Cause of Death: “Undetermined”
How Did a 22-Year-Old Alaskan Woman End Up Hanged with a Tae Kwon Do Belt in Her Apartment on Capitol Hill?
A 22-year-old woman is found hanging in a one-room apartment she shares with her boyfriend. The apartment is so small it doesn't have a kitchen, and it's strewn with clothes and shoes, issues of National Geographic, sticks of deodorant, brochures about subsidized cell-phone service, newsletters from international volunteer organizations, DVDs from a Seventh-day Adventist church in Canada, and many containers of almond milk. The cause of her death is "asphyxiation" and the manner is "undetermined," according to King County Medical Examiners. She might have committed suicide. She might have been murdered. She might have been killed accidentally. The medical examiners don't know. Seattle homicide detectives don't know.
Here's what we do know: Sakara Kachina Yepa Dunlap, known to her friends as Sky, grew up in Juneau, Alaska. She was a Native Alaskan, studied Native singing and dancing, and once toured in a Tlingit-language production of Macbeth. Her friend Seneca—better known in Seattle by his burlesque name, the Luminous Pariah—describes her as a very happy, playful person. "She was like a second sun," he says.
Seneca does not believe that Sky committed suicide.
He is not alone in this opinion. After Sky's death, her family and friends began insisting—to police, medical examiners, attorneys general, the governors of Washington and Alaska, the FBI, journalists, anyone who would listen—that she had been murdered.
Sky moved to Seattle in November of 2007, sold dried fruits and nuts and candy at a stand in the Pike Place Market, and had recently begun dabbling in the local burlesque scene. Based on the descriptions of people who knew her, she also had a tempestuous on-again/off-again romantic relationship with a middle-aged African American man named Abdu Salaam, whose last name The Stranger is not publishing because he has not been charged with a crime. (Due to the sensitive nature of the case, The Stranger is withholding some other last names as well. Abdu Salaam's first name is spelled in a variety of ways in official documents pertaining to the case—sometimes as one word, sometimes as "Abdul Salaam.") Sky was big—fleshy but not fat—with blue glasses, a nose ring, and a cascade of curly chestnut hair. In photos, Abdu Salaam is shorter than her, with long dreadlocks, a narrow face, and a toothy smile.
The two of them met in the summer of 2008 at a blues festival in Chicago while Sky was hitchhiking around the country. They traveled together, lived in Hawaii for a few months to work on a farm, and visited her friends and family in Alaska. Seneca remembers Abdu Salaam as a gregarious man who told exciting, sometimes improbable tales of his travels throughout the world, including a stint in Latin America, where he claimed to have camped in the jungle for long periods of time, taking water samples for ecological research projects.
Seneca went camping with Sky and Abdu Salaam on Mount Roberts near Juneau in August 2008; he says that Abdu Salaam "kept asking really basic camping questions, like how to build a fire. He had trouble pitching a tent. He didn't seem to have any knowledge of preparation for the elements." Seneca began to suspect that Abdu Salaam hadn't spent much time camping in Latin America or anywhere else.
Other people who knew and liked Sky—family, friends, some of her former neighbors—describe Abdu Salaam as manipulative and jealous. Seneca says that Abdu Salaam made Sky "stressed out" because he argued that his Muslim religion allowed him to have multiple sex partners but forbade her from sleeping with anyone else. "I could go on about the difficulties I've had dating Muslim men," Seneca said, rolling his eyes.
The multiple-partners question was an ongoing theme in Sky and Abdu Salaam's relationship, according to Sky's friends and neighbors. Seneca is so convinced that Sky was killed that he began doing detective work on his own, including recording interviews with Sky's neighbors. One of those neighbors remembers hearing "Sakara crying on a number of occasions, and usually when he [Abdu Salaam] was around." The neighbor says, "I didn't like him, to be frank. He creeped me out from day one. I was dating this lady..." he begins, and tells a long story about Abdu Salaam being "inappropriate and creepy" toward the neighbor's girlfriend. "He would look over as if I weren't even there and look at my girlfriend who was very attractive and make eyes at her... When he left, both of us were like, 'God damn, that guy's so creepy and inappropriate.'"
