Family upset by student death inquiry
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- The family of a deceased college student from Africa is criticizing the police investigation that ruled his death accidental due to hypothermia, saying investigators played down possible evidence of foul play and misled the public.
Family members of Luther College student Nabby Baffour-Awuah broke their silence in a statement issued to The Associated Press, saying they believe the 24-year-old from Ghana was assaulted and/or chased before his Jan. 1 death on the campus in Decorah. Their attorney released to AP police records, pictures, and surveillance video that raise more questions about a death that continues to confound the town in northeastern Iowa.
Police announced in February that they believed Baffour-Awuah died of hypothermia in freezing temperatures after he was locked out of his dormitory following a night of drinking at an off-campus New Year's party. Authorities suggested hypothermia, enhanced by a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit, caused him to be confused and wander down a woody hill where he was found near a softball field hours later. They said they found "no evidence of foul play."
But his family members say the audio of a chilling 911 call released last month in which Baffour-Awuah warned "he's going to kill me" and other records they have obtained from police suggest "the evidence of foul play is somewhere between strong and overwhelming."
"We believe that, in drafting the comments as it did, the police created the impression that this was likely a situation in which a drunk college student locked himself out of his room and froze to death," said the statement from his family, which includes his mother in Ghana, his older sister in London and a brother living in the U.S. "We feel very strongly that such a characterization was an insult to the known facts, the memory of Nabby, and to this family."
Family members said they want to know why Baffour-Awuah appears to be running before the 911 call abruptly disconnects, why his cell phone was found broken near a building where he made the call and why his jacket was seen hanging from a flagpole across campus. They also say a 14-minute gap between when he got into a taxi for a ride home and when he made the 911 call makes it implausible he was already suffering from hypothermia.
Their statement also accused one investigator of reaching "pre-conceived conclusions" because he told the family the cause of death would be hypothermia before the autopsy was finished and suggested their son and brother "was just another college drunk." Family members have hired Dubuque attorney Chad Cox to look into the death, and they urged anyone with additional information to come forward.
Winneshiek County Attorney Andy Van Der Maaten said Wednesday that the family's strong feelings are understandable and investigators will look at any new information gathered. But he said it's impossible to know what was going through Baffour-Awuah's mind when he made the 911 call, and each piece of evidence could have innocent explanations other than foul play.
"You need to look at the entire investigation and not the isolated instances they are talking about," he said.
Investigators found only a single set of footprints through the snow where Baffour-Awuah was found frozen to death, with minor cuts on his face, fingers, forearms, right knee and small wounds on his palms and wrists, according to the autopsy. Investigators say he obtained the cuts from bushes and brush wandering down the heavily-wooded hill. His family believes they could be evidence of an assault.
Part of the mystery involves the contradictory stories told by two men known to have seen him last: a cab driver who insists Baffour-Awuah jumped out of the moving vehicle and took off running for no reason, and a passenger who told police he remembers little about the ride.
Surveillance footage shows Baffour-Awuah walking into Decorah Mart gas station after he left a house party, and purchasing two cans of Red Bull. Inside the store, he engages in a conversation with customer Jason Schwarz that briefly appears to turn heated.
Off-Duty Luther College Security Guard Eric Stoen, who was in the gas station and knows both men, told police that he felt Baffour-Awuah was trying to start a fight with Schwarz.
Stoen said Baffour-Awuah was looking for a ride home, and Schwarz offered to pay to give him a ride home in a cab that was waiting outside. Stoen said he calmed Baffour-Awuah down before the two left the store and got in the cab together.
Cab driver Jerome Wiley said the short drive to campus was uneventful until Baffour-Awuah suddenly jumped out of the moving taxi, lost his coat and took off running up a hill out of the blue. "It was very, very strange," Wiley told AP.
But Schwarz, who did not return a phone message, told police that he did not remember whether other people were in the cab because he was tipsy and only paying attention to his destination, records show.
Wiley said he did not see any way Schwarz, who was in the front passenger seat, would not remember Baffour-Awuah's sudden departure from a cab ride for which he paid.
"For a person to do what he did, he couldn't have been in the right mind. The way he jumped out of the car, he just opened the door and jumped straight out and started running," Wiley said. "Jason looked back like I did. I said, 'What the hell is happening?'"
A police report says Wiley refused to take a polygraph test in February to determine whether he was telling the truth about the ride. But Wiley told AP he answered investigators' questions for hours but left only when the questioning turned toward unrelated issues in his personal life.
"I got no reason to lie about nothing," he said.