Lennon Lacy FBI File: How authorities determined suicide, not lynching

WECT Investigates wraps up Lennon Lacy's death

BLADENBORO, N.C. (WECT) - The truth. That’s what everybody has been asking for the entire time. Now, for the first time in more than six years, we are much closer to learning the truth about what happened to Lennon Lacy, the African-American varsity football player whose body was found hanging from a swing set in Bladen County in 2014.

His death, which came on the heels of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, captured national and even international headlines. The NAACP soon got involved, looking for justice in what some feared to be a race-related lynching.

The FBI file from the case was recently released to WECT. Though heavily redacted, there are several newly revealed pieces of information in the 823 essential pages of the file that were publicly released. They help explain how investigators came to the conclusion 17-year-old Lacy died by suicide. While his death was tragic; nevertheless, they determined Lacy was not the victim of a hate crime.

Depressed, suicidal

Perhaps most significant, the file shows that Lacy confided to one of his closest friends just before his death that he “wanted to die” and had recently tried to kill himself. Specifically, that he’d tried to hang himself with belts, which is the manner in which he ultimately died. Lacy told a friend on the previous attempt the belts broke, thwarting his suicide.

The SBI, which District Attorney Jon David called in to assist on the case hours after Lacy’s body was found, interviewed 49 people for this case. While some friends told investigators he seemed fine in the days leading up to his death, others close to Lacy reported he was very depressed about the death of his great uncle, who Lacy viewed as a father figure. Johnny Wright’s funeral was the day before Lacy took his own life. Friends and loved ones told investigators Lacy seemed “angry,” “withdrawn,” and “more quiet than usual.” They said he was “eating less and throwing up when he would eat,” “wanting to remain in his room,” and “didn’t think people liked him.”

Documents show Lacy’s mother even called the West Bladen High School guidance counselor just days before he died, asking staff members to keep an eye on him.

Complicating matters for the teen, his girlfriend had recently broken up with him. When Lacy was 16, he began dating Michelle Brimhall, a 31-year-old white woman nearly twice his age who’d recently moved into his housing development. Though his parents disapproved, the two were involved in a sexual relationship and Lacy told friends he had strong feelings for her. Reports indicate Lacy got jealous of the attention Brimhall gave to other men. Authorities learned she’d broken off the relationship the week before Lacy’s suicide, after finding him looking through her phone. Investigators say in the hours before he killed himself, Lacy had seen Brimhall going into her house with another man.

Following leads

The FBI, which took the case on at the request of the Lacy family and the NAACP, reviewed the SBI’s work and did interviews of its own. Some of the interviews were done in other parts of the state, tracking down leads that Lacy’s death could have been a homicide. The Winston-Salem Police Department also got involved at one point, chasing down a theory pointing to foul play.

Theories ranged from Lacy being lynched by racists who disapproved of his interracial-relationship with Brimhall, to it having something to do with a prior crime where Lacy and his friends were jumped in an attempted robbery. After his death, Lacy’s grave was vandalized, further fueling speculation of foul play. Authorities arrested and prosecuted the person responsible for defacing his grave, but said the leads pointing to homicide simply didn’t pan out.

Investigators also reviewed surveillance video. During the time surrounding Lacy’s death, they only saw one unidentifiable person walking from the direction of Lacy’s house to the place where his body was found. Officials believe the person in the video is likely Lacy, and the lack of other people in the area makes it unlikely that he was attacked.

Detectives subpoenaed Lacy’s Facebook posts and 1500 text messages, looking for any information about someone wanting to hurt him. Again, they found nothing indicating foul play.

Shoes, belt

In the weeks after his death, much attention was given to the shoes Lacy was wearing that some members of his family didn’t recognize. They also said the size 10 ½ athletic shoes were too small for him. Probing that concern, investigators showed pictures of those shoes to many of his friends, some of whom indicated they had seen Lacy wearing the pair of shoes before. Detectives also went to West Bladen High School, where Lacy had recently been custom fitted for shoes for his ROTC uniform. Those shoes were size 10 ½. Although he had shoes in his closet that were size 12, authorities determined that the shoes he was wearing the night he died fit, and likely were his own.

Similarly, family members told investigators they didn’t recognize the two belts that were used as a noose in his hanging, adding to the suspicion that someone else was involved. But in going through his social media posts, agents found selfies of Lacy wearing belts that looked identical to those used to fashion the noose.

Reenactment

Another factor that had some believing Lacy was murdered: allegations that it was not physically possible for the 5′8′' Lacy to hang himself from the swing set, which was nearly 8 feet tall.

Documents in the FBI’s file indicate that at some point after his death, a swing that had been hanging from the swing set where he died was taken down. Detectives surmised the swing, which had been present at the time of Lacy’s death, could have been used to reach the upper part of the swing set to attach a noose. Additionally, his body was found near the side of the swing set closest to the slide and climbing platform.

Agents conducted a reenactment and determined that someone could have hung themselves without assistance.

No suspicious injuries to the body

The state medical examiner initially declined the autopsy request from the SBI, presumably because the case seemed to be a straight forward suicide. But the agent pushed back, and District Attorney Jon David personally requested the autopsy to make sure it was done.

The medical examiner found no visible injuries to Lacy’s body apart from ligature marks, and superficial wounds from ant bites. After Lacy’s body was taken down from the swingset, he was on the ground for some time while authorities examined the crime scene, and during that time red ants got on him.

The medical examiner, Dr. Deborah Radisch, noted ants were still on him and alive when Lacy’s body arrived for the autopsy. She determined that he died from “asphyxia due to hanging” and she did not believe he could have been killed in some kind of chokehold prior to his death as some had suspected.

After the case gained national attention, and Radisch’s suicide determination was publicly questioned, she drove down to Bladen County to assess the scene for herself. Radisch stood by her decision that his death was a suicide.

Tragic, but not murder

While WECT just received the FBI file, the Lennon Lacy case has technically been closed for years. District Attorney David said he was not able to be as forthcoming with details on this case as he would typically prefer because of the involvement of federal law enforcement officials. He said he didn’t want anything he might release to interfere with their work. Now that the file is public, he feels comfortable commenting.

“Had I truly believed that Lennon Lacy was lynched, it would be my life’s mission as District Attorney to seek maximum justice for such an incident,” David said. “I speak for all of the investigators and prosecutors who have worked diligently to get to the truth in this matter in saying that justice was done and we are confident in our conclusion that Lennon Lacy died by his own hands and was not the victim of a homicide. Having reached this conclusion, that does not lessen the tragedy to the Lacy family over the loss of their precious child. As a community, we should continue to support the Lacy family in their grieving process.”

In addition to reaching the same conclusion that his death was a suicide, the FBI commended the SBI’s work on the case prior to their involvement.

“A review of [the SBI] report found the investigation conducted by the NCSBI to be comprehensive and thorough,” the FBI’s Investigative Summary of the case noted. “The NCSBI was also responsive with regard to lead information brought forth by family members of Lacy.”

Claudia Lacy, Lennon’s mother, had previously rejected state law enforcement determinations that her son’s death was a suicide, but said she would accept the findings of the FBI. WECT reached her by phone. Ms. Lacy said she was not aware the FBI file had been released, so we forwarded it to her. When we reached out again several days later, she later declined to comment on whether she agreed with the agency’s decision.

We also made contact with Dr. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, to get his take on the FBI’s findings. The NAACP was also unaware the file had been released, and asked for time to review it before commenting.

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