The lifeless body of Leonard Gakinya hangs from a tower near U.S. Atty. General John Ashcroft?s hometown of Springfield, Mo. Photo: Rosemary Stewart-Strafford
(FinalCall.com) - A Kenyan-born Black man found dangling from an "almost too-perfect noose" 30-feet above ground and eerily close to a place made infamous for a multi-lynching of Blacks in the early 1900s is deemed too coincidental by the victim’s family, activists and community.
They are demanding that the body be exhumed and an independent autopsy be performed, in addition to previously ignored demands of a federal probe.
On Oct. 2, Leonard Gakinya, 27, was found hanging from a 100 ft.-tall communications tower in Springfield, Mo., about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis, just before the Arkansas border. Immediately, his death was ruled "a clear-cut suicide" by officials at the Green County Medical Examiner’s office. According to Springfield, Mo., Police Chief Lynn Rowe, however, the case is still under investigation.
"The oddity of this whole case being a suicide stems from the tower itself," said Zaki Baruti, a family advisor and president of the St. Louis-based Universal African Peoples Organization (UAPO). "It seems to be almost impossible—particularly at night—to climb the 8-feet high open wire fence surrounding the tower, then comes the climbing of the tower itself," he told The Final Call. "In addition, several beer cans were found below the body on the ground, a pair of oversized gloves draped over his hands and an almost too-perfect hangman’s noose around his neck," he said.
Examiners determined the cause of death "asphyxiation with constriction around the neck," and there were no signs of struggle or resistance by Mr. Gakinya. The victim’s mother, Regina however, told reporters that when she was finally allowed to see her son—12 hours after his discovery—she immediately recognized bruises to his forehead.
The family also speculates that the police department might have been involved themselves, since the victim, back in April and then again one week before his death, complained and filed charges of harassment against two White officers in the department and stated that he was in fear of his life.
"My son was afraid of the police. He said they wanted to kill him," Mrs. Gakinya said. She further acknowledged that her son also suffered from depression and that he had, at least on one occasion, attempted suicide via a pill overdose. The police contend that he attempted suicide twice.
Calls placed by The Final Call to Chief Rowe were not returned.
"Because it is an internal affairs investigation, all of the records surrounding Leonard are sealed and not easily accessible to us," longtime Springfield activist Rosemary Stewart-Stafford told The Final Call. "But this is U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft’s hometown. So the police want to make the country believe there aren’t any problems here between them and people of color. You should see the size of the gloves they (killers) put on this man’s hands. He could never have used them to tie a rope," she said. Ms. Stewart-Stafford took the photos that gruesomely displayed Mr. Gakinya’s hanging.
The body was discovered the morning of Oct. 2, around 9:30 a.m. Medical Examiner Ron Yoder determined the time of death to be just after midnight. His "clear-cut suicide" declaration, activists contend, stem from the citing of beer cans around the body. However, the toxicology report delivered in November determined there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the bloodstream of the young African.
Mr. Gakinya was known for always carrying his backpack and riding his bicycle. Neither has been found since the discovery of his body.
In October, Ms. Stewart-Stafford addressed a conference on lynchings and racial violence in America at Emory University. After her presentation, the attendees then viewed the pictures she had taken of young Leonard’s lifeless body hanging from the tower. Then, led by former Black Panther member Elaine Brown, the group wrote a letter to Mr. Ashcroft, demanding a full investigation into the hanging.
They have yet to receive any response. Kansas City Justice Department official Bill Whitcomb told reporters that he met with Chief Rowe about the case in October and said the community "deserves accurate, current and consistent information," and hoped that "rumors" would not disrupt the community.
UAPO also fired off a letter to U.S. Attorney Todd Graves in Kansas City, requesting direct involvement in an investigation. They have yet to receive a response.
Springfield is not new to racist hate crimes perpetrated on Blacks. In fact, one of its most infamous attractions is its downtown square where, in 1906, a similar tower once stood and served as the hanging gallows for three Black men beaten and tortured by a vicious, angry mob of Whites.
"In 1906, on Easter weekend, three innocent Black men were tortured and hung on a similar tower at the center of the town square which is very close to where Gakinya was hung," said Ms. Stewart-Stafford.
All associated with the Gakinya case have at some point referred to the famous Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit," which depicts the "strange and bitter crop" of Black bodies hanging from trees in the South.
Ms. Holiday’s lyrics apparently, and sadly, ring all-too-relevant today.
"It’s a damn shame that these kinds of crimes still occur in America today—the so-called land of the free and home of the brave," said Mr. Baruti. "It is because of these kinds of stories coming out of Springfield that we cannot accept Gakinya’s death as a suicide."
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