Police believe the death of a black Muslim teen found hanging from tree in Lake Stevens was a suicide. But growing speculation, fueled by social media amid a surge in reported hate crimes against Muslims, has many fearing Ben Keita may have been lynched.
Ben Keita was a healthy, young black man whose postmortem exam showed he died from typical injuries associated with asphyxia due to hanging, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report.
Aside from a small abrasion on his left thumb, there were no other injuries on his body, and no drugs or alcohol were found in his system, the report says. Ice crystals were found in his heart blood, and it’s possible Keita’s body had been in a semi-frozen state for up to six weeks before its discovery in the town of Lake Stevens in January, according to the report.
Keita’s parents, backed by the Washington chapter of the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have demanded the FBI conduct its own investigation into the 18-year-old’s death — even though the FBI collaborated with the Lake Stevens Police Department (LSPD) on the investigation and agreed there was no evidence of a crime.
But fueled by social media amid a surge in reported hate crimes against Muslims across the country, the Keita case has taken on something of a life of its own, with his presumed suicide cast as a possible lynching. With veiled suggestions of an indifferent and racist police investigation and sparse, uncaring media coverage, the furor surrounding Keita’s death also touched off questions about reporting on such incidents by The Seattle Times and other media.
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The response to Keita’s death is reminiscent of widespread speculation that another Black Muslim teenager was the victim of a hate crime after he fell to his death from an apartment balcony on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in December 2015.
The intense public scrutiny of the Keita case led Lake Stevens’ police chief to ask the state Attorney General’s Office to review the investigation, even while police await results of forensic testing to determine if DNA other than Keita’s was left on his body.
“Ben’s death, tragic and worrisome on its own, elicits heightened concern due to the increase in Islamophobic discourse and hate crimes observed nationally throughout the 2016 U.S. election season,” reads a March 6 news release from the Seattle Human Rights Commission. “If the true cause of Ben’s death is not determined, we fear that it will only give fuel to more possible horrific incidents of this nature.”
Two cases, similar pain
In Seattle, the death of 16-year-old Hamza Warsame came soon after mass killings by Islamic extremists in Paris and San Bernadino, Calif., giving rise to rumors the Somali-American teen’s death was some sort of revenge killing.
Though his death was ruled an accident — he’d smoked marijuana for the first time with a classmate, then either fell from the balcony or attempted to jump to an adjacent building — a rumor that a white man pushed him from the roof of a school building persists.
At a vigil for Keita held at the University of Washington last week, Warsame’s name was invoked as an example of a death brushed aside due to race and religion.
“What happened to Ben Keita really hit home to me. It’s truly heartbreaking this could happen,” said Nora Abdi, 18, a student at the UW’s Bothell campus who attended the vigil. “It’s very hard to be a Black Muslim right now. Basically, we’re the most hated people in the world.
“Hamza is also an example of that,” Abdi said of Warsame. “To Black Muslims just like us, this is not acceptable, this is not right.”
Olivia Smith, president of the Black Student Union, noted Keita’s body was found with his feet 2½ feet off the ground.
“The likelihood of this being a suicide just doesn’t add up,” she said.
Nafiso Egal agreed and urged attendees to keep Keita’s family in their prayers.
“It’s sad to say this is not a one-time thing. It’s going to keep happening,” said Egal, president of the UW’s Somali Student Association.
Arsalan Bukhari, the executive director of CAIR Washington, also attended the vigil and urged supporters to phone and email The Seattle Times and Everett Herald and contact the FBI’s Seattle field office “to emphasize the need for a full investigation.”
Bright young student
Bukhari said Keita, who grew up in Lake Stevens, was a bright young man who had registered for three classes at Everett Community College a month before he disappeared on Nov. 26. Woods near his home were searched Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, but Keita’s body wasn’t found until Jan. 9, hanging “from a very long rope tied to a tree branch 30 to 50 feet off the ground,” he said.
“We don’t know who was involved in Ben’s death or the motive for Ben’s death,” he told the UW gathering.
At a Feb. 28 news conference held at CAIR’s Seattle office, Ibrahima Keita described his son as “a very happy young man” who had no history of depression or mental illness and who aspired to become a doctor.
But Bukhari acknowledged at the UW vigil that Keita’s parents were unaware Keita had stopped going to school three weeks before he disappeared and that he didn’t show up for his shifts at a fast-food restaurant on Nov. 25 and 26.
Keita’s parents have spoken at two different media events organized by CAIR. Bukhari has asked the media to respect the family’s privacy.
The Lake Stevens investigation
Bukhari sidestepped the question of whether he thinks Lake Stevens police are incapable of conducting a thorough investigation, saying the FBI has expertise and resources that could uncover new information “so this family can get some answers.”
In a statement Wednesday, FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich-Williams wrote: “The FBI concurs with LSPD’s assessment that evidence collected to date does not provide any indication of a criminal act.”
