On Aug. 29, a 17-year-old high school football player was found hanging from a wooden swing set, just hours before he was set to take on the West Columbus Vikings on his school’s football field.
It was a game the Bladenboro, N.C. teenager had spent hours training for in the gym, at home, and in the school stadium. The starting linebacker had big plans for his future in football, practicing and perfecting his skills in hopes of obtaining a college scholarship. His West Bladen Knights teammate, Anthony White, told The Guardian the teen was “looking forward to doing good in the game.”
That’s why news of Lennon Lacy’s death came as a shock. Local authorities arrived at his home just moments after Lacy’s mother noticed he left his football gear at home, telling the family the teenager was found hanging from a swing set in a park visible to the trailer homes that surrounded it. An autopsy determined Lacy died from asphyxia due to hanging, suggesting suicide. The autopsy also described the injuries to Lacy’s neck consistent with the cut noose sent to the medical examiner’s office with the body.
No foul play, they said, was indicated.
Lacy’s family, friends, and neighbors aren’t so sure. But with their questions comes push-back.
As the Rev William Barber, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in North Carolina, put it at a recent memorial service for Lennon Lacy held at the family’s church, the First Baptist in Bladenboro: “Don’t ask these parents to bury their 17-year-old son and then act as though everything is normal. Don’t chastise them for asking the right questions. All they want is the truth.”
But Barber also talked about the chilling thought that lingered, otherwise unmentioned, over the scores of black and white people attending the packed memorial. “The image of a black boy hanging from a rope is in the souls of all of us,” he told them. “It is in the DNA of America. In 2014, our greatest prayer is that this was not a lynching.”
But the mysterious details surrounding Lacy’s death don’t do much to quell those thoughts. Authorities are mum on those details, but here are some facts to consider about Lacy’s case, brought forth by his family and friends.
The Lump On Lacy’s Head:
Lacy’s mother, Claudia, noticed scratches and abrasions on the teen’s face when authorities led her to the black body bag holding her son. She also said there was a knot on Lacy’s forehead that hadn’t been there the day before. The undertaker, FW Newton Jr., also noticed Lacy’s unusual face.
Newton told the Guardian that when he received Lacy’s body two days after he died, he was struck by the abrasions he saw across both shoulders and down the insides of both arms. He also noted facial indentations over both cheeks, the chin and nose. Though police have told the Lacy family that ants were responsible for causing the marks, to Newton the state of the body reminded him of corpses he had embalmed where the deceased had been killed in a bar-room fight.
The autopsy report says nothing about the abrasions or the lump on Lacy’s head.
The Shoes Lacy Had On When Authorities Discovered His Body:
The Lacy family lawyer, Allen Rogers, points out a curious detail in the teenager’s shocking death — he wasn’t wearing his own shoes when authorities discovered his body. The gray and neon green Jordans Lacy bought just a few days before he died were gone. Instead, the teenager was wearing a pair of size 10.5 white sneakers with the laces removed. Lacy wore a size 12. His family members did not recognize the sneakers as his own.
“How does a 17-year old who’s up at 11:00 at night, washing and getting his clothes ready for a football game — who has a brand new pair of Jordans that he got for the school year — wake up the next morning, and he’s hanging from an apparatus with some strange person’s shoes on?” Rogers said.
Those brand new Jordans were never located.
Lacy’s Older, White Girlfriend:
Family members say Lacy was in a relationship with a 31-year-old white women, Michelle Brimhall, months before his death. The age of consent in North Carolina is 16, but in a town where 86 black people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and neighbors still have Confederate flags in their yard, the interracial relationship may have caused some tension.
“Everybody was going on to me because he was 17 and I am 31,” Brimhall told the Guardian. “We told people we weren’t seeing each other so they would stop giving us trouble.”
They did not stop seeing each other, however. Brimhall said she doesn’t believe the teen killed himself because “he loves his mother so much.” She also said she doesn’t know who killed her boyfriend, but “I want to know who did it. I want them to suffer.”
Lacy’s family, however, are asking authorities why they did not interview the woman’s former husband and father of her children, who she left in February. While there is no evidence linking him to Lacy’s death, the family would like authorities to turn over any leaf that may lead to justice for their son.
The Racially Charged Town:
Here’s the truth — the statistic listed above marking the number of black bodies strung from trees in Bladenboro is an image that is hard to let go.
And so is the racially charged climate of the rural town. In fact, Lacy’s neighbors, a white couple living in a trailer home right behind the Lacy family home, were instructed by police to remove a Confederate flag and a sign that read “Niggers keep out” from their front yard.
The Guardian asked the couple why they had put up the signs. Sykes said that it was his idea. “There were some kids who ganged up on our kid and I put some signs up.” Asked whether he now regretted doing so, he replied: “Yeah, I regret it now.”
Carla Hudson said she had begged her husband to take the signs down. “I told him he had to stop that. It wasn’t how I saw things – there’s not a racist bone in my body.”
In recent years, that tension hasn’t always been visible. According to The Guardian, Lacy “joined a multiracial youth group across town at the Galeed Baptist church where he went for weekly services and basketball ministry, and his friends were black and white, in almost equal measure.”
Though invisible in some facets of Lacy’s life, that tension is hard to ignore, especially considering how the teenager died.
The Teenager Had No History Of Mental Illness:
Just a day before Lacy’s death, a funeral service was held for his great-uncle Johnny. The event no doubt upset the teenager, but family and friends describe the teen as “a meticulous, friendly kid who made a point of always greeting people and asking them how they were doing.” According to Rogers and Lacy’s parents, the teenager didn’t have a history of mental illness or depression.
Lacy had been close to his uncle, and was visibly upset, but not to an extreme degree, his family said. He grieved “as a normal person would,” Claudia said.
His dedication to school, football, and his bright future have also led his family to believe the teenager didn’t cut his own life short. As did the location of his death.
The swing set from which he was hanging is one of eight such sets standing in a line in the middle of a rectangle of 13 mobile homes. The spot is desolate and vulnerable, overlooked as it is by so many trailer homes, like a sports field surrounded by grandstands.
“If my brother wanted to take his own life, I can’t understand why he would do it in such an exposed place. This feels more like he was put here as a public display – a taunting almost,” Pierre Lacy said.
Authorities have not explicitly confirmed suicide as the cause of death, although it was suggested.
Just a few days after Lacy was buried, his family found that someone desecrated his burial site, dumping the flowers 40 feet away beside the road and carving a hole into the plot.
Family members have not yet found the perpetrator.
District Attorney Jon David has yet to comment on the continuing investigation, but Lacy’s family has come forward with a list of questions surrounding the investigation into their son’s death, including why police haven’t interviewed Lacy’s wider group of friends. Lacy’s father was the last to see the teenager when he came out of his bedroom around midnight to get a glass of water.
“I told him he needed to get to bed, the game was next day, and he said ‘OK, Daddy,'” Larry Walton said. A little later Walton heard the front door open and close; Walton assumed Lacy must have stepped out of the house, but thought no more of it and went to sleep.
It is unclear who Lacy went to meet, if anybody.
The family also wants to know why forensic investigators did not take swabs from under Lacy’s fingernails and DNA test them to see if he had been in physical contact with anybody else before he died.
These questions, and others, have yet to be answered. An investigation continues. We’ll keep you updated with the latest in this bizarre case.