Suicide Near Seattle Elementary School Causes Concern

A 47-year-old man was found hanging just steps from Dunlap Elementary. Some wonder if the investigation was over too soon.

(This article originally appeared on Patch.com and has been republished with permission.)

by Neal McNamara

Early in the morning on Sept. 17, Seattle police and firefighters responded to Dunlap Elementary School in the Rainier Beach neighborhood on a report of a dead person. The body of a 47-year-old man was found hanging by people heading to school that day.

The King County Medical Examiner later ruled the death a suicide — officially, the man died of asphyxia due to ligature hanging. But the location and nature of the death has startled some in South Seattle, causing some to suspect the investigation was closed too soon.

About a week after the death, Seattle resident Kathleen Burr posted on Facebook about the suicide questioning why Seattle police would rule the death a suicide without a longer investigation.

As is often the case, the medical examiner’s ruling guides the police investigation, said Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb. If the medical examiner rules out homicide as the cause of death, there’s no crime for police to investigate, he said. Seattle police have reached out to Burr to discuss the incident.

Burr has also raised racial concerns in relation to the death — but the race of the victim is unclear. A King County spokesperson declined to identify the man’s race. One man, who volunteers at South Shore Middle School, told Patch the man was white. Burr reported that he was Black.

There have been other recent incidents involving Black teens and suicide that raised suspicions about racial violence. In 2017, Ben Keita, 18, was founded hanging in a wooded area in Lake Stevens. Keita’s family claimed the teen had no issues with depression, and the Snohomish County Medical Examiner changed the cause of death from suicide to “undetermined.” As of Sept. 2, Lake Stevens police were still accepting tips about Keita’s death, but had not yet uncovered any wrongdoing.

In December 2015, Hamza Warsame, 16, was found dead on the sidewalk in front of a Capitol Hill apartment building. Warsame, a Seattle Central College student, went to the apartment with a 21-year-old classmate. The two smoked what was alleged to have been marijuana, and at some point Warsame walked out onto a balcony and fell off. Warsame’s death was initially thought to be an act of anti-Muslim violence.

Patch does not typically reveal the names a suicide victims. The medical examiner was not able to determine where the victim was originally from. There was little to no information about him on the internet, and neighbors Patch spoke to in the area did not recognize his name.

Dunlap is located just east of Renton Avenue between Henderson and Cloverdale streets. The school sits at the west end of a piece of land that includes the Rainier Beach Community Center, South Shore Middle School, South Lake High School, and city sports fields.

According to a school district spokesperson, the body was found near Dunlap at the Rainier Beach Playfield, which borders the school. It’s unclear the exact location where the body was found, but local residents indicated it was closer to the Henderson Street side of the property. Patch spoke to multiple neighbors on the Cloverdale side of the school, and none had heard about the suicide.

Dunlap Principal Winifred Todd notified parents about the incident in a letter. In the letter, he says that the school used its “shelter-in-place” protocol while the death was being investigated. The school was first alerted to the death at around 7:30 a.m.

Several witnesses — and Burr — have reported that Dunlap students saw the man’s body. However, Seattle Public Schools told Patch:

“Students and families did not share the same report with school staff. If they had, the school would have requested a higher level of support and onsite counseling provided. A letter to families was provided by the school,” the district said in a statement.

Burr says that she and other local residents want to find an independent third party to investigate the death.

“We have many inside people, and investigators looking deeper into this,” she wrote to Patch in a Facebook message.


Featured Image: Facing north, this public walkway cuts between the Rainier Beach Playfield and Dunlap Elementary from Henderson to Cloverdale Street. Witnesses say the suicide victim was found near the fence the western edge of the playfield. (Photo: Neal McNamara/Patch)

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