Much has been made of the fact that the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office first ruled Keita’s death a suicide, then changed his manner of death to “undetermined.”
Dr. Stanley Adams, an associate medical examiner who authored Keita’s Jan. 26 autopsy report, noted that the death was classified as undetermined because of the height of the tree branch, reports that the area was previously searched and Keita’s apparent lack of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
“Classifying a death as ‘undetermined’ … simply means that the classifier of death was not comfortable choosing one manner over a competing manner, based on the information available to the classifier of death,” Adams wrote.
In a March 2 statement, Medical Examiner Dr. Daniel Selove reiterated that the “undetermined” finding “just means the medical examination cannot determine with an appropriate degree of certainty the manner of death,” though it does not exclude homicide or suicide.
His statement concluded: “The police and prosecutors will make the final determination about whether there is evidence that a crime was committed.”
While his detectives have found no evidence of a crime, Lake Stevens Police Chief John Dyer said he asked the state Attorney General’s Office to review the Keita case “just to have another set of eyes on this, to have someone from outside take a look.”
“Frankly, we’d hoped the notoriety this case is getting would loosen up some tips, but that hasn’t been the case. Obviously I feel for the family. These folks want answers, and I get that. I know it’s incredibly difficult for them,” Dyer said. “The thing that’s been frustrating to me is an outside group or social media implying we haven’t taken this seriously.”
Life similarly cut short
A similar dynamic played out in the wake of Warsame’s death in 2015, said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department.
“In the Hazma Warsame case, it was social media and speculation that was propagated and circulated and presented as fact,” he said. “It was damaging to the family because they were led to believe another narrative.”
Days after Warsame’s death, CAIR called on SPD to conduct a “thorough and transparent” investigation, noting the suspicion surrounding the teen’s death. Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant also chimed in, writing on her blog, “Some reports suggest he was beaten and thrown from the building in an Islamophobic attack by a fellow student.”
Over recent months, police have investigated several reports of threats and alleged hate crimes against mosques and Muslims in the Greater Seattle area. In January, a Bellevue mosque was damaged in an arson, but prosecutors have ruled out a hate crime and say the man responsible has an extensive history of mental illness and property damage.
Police investigations are driven by facts obtained through such sources as witness testimony, physical and forensic evidence, and data from cellphones and video-surveillance cameras, Whitcomb said.
But Whitcomb said he understands why questions can arise in cases involving communities that haven’t historically had good relations with police.
“We’ll always see this with communities that have been marginalized or believe they’ve been marginalized,” he said.
That’s why community outreach is so important in building public trust, said Whitcomb.
“When there’s misinformation, it creates false impressions, it creates uncertainty and it makes it harder for people who’ve already experienced a traumatic loss,” he said. “When people call into question that public trust, we certainly aren’t defensive about it. This is the nature of the business. Loss at that scale deserves to be treated empathetically and compassionately.”
The media response
News organizations also have a responsibility to present a holistic picture and provide broader context, said Aly Colón, a former Seattle Times journalist who is a media ethics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
“If there’s no coverage, there’s always people and views and thoughts that will fill the vacuum,” he said. “In the minds of the people who live in that community, something serious or maybe heinous has happened and they want to know if this is in fact a suicide.”
As happened with Warsame’s death, The Times has been inundated with emails, phone calls and social-media comments, questioning why Keita’s death hasn’t received more coverage.
“I subscribe to @seattletimes and am disappointed over lack of coverage about the possible lynching of #BenKeita. What gives?” one reader tweeted a Times editor.
“Ben Keita’s death needs to be investigated and your team is silent,” another reader wrote.
The Times, like most U.S. newspapers, doesn’t typically report on suicides — a policy based on privacy concerns as well as numerous studies that have shown publicizing suicides leads to copy cats or what experts term “suicide contagion.”
“The Seattle Times has guidelines, but we make decisions on what we cover on a case-by-case basis,” said Times Executive Editor Don Shelton. “With possible hate crimes being reported more often, we are discussing whether our guidelines are flexible enough.”
In-house policies restricting coverage of suicides should really only be a guideline, said Colón.
“As journalists we have to be open to the idea rules aren’t rigid and we break them all the time,” he said. “When you have this outpouring of opinions, that’s a signal to question how we can do that coverage in a fair, more complete, credible fashion.”
For communities of color that have historically experienced unfair treatment by police and have been ignored by the media, it’s understandable some people might not trust “those who are part of the establishment,” Colón said.
“Think about the words you use and how they might raise the antennas of different people,” he said. “Black. Muslim. Tree. Rope.
“All those are important signposts to people who have seen all those things addressed in a fairly antagonistic manner, so it’s going to create a sense of concern because all those words today have had some pretty serious issues around them,” Colón said.