Police: No evidence of crime in hanging death of 18-year-old

Ben Keita

LAKE STEVENS — There is no evidence that any crime occurred in connection with the November hanging death of 18-year-old Ben Keita, the Lake Stevens Police Department said Thursday.

However, investigators still want help piecing together what happened during the teen’s final days.

Chief John Dyer issued a two-page news release Thursday evening. It came after stories published by Seattle, national and international news outlets, along with a flurry of posts on social media. Some of that coverage implied that what happened to Keita, a U.S. citizen who was black and raised Muslim, could be a hate crime that was ignored.

“At this point, the investigation has not uncovered any indication of a criminal act, but we are asking the community to help shed light on Ben’s death,” Dyer wrote.

Investigators are most focused on why Keita disappeared in late November, the press release said.

The Running Start student had stopped going to school three weeks earlier, police said. He didn’t go to work Nov. 25.

His family said that he left their home the next morning, sometime between 1 and 8. He didn’t take his car, phone or wallet.

Lake Stevens police on Nov. 28 put out a press release asking for help finding him. The Daily Herald published an update on the case Jan. 9: Detectives still needed tips.

Keita’s body was found later that day, hanging from a tree in a wooded area near his home.

Initially, police and the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a suicide. There were indications the body had been there for weeks. There were no signs of a struggle or any unexplained trauma, records show.

After the family questioned the ruling, the doctors who oversee the county’s autopsies changed the finding to “undetermined.” Under state law, that means there was insufficient information to draw a medical conclusion.

On Tuesday, Keita’s parents participated in a press conference in Seattle organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group. The press conference included a reference to lynchings in American history.

Keita’s family has lived in Lake Stevens for 17 years. In addition to his studies, he worked at the local McDonald’s.

Unlike many people his age, Keita didn’t use social media, which often provides insight regarding teens’ lives. The autopsy ruled out drugs and alcohol. He had sickle cell anemia, which made him vulnerable to the cold and added urgency to his missing-persons case.

His parents have concerns about the number of interviews police conducted. They want assurances detectives spoke with everyone who knew their son and also those who lived near where his body was found. They also want to know why trained searchers who had combed the woods didn’t find the body earlier.

Keita’s family needs to know every lead was followed, Arsalan Bukhari, the director of the civil rights group, said this week. The group wrote a letter asking the FBI to get involved.

It appears they were unaware that Lake Stevens police already had brought in federal agents to look at the case, along with other local and national investigators. The detectives also conferred with law enforcement intelligence-gathering teams on potential hate crime activity or organizations in the region.

Thursday’s press release listed about a dozen agencies that have provided expertise so far.

This week, the FBI said it would conduct a review, which is different than opening an investigation. Some media reports have left the impression the FBI was taking over the case, which isn’t true.

The Lake Stevens investigation remains “active and ongoing,” Dyer said. Laboratory tests also are pending.

Under state public records laws, police reports are exempt from release until after a case is closed. In death investigations, many details also are protected from disclosure by privacy rules.

Autopsy records fall into that category. The family has shared with reporters the medical examiner’s single-page summary explaining the reasons why the case was reclassified as undetermined instead of a suicide.

The civil rights group provided The Daily Herald a copy of the summary earlier this week on the agreement that it would not be published online.

Dr. Daniel Selove, the county medical examiner, also issued a statement late Thursday. An “undetermined” ruling does not exclude homicide or suicide, he said.

“The evidence is just not conclusive enough to provide a high degree of confidence for any other determination,” he said. “The police and prosecutors will make final determinations about whether there is evidence that a crime was committed.”

For the detectives working the case, any tip, however small, could provide answers, Dyer said. A family is grieving, along with the Lake Stevens community, he said.

“Reviewed together, every piece of information may contribute to a larger picture that could help explain Ben’s death,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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