116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A teenage girl who took advanced classes and played on her high school basketball team — and dreamed of someday running her own business — was found dead this week with a bullet wound in a crashed car she had borrowed while visiting her older sister in Cedar Rapids, according to interviews and authorities.
Cedar Rapids police Wednesday identified Tyliyah Whitis, 15, of Peoria, Ill., as the teen who was discovered the previous morning in the one-car crash outside the Hawthorne Hills apartment complex in the 2200 block of C Street SW. Police said Whitis has been shot at least once and the vehicle had sustained significant damage.
“Never in a million years would I have thought this would ever happen to my sister,” said T’yanna Nesby, 23, of Cedar Rapids. “Tyliyah was so smart — she was never the type of person to put herself in danger or take crazy risks. That’s why it’s so shocking that she was killed like this.”
Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said the cause and manner of death has not yet been determined — that will come from the State Medical Examiner’s Office following an autopsy. But police are investigating the death as a homicide.
Nesby said the car Whitis was found in was hers.
“I found out what happened Tuesday morning when I reported my car missing,” Nesby on Wednesday told The Gazette. “Police put two and two together and came to my house to talk to me and that’s when I found out my sister was gone.”
On Monday night, Nesby said she went to bed about 11 p.m. The next morning, she noticed her car was gone and her sister was not home. Nesby said she had an idea of why her sister might have taken the car, but she declined to share it as she didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation. She did say she believes Whitis may have been targeted in a possible robbery-gone-bad scenario.
Police have not released any information about what they think Whitis was doing at the Hawthorne Hills complex — where she was not staying — Monday night into Tuesday morning or what happened in the moments leading up to her death. No arrests have been announced and police have not publicly identified any persons of interest in the case.
A rising high school sophomore in Peoria, Whitis came to Cedar Rapids about two weeks ago to stay with Nesby.
“She was so helpful with her nephews and nieces,” Nesby said. “She really didn’t go out much or do much outside of my house. You know, it’s summer so she wasn’t working and didn’t have school, and she wasn’t too concerned about friends.”
Most of the time, Nesby said her sister stayed home and watched Nesby’s son while Nesby was at work.
“She was not just out there running the streets,” Nesby said. “Whatever the reason she took my car Monday night, I really want people to know that it had to have been something serious, because she would not have done that for no rhyme or reason.”
Back home in Peoria, where she lived with her mother, Whitis was a straight-A student taking advanced classes and playing basketball on the school team, Nesby said. Outside of school, Nesby said her sister worked two jobs — one at an ice cream shop and another at a “corner store.”
She wanted to be a business owner, Nesby said.
“She wanted to go into real estate — she was interested in real estate and she wanted to sell things,” Nesby said. “She wanted to make a lot of money, and I’m telling you, she was a hustler. She was going to do it.”
Whitis also had talked about owning a barbershop, Nesby said, noting they had family members in Waterloo who had owned barbershops.
“She wanted to own her own business,” Nesby said. “Whatever she ended up doing, she wanted to be the owner.”
Whitis was the “baby sister,” Nesby said — the youngest of four, including Nesby and two brothers, ages 25 and 21. The family is originally from Waterloo, she said, and later moved to Cedar Rapids.
Cedar Rapids Community School District Director of Communications Colleen Scholer confirmed Wednesday that Whitis attended Harrison Elementary School from second to fifth grades — from December 2013 to June 2017 — and started sixth grade at Roosevelt Middle School in 2017, but did not finish the school year.
That’s when Whitis moved to Peoria where she lived with her mom, Nesby said.
“She didn’t deserve this,” Nesby said. “She was so smart and very selfless. She was an auntie and a sister. She was very strong and mature at 15 — most people who met her thought that she was 18 or 21. You would never know that she was so young.
“And, I want to say this because I think it’s so important to say: Tyliyah knew who she was and she knew who she wasn’t. I always felt inspired by her because she was so true to who she was and she never cared about whether or not someone was going to accept her or whether it was socially acceptable to be herself. She understood her truth at such a young age, and it was just incredible to witness.”
“I just want justice for my sister,” Nesby added. “And I have to say that the Cedar Rapids police force has been really great. You know there has been so much tension between police brutality and minorities, and it just seems like we don’t expect much of them, but they have put their best foot forward in this. They’ve been as transparent as they could, they’ve been empathetic, they’ve been compassionate and honestly I think … that justice will be served and I do trust they will find who did this.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family to raise money for funeral expenses. The fundraising page, which was created by a woman identifying as Nesby’s aunt, set a goal of $20,000. As of 5 p.m. Wednesday the page had raised $869.
Police are asking that anyone with information about Whitis’ death call Cedar Rapids police at (319) 286-5491 or Linn County CrimeStoppers at 1-(800) CS-CRIME.
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