis leaving the campus, or video of her in the dorm building elevator, only a still photo. Media outlets were also denied access to the video.
Dennis last spoke with her family on April 24. Her family asked the school to do a wellness check the next day on April 25 but the check wasn’t done until the day after on April 26. The family claims Buffalo State College officials did not alert the media about Dennis’ disappearance because she was “not a threat to herself or others.”
Family members say if she traveled off campus it would be to meet someone and she never traveled alone to meet friends or groups. Text messages the family has show that Dennis told three people she was coming back home.
While searching for Dennis, police used search dogs, however, her family questions how the dogs were able to get her scent. Flynn said that dogs tracked her scent in the water and tried to jump in. Divers were not sent into waters to find Dennis’ body.
Businesses on Old Falls Street near the falls and area hotels denied the family access to surveillance video where Dennis could possibly be spotted. They were also denied permission to look for her. Cameras on the New York State Thruway and the Canadian-U.S. border have no videos of Dennis in the area.
Western New York is a prime location for sex trafficking due to its proximity to the Canadian border. Several massage parlors in the area have been shut down by law enforcement for sex slavery.
“We made a request for five companies on Old Falls by telephone, email and social media,” Jefferson said. “We went to ask for assistance for surveillance videos and no one contacted us to say they had a video. Nothing. I gave a list of the 10 small hotels because I thought, ‘If she’s abducted, then she might be at some of the smaller hotels. That’s where they bring a lot of the girls for sex trafficking.”
The text messages the DA is using to conclude the alleged suicide occurred earlier in the day, 14 hours before he says Dennis allegedly killed herself. The family also says they have no evidence of any suicide conversation and no evidence that she jumped from a bridge. They said there are no witnesses or surveillance footage to support that Dennis was by or on the bridge or Niagara Falls.
Jefferson said the DA initially claimed the person on the text messages said Dennis would jump off a bridge, then later told them she would not do so. There is also no evidence regarding threats to commit suicide other than what a man claims she told him and he waited almost two weeks to share the alleged story with police. The man never told the family throughout their search about the alleged suicide threat.
A Snapchat screenshot presented by the DA was initially deemed fake by the police, according to Jefferson. It did not have a date, time or location. In reference to the ping, Jefferson said there is no evidence a cell tower collected Dennis’ phone activities and that police changed her ping time throughout the investigation.
The family is also questioning the possible involvement of a white man who posted the Snapchat screenshot of Dennis’ last photo on April 25. The screenshot the man ahs was shot Sunday afternoon at 3:34 p.m. on Sunday, May 25.
There are major questions about Dennis’ bus ride to Niagara Falls. The DA said Dennis was the only passenger on the two buses she took there. Police received a tip about a bus employee and are raising concerns about his possible interaction with Dennis. The family has not received information about what buses she was on.
“If in fact she went to Niagara Falls, one of those cameras would have picked her up,” Jefferson said. “Are they suggesting that in an area that has 12 million tourists annually not one person saw her there? Not one person can attest that they saw her there? How is it with all of these entities there nobody had one piece of evidence to produce to this family to show this is where she is?”
As far as allegations that she was texting her boyfriend, Dennis’ family said she didn’t have one. She was seeing someone she met in late 2020 who attends Pace University, which is six hours from Buffalo State College. The family said the two were not serious enough for Dennis to commit suicide and that it would be out of her character.
“When you look at everything in totality, this is why the family has reason to believe that the office of the district attorney lied, misrepresented material and was not honest and forthright,” Jefferson said. “The fact that he did not confer with them before this press conference, did not invite them to attend suggests he did not want them to give a rebuttal.”