This month’s unsolved murder is a bit of a controversial one – the police ruled the death a suicide, despite the evidence not adding up. In addition to the controversy, I also want to add a trigger warning up front…because if Ben Keita did not die by suicide, it seems very likely that he was the victim of a racially or religiously motivated hate crime – so we have TW: discussion of suicide, TW: hate crime, and TW: lynching. What really happened to Ben Keita? Let’s explore.
Who Was Ben?
Ben Keita was born on October 18, 1998 in Lake Stevens, WA. He was known as a kind young man who loved to help others. He kept good grades and was a senior at Lake Stevens High School. He had dreams of going to medical school to become a doctor, or possibly a medical examiner. As a part of this educational track, Ben was taking part in the “Running Start” program, which is an initiative that allows juniors and seniors in high school to take college courses. Ben took classes at Everett Community College. Ben was a beloved piece of his family and community as a whole.
Disappearance & Discovery
Ben Keita went missing on November 26, 2016. His home was near some woods, which were searched over the following week, but no sign of him was found. There is not a lot of information regarding Ben’s initial disappearance, though we do know he was formally reported missing and the area surrounding his home was searched. Ben would not be seen again until January 9, 2017, when his body was found hanging from a long rope tied high up in a tree. The rope was tied to a branch at least thirty feet high, but Ben’s feet were only two and a half feet off of the ground.
An autopsy showed that there were no signs of defense-type wounds on Ben. The only wound out of line with those sustained as a result of hanging was a small scrape on his left thumb. The other significant finding was that some of the blood found in Ben’s heart had ice crystals in it (put a pin in that, we’ll get into it later). The tox scans conducted in conjunction with the autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in his system at his time of death. Investigation showed that Ben seemed troubled in the weeks before his disappearance and death. He had missed his last few shifts at work and had skipped classes – both things his parents had no knowledge of. This was taken as proof that Ben was suffering at the time of his death, that he was struggling with something. It was taken as another sign pointing towards suicide.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide at first, though the manner of death was changed to undetermined eventually. When a manner of death is “undetermined,” it means that the person classifying the death does not feel adequately equipped with information to definitively say what caused the death of the individual. So really the changing of the manner of death to undetermined does not mean the investigating agencies truly believe it was not a suicide – rather, it seems to simply mean that it is a way of conceding that there is a chance it may not have been.
There are points found in the investigation that do not add up to Ben dying by suicide. When someone dies by suicide via hanging, they typically do not climb so high up to do so. That’s a lot of work to do in the cold. It’s also a lot of work to do while hauling that amount of work. There’s also the rush to declare the manner of death a suicide despite the information that contradicted that conclusion. Let’s take a look at those points here.
First is the position at which Ben was found. If he had completed suicide at that spot, he would have been seen before January 9, 2017. That area of the woods was seemingly well-traveled, and it was searched specifically for Ben after his initial disappearance. He was obviously not found then, so if he had completed suicide in the woods, how did he end up hanging from that tree? Either he was not seen by searchers and those who walk through the area (unlikely) or he was moved to the tree at a later date.
Secondly, we have those ice crystals that were found in his heart. That level of freezing was supposedly consistent with someone being exposed to the elements for the amount of time Ben was missing for. If Ben had completed suicide via hanging in that spot, he would have been seen. The freezing points to the possibility that Ben had been strangled or hanged elsewhere, left in the woods to freeze, and then re-hanged to be found for some reason. I can’t imagine the twisted reasoning in this, but if he was murdered, the culprits may have tired of waiting for their deed to be found.
Next, I want to touch on the few weeks before Ben’s disappearance. It was discovered that Ben had missed three weeks of school prior to his disappearance, which was quickly written off as signs of being troubled or depressed. I can see that being a possibility, but this is a red flag that can be viewed in another way: what if Ben was scared? What if he was avoiding someone he was afraid of? This doesn’t seem to be an avenue that was really explored at the time. I have found one single article that showed investigators seeking more information regarding Ben missing school.
Lastly, we have to discuss the fact that this is possibly a hate crime that was covered up. Ben was a Black Muslim man. No matter how progressive the community, there will always be bigots. And the bigots may be quiet, but they are still there. Lynchings have been an unfortunately common form of racial violence over the years. I’m not going to spend a lot of time explaining what lynching is, but it basically began as a form of vigilante justice to dole out punishment to criminals outside the confines of the justice system. And throughout history, it has been used as a violent tool of persecution towards BIPOC. Countless BIPOC have been accused of wrongdoing simply because of their race and were doomed to violent deaths because of it. Perhaps the most well known instance of this is the case of Emmett Till.
In many cases, lynchings were carried out in the form of beatings and hangings. You can see where this is going. The fact that Ben was not found in the time between his disappearance and the discovery of his body is suspicious – it seems that someone had to have moved him there.
It doesn’t seem like there has been much movement in Ben’s case since his manner of death was changed in 2017. The last update I can find came in 2020, when a change.org petition asking for law enforcement and the FBI to reopen the case was posted. It still needs signatures. If you agree that these pieces that do not align with the suicide theory must be thoroughly investigated, that investigators must look beyond presumptions and consider how the pieces play into the whole of the case, please sign.