Records show no sign of struggle in death of Ben Keita

Ben M. Keita

Ben M. Keita

LAKE STEVENS — When Ben Keita was found hanging from a tree in Lake Stevens in January, his family decided that he was targeted because of his race or religion.

Through an Islamic civil rights group in Seattle, they have continued to share that theory. Their efforts led to coverage that implied Keita had been lynched, and a hate crime had been ignored. On social media, the case caught the attention of activists from around the country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Lake Stevens police recently closed their investigation into the 18-year-old’s death. They say all evidence shows Keita took his own life. On Friday, 195 pages of the case file were released under state public records laws. Testing continues for genetic material from multiple people who were at the scene. The tests include samples found on the rope and a flashlight.

Police found no sign of a struggle or foul play, the records show. There were no injuries except those caused by the rope. No evidence turned up that Keita had been bullied. The only discord the investigators found in the teen’s life was that he had stopped going to school and he had told coworkers there were problems at home. He had few friends and rarely left his house.

Twice this year, his family held news conferences to ask the FBI to take over the investigation. Lake Stevens detective Jim Barnes had contacted the FBI to ask for assistance Nov. 30, four days after Keita was reported missing, records show. On Dec. 1, the family signed a consent form for the FBI to search the home computer. In March, the FBI released a statement, saying agents were reviewing the case, but their findings were consistent with those of Lake Stevens police.

The family still believes the FBI should invoke jurisdiction, said Arsalan Bukhari, director of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR. “The specific ask was for a full investigation, not simply to be in touch,” he said Friday.

The family has hired legal representation. They still hope for someone to come forward with information, Bukhari said.

“There are many questions that remain unanswered, and many more that are raised” by police files, he said.

CAIR’s intake report about the family, which led to the group’s involvement, was released as part of the case file.

It is dated Jan. 11, two days after a group of teens found the body in the woods. The teens told officers they had gone there after school to smoke marijuana. One of them saw Keita after leaving the trail and climbing over a log. Official searches including a helicopter and a cadaver dog had not found the body in earlier weeks.

The CAIR report says Keita’s mother alleged that Lake Stevens Police Chief John Dyer asked if her son could have been courted by religious extremist groups, possibly for money.

“Absolutely in no way, shape or form did I ever make the suggestion that this kid was a terrorist,” Dyer said Friday. He said that race and religion only came up because investigators asked if Keita had experienced bullying or discrimination.

Barnes and Sgt. Robert Miner, who also was involved in the case, reviewed the CAIR report.

Next to the alleged remarks about terrorism, Barnes drew large red question marks.

Miner wrote, “Per Chief, this was never said by him.”

In an interview Friday, Miner said, “I have never heard any officers, any detectives or anybody ask that question.”

CAIR said that the intake report was written after the first interview, when Keita’s mother was in shock and while his father was out of the country. The internal document was meant to collect initial information to get advice from attorneys and others, Bukhari said.

“I am not sure they have our consent, or the consent of whoever forwarded it, to make it public,” he said. “It wasn’t meant for the police to receive it.”

Dyer said CAIR gave the report to the FBI. “The FBI forwarded the letter to us, basically asking us about the accusations,” he said. “We answered all of those questions, which is what is in the case file.”

The comments about terrorism were made by somebody at the police department, Bukhari said, adding it seemed like a stereotype applied to young Muslim men.

The family’s suspicions went beyond law enforcement.

They accused a neighbor of lying about her home surveillance system, records show. The neighbor’s camera was positioned in a way that could have captured Keita leaving home. The neighbor told police the camera’s memory was full and it was not recording during that time. The answer wasn’t good enough, and the Keitas were asked to stop questioning her.

CAIR also suggested Keita had been dead for 15 days before he was found — which would have meant he was alive for weeks after he went missing. The medical examiner determined that he had been dead for up to six weeks, Barnes noted. That was consistent with the death occurring around the time he disappeared.

On the day Keita was found, another of his neighbors approached police. She recalled seeing a flashlight in the woods the night the teen went missing. She said it didn’t seem unusual. Young people are known to frequent those woods, sometimes with lights.

The teens who found Keita have acknowledged they touched the body, initially thinking it could be a prank. They checked for identification and found a flashlight in Keita’s pocket.

When officers arrived, the teens were told to place the flashlight on the ground. The flashlight’s location raised questions for Keita’s family. They didn’t recognize the light, or the rope that formed the noose.

Detectives have not determined the source of the rope. Where it was tied around the tree, “weather conditions destroyed all DNA evidence,” Dyer said.

On the lower knot, DNA was found from Keita and from an unknown person. Forensic scientists now are comparing that second profile to genetic samples from officials, the teens and others who were at the recovery, Dyer said. All the teens’ families were asked to have their children submit a sample. Some parents declined.

The CAIR group focused on the length of the rope. It was tied to a branch about 30 feet high, and the noose was about 8 feet from the ground. Keita’s neck was not broken, the autopsy found. That meant it was unlikely that he dropped a long distance before the noose tightened, detectives were told.

Miner noticed that two other large trees were uprooted and leaning on the tree where Keita died.

Miner said he easily climbed those downed trees toward the limb where the rope was tied. It was too icy that day to climb farther, he said, but he saw bark that had been disturbed, “possibly left by Ben ascending the trees.”

The Keita family also wanted more information from their son’s acquaintances at work and school.

The investigation included interviews with all of Keita’s co-workers at McDonald’s. Several were minors and had to be reached through the company or at school. Some interviews required parental consent.

The co-workers described Keita as polite and quiet. He told one he wanted to leave home. Another co-worker said Keita told her his house wasn’t a happy place. He reportedly described lots of arguing, and said his father often was away on business. The co-workers didn’t find his complaints unusual, particularly for a teenager.

CAIR also said Keita’s car keys were missing. Police say the family reported Keita had locked them, and his wallet, in his car. The keys reportedly were recovered after his disappearance.

In addition, detectives explored whether any hate groups were operating in the area.

A call was placed to the Washington State Fusion Center, which works in cooperation with the FBI, Homeland Security and local law enforcement. The center is described as an intelligence unit for “detecting, deterring and preventing terrorist attacks, significant criminal activity and (it) performs threat assessments.”

The detectives were told “there are no known hate groups working or functioning in the area of Lake Stevens and Snohomish County as (a) whole.” The only group the center has information on is anti-gay, and based in south county.

The case was treated “as a homicide until determined otherwise,” Barnes wrote in a follow-up report. “… All evidence points to Ben committing suicide.”

That notation was added to the case file Jan. 17.

As of Friday, the finding had not changed.

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

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