After that encounter, according to the neighbor, Abdu Salaam would visit the girlfriend at her waitressing job and would say things like "'Oh, you know, me and Sakara are looking to add another partner'—which I feel was more his idea than hers for sure. And, you know, [he'd say], 'I'm interested in seeing if you or any of your friends want to join in.' And she's like, 'No, thank you.' You know? She was nice and cool about it... After a couple weeks of this almost borderline stalking behavior, she's like, 'That guy's making me so uncomfortable.' And I was like, 'Yeah, me too, I would kind of like to kick his ass, to be honest.' But, you know, I'm not going to do that."
According to the neighbor's account, he eventually went to Abdu Salaam's workplace—a retail shop that sells masks, stone carvings, incense, and other African imports—and told him that he was "full of shit... you need to back off and you need to be respectful and you need to leave my girlfriend alone."
Around the same time, Seneca told Sky that Abdu Salaam was no longer welcome in Seneca's apartment in the Central District.
A friend of Sky's in Juneau named Shadow didn't like Abdu Salaam, either. Shadow says he "made my skin crawl" and describes him as "a little too nice, a little too charming." She says, "He was with her all the time. It was to the point that when she came to visit me, he'd tag along." Sky was "killed deliberately," Shadow believes. "Sky loved life." In an affidavit that was written by Shadow but has not yet been filed in any proceeding, she echoes Seneca's feeling about Abdu Salaam's tall tales, saying, "Abdu Salaam's trips to foreign countries were fabricated."
On October 6, 2009, Sky was staying for the night with Shadow in Juneau. "You know, just girls discussing girl stuff," Shadow remembers. "That evening, Sakara Kachina Yepa Dunlap told me that during sex with Abdul Salaam, he liked to restrain her physically, hold her wrists down, or tie her up, and that he would asphyxiate her around the neck with his hands," Shadow wrote in her affidavit. "I asked Sakara if this bothered or frightened her in any way. She said she didn't mind the bondage but didn't like being asphyxiated because she didn't like her airway being blocked. She said it made her feel like she wasn't in control. She told me that she allowed him to do it because it turned him on, and since he didn't take it too far it seemed okay. After that, she changed the subject."
So how did Sakara Kachina Yepa Dunlap die? Suicide, homicide, or accident? All of my attempts to get in touch with Abdu Salaam were unsuccessful. I called him, e-mailed him, and texted him several times. On September 11, he returned one of those phone calls, but didn't leave a message; that was his only attempt to reply. The Seattle Police Department's investigation remains open but doesn't seem to be making much progress. "There's no statute of limitations on murder," says SPD homicide detective Lieutenant Steve Wilske, who has been on the force for 25 years. "But there comes a time when you've talked to everybody you've talked to, and until new information comes along, you've pretty much done everything you can do."
Here is the current official understanding of what happened on the night that Sky died.
On Sunday, April 4, 2011, Sky is at home, in apartment 101 of the Summit Inn. Abdu Salaam is at a reggae night at the Baltic Room, five blocks away. The available cell phone records are confusingly spare, but Sky had a 26-minute conversation with her mother in Juneau that either began or ended at 9:49 p.m. At 10:08 p.m., Abdu Salaam calls, but Sky doesn't pick up. Then she either sends or receives two text messages, and then she checks her voice mail, and then there are seven more text messages sent or received.
At 2:12 a.m., on his way home from the Baltic Room, Abdu Salaam is rung up at J's Quick Stop, a convenience store that's a three-minute walk from his and Sky's apartment, buying a snack. (He later demonstrates this to homicide detectives by producing a receipt.) Three minutes later, he's calling 911, sounding upset. Not hysterical, just upset. What follows isn't an exact transcript—there are a lot of muffled words and noises throughout—but this is most of the decipherable material. Abdu Salaam tells the operator that he has found his girlfriend hanging in their apartment: "Please help," he says. "Should I cut her down? Please."
"Is she breathing at all?" the operator asks.
