Up until a few weeks ago, the story of David Ngaruri Kenney was an uplifting saga, the kind of trauma-to-triumph tale that reminds us the American dream is alive.
Tortured in his native Kenya as a child after leading a boycott against the government’s treatment of his fellow tea farmers in the 1990s, Kenney found refuge in the United States, earning a basketball scholarship without ever having put up a single jump shot. He worked his way through Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, got married, and had two precocious, fearless children with a successful attorney he met at a law-school party in Washington, D.C. He penned an award-winning book about his imprisonment in Africa and fight for refuge in the U.S., titled Asylum Denied: A Refugee’s Struggle for Safety in America.
Now the 7-foot-tall law clerk is sitting in the psychiatric ward of an Anchorage hospital. He faces felony charges that he, at best, walked away from a young man he saw strapped to a saw table in the rugged Alaskan town of Bethel—a teenager who was tortured, bleeding, naked, and near death—and, at worst, that he was somehow involved in the young man’s murder.
The young man was 19-year-old Benjamin Kaiser, a baby-faced member of the Alaska native Yup’ik tribe of nearby Hooper Bay. Kaiser had flown from Hooper Bay to Bethel for unknown reasons a few days before his death. Also not yet known is exactly what sadistic acts Kaiser endured, but whatever he went through was for an unspeakably long time—perhaps for days. He was so disfigured from the attack that an Alaska state trooper who knew Kaiser had to fly in from Hooper Bay to help identify the body.
At least part of the ordeal reportedly took place in a shed behind one of the accused killers’ houses. Kaiser was tied to a table saw and savagely beaten with multiple weapons, according to a witness, including a “blunt-impact” device and an electrical cord, fashioned as a whip. "Suffice it to say, in 31 years of investigating hundreds of homicides, this ranks in the top 10 for the amount of violence involved on another human being prior to his death," Bethel Police Chief Larry Elarton told the Tundra Drums newspaper.
Prosecutors have charged Jeffrey Allan Hout, 46, and Harry Ned Williams, 32, with torturing and killing Kaiser after accusing him of stealing a Chevy Silverado. The witness who reported seeing the pair commit the crime also suggested the 36-year-old Kenney might have been involved. Kenney is now charged with felony hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence in connection with the murder. More charges could be filed soon.
Kaiser’s is the latest in a string of bizarre deaths in a village so remote that only 5 percent of its residents own cars (there’s nowhere to drive to) and where, during the winter, most people drink water from ice they’ve chipped away from frozen ponds and heated with tundra firewood. In the past five months, four youths have committed suicide in this tiny town of 1,200.
In the past five months, four youths have committed suicide in this tiny town of 1,200.
“People are grieving in this town,” said Scott Ballard, principal of the Hooper Bay School. “It’s been a time of reflection, trying to pull together as a community.”
Kenney initially told detectives he knew nothing of the killing, even though the Silverado actually belonged to him. But after combing through his autobiography, police discovered “intriguing similarities” between Kenney’s torture experiences in Africa and what happened to Kaiser last week in southwest Alaska. The torture Kenney endured at the hands of the Kenyan government was water torture, isolation, and starvation—Kenney was kept in a “water cell,” wherein he had to stand to avoid drowning when the water levels unpredictably rose, and could sleep only when the water again fell back to his ankles. This was nothing like the torture inflicted upon Kaiser. But a different passage in Kenney’s book describes a beating he suffered at the hands of his brothers, who tied him to a fence post and nearly beat him to death. That may be what the chief was referring to, said Kenney’s estranged wife, Melissa Ngaruri.
Kenney eventually admitted to police that he saw Kaiser tied to the table, then ran into Hout and Williams, telling them he wanted nothing to do with the victim and that the kid needed medical help. The state charged Kenney with hindering prosecution on October 29, then added new charges last week of tampering with evidence.
To outsiders, Kenney’s twist of fate is shocking. How could a man who had actually experienced torture and imprisonment turn a blind eye toward such cruelty—and perhaps even aid and abet it—after winning his freedom in America?
To Ngaruri, the scenario sadly doesn’t seem all that implausible. She said her husband suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Africa. Shortly after they were married in 2003, Kenney was deported back to the continent because his student visa had expired. In Africa, he feared he’d be arrested, tortured, and killed, payback for defying Kenya’s government.
Kenney took medication to manage his PTSD symptoms, but his deportation complicated his access to the drugs. On a visit to Kenya in 2004, Ngaruri found her husband was acting erratically, talking of opening a restaurant in Tanzania but having done no more than arrange a few tables and chairs together beneath a ramshackle shelter. He somehow lost $2,000 in cash.
“He was manic,” Ngaruri told The Daily Beast, “desperate to hang on to what he had.”
She got him back on the meds, she said, but he remained in a tailspin. Kenney eventually won a reprieve and returned to the United States in 2005, but his frustrating battle for asylum left the already-traumatized Kenyan wrought with fear and anxiety.
Still, Kenney kept his head up. In 2007, he discussed Asylum Denied at a panel at Georgetown University. In a video of the panel he comes across as articulate, affable, and happy, smiling at his 2-year-old daughter in the audience.
“Think about the amount of work and luck that you need to get a guy who’s never seen a basketball a basketball scholarship to an American university,” he says, beaming. “Somehow we did it.”
He earned his citizenship and his law degree in 2008, before another setback. The Maryland State Board of Law Examiners recommended he not be admitted to the state bar association because of undisclosed “character issues.”
Knowing how tough it is to get admitted to any state bar after character issues are raised, he and Ngaruri moved to Alaska this year hoping to get a fairer shake in the more forgiving Ninth Circuit, while he appealed the ruling in Maryland.
He landed a job as a clerk for Bethel Superior Court Judge Marvin Hamilton, and Ngaruri found work with the state Office of Children’s Services. But Kenney’s battle for a law license and American citizenship continued to chip away at his ability to think clearly, said Ngaruri.
This past summer, his mental state further deteriorated. The ongoing fear that he’d be returned to Africa, his frustration with the U.S. government and the Maryland Bar, and his increasing inconsistency about taking his medication led to domestic violence, Ngaruri claimed in a petition for a restraining order, which she filed with the court in August after Kenney allegedly threatened to kill her. Ngaruri alleged that Kenney threw a reclining chair at her after she tried to end the relationship, locked her in the bedroom and told her he’d punch her through a wall. Why he was so angry at her, she doesn’t know, she said.
“He says he wants to do it because ‘I’ve hurt him so badly,’ but he can’t say what I did,” Ngaruri wrote in emails to her coworkers that she provided to The Daily Beast. “If something happens to me, it wasn’t suicide.”
Ngaruri left Kenney but saw him frequently as she shuttled their children back and forth, per the terms of their custody agreement. She says she’s not sure what his relationship was with Hout, Williams, or Kaiser, other than that Kenney bought the truck from Hout and was helping him remodel a house. Police are investigating the possibility that the dispute between Hout and Kaiser may have had something to do with a teenage girl, but there’s no indication Kenney was involved with that.
Kenney’s mental disintegration appears to have been breathtaking. Ngaruri said the Kenney she knew would have once done anything he could to save a young man from being harmed. For instance, she says, at a festival once in Washington, the pair was standing among a crowd of people when Kenney spotted a man in distress from 30 feet away. It was clear to her husband that the man couldn’t find his children, Ngaruri said.
“He said, ‘Melissa, there’s a kid that’s lost. Look at that man over there; he’s freaking out,’” Ngaruri recalled. “Jeff (Kenney's nickname) went up to him and said, ‘Let me help you find your child.’ Within 15 minutes, he had rounded up a whole bunch of people and found the kid.”
“I watched a man who was very confident and hard working, I watched him crumble and cry,” she said. “He was helpless.”
It’s still to be determined whether that helplessness was a part of the reason Benjamin Kaiser is dead today. Did Kenney decide not to help a young man he could have saved? Was his judgment clouded by PTSD? Did his failure to take his medication change him so much that he turned his back on a tortured teenager? Or was he so traumatized by his abusive encounters with authorities that he couldn’t bring himself to get involved?
“I think what we’re dealing with here is somebody who couldn’t make a decision about what to do,” Ngaruri said of the man who once led a community of his Kenyan peers to stand tall against a corrupt and intimidating government regime. “He really couldn’t think, because there’s so much noise going on in his head. When you’re so overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, you’re not able to think straight, so he reacts from fear. It creates poor judgment.”
The noise in his head may be why Kenney was admitted to the mental ward of an Anchorage hospital last week, after posting bail on the felony charges. It’s unclear whether that decision was his own.
Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.