"It's been five hours," Abdu Salaam says. "Five hours, I think. I don't know." This will become a point of fixation for Sky's family and friends. The family and friends who believe that Sky never would have killed herself, that she must have been accidentally killed or intentionally murdered, theorize that Abdu Salaam said "five hours" to begin building his alibi. Sky's father, Michael Kahdushan, sent the recording to a friend of his who'd had taken a class in "forensic statement analysis," but who admits, "I could not even begin to qualify as an expert to testify in court." Nevertheless, this friend wrote in an e-mail, "Right after saying she hung herself, he starts talking about 'five hours,' even though no one has asked anything remotely relating to how long it had been, etc. He's perhaps answering a question he knows he'll have to answer at some point and is focused on his being somewhere else when she died."
Back to the phone call: The operator asks Abdu Salaam for the address of "the problem" and then another operator, an ambulance dispatcher, gets on the line. Abdu Salaam asks the ambulance dispatcher if he should cut her down.
Ambulance dispatcher: "Is there an apartment number?"
Abdu Salaam: "I need to know—"
Ambulance dispatcher: "What's going on?"
Abdu Salaam: "She might have hung herself—I need to know if I should cut her down, right away."
Ambulance dispatcher: "Yes! Get her down!"
911 operator: "Well, he says she's been there for five hours—correct?"
Abdu Salaam: "I think so! Yes. Please! Tell me right away!"
Ambulance dispatcher: "Okay, she's been hanging there for five hours?"
Abdu Salaam: "I don't know! I just—I was walking—I have not seen her since five hours."
Ambulance dispatcher: "Is she cold?"
There is a pause.
Abdu Salaam: "Is she cold? No, she's a little warm, she's a little warm."
Ambulance dispatcher: "Okay, yes, get her down."
Abdu Salaam: "Let me check if she has a pulse or not."
There are several seconds of background noise.
Ambulance dispatcher: "How old is she?"
Abdu Salaam: "I'm putting you on speakerphone. I'm cutting her down. I'm going to cut her down."
Ambulance dispatcher: "How old is she?"
Abdu Salaam: "She's, uh, 22."
Then there's a thump and Abdu Salaam's voice smears into a scream. "Oh my god!" he howls. "Oh my god! She just fell! She just fell! Please get here right away!"
Ambulance dispatcher: "What?"
Abdu Salaam: "She fell, come get here right away please."
Ambulance dispatcher: "Hey listen, we're already on our way."
After more back and forth, Abdu Salaam apparently leaves the apartment and goes into the hallway, knocking on his neighbors' doors and calling their names. "She hung herself, she hung herself, please! Does anybody care?"
Ambulance dispatcher: "Listen to me, do you know how to do CPR?" He adds, "Hello? Listen to me, do you know how to do CPR?"
Abdu Salaam says he knows CPR and that he will do it but begins wailing: "Oh my god! Sakara! Sakara! Oh my god! Please wake up!"
The dispatcher asks Abdu Salaam to put someone else on the phone and start doing CPR. "Are you going to do it?" the dispatcher says. "HELLOOO?" He tells Abdu Salaam how to proceed: Put his hands in the center of her chest, push down one or two inches, once a second. "Keep doing it till we get there," the dispatcher says sternly.
Abdu Salaam claims he's performing CPR but keeps shouting out to his neighbors.
"You need to do the CPR," the dispatcher says. "Nobody else can help you. You gotta do it by yourself."
"Can you let the fire people in downstairs?" Abdu Salaam calls out. There are some beeps, the ambulance dispatcher says he's going to hang up so Abdu Salaam can open his door, Abdu Salaam tells him not to hang up, and then Abdu Salaam is heard saying: "She hung herself, man, please. It seems like Sakara hung herself, please." Then, "Oh god. Don't hang up, don't hang up, please, please. She hung herself. She hung herself. I had to cut her down. Please. Anything you can do to get her alive, please. Oh my gosh, please, please! Oh my God! Oh my God," he says, his voice breaking.
"Just relax," someone says, "Let the fire department do their job." Abdu Salaam wails and says once again, "She hung herself." And finally a male voice tells Abdu Salaam to calm down. The phone goes dead.
Seven days later, Sergeant Mark Worstman files his report on Sky's death with the Seattle Police Department. He'd visited the scene with medical examiner Joe Frisino on April 7 and interviewed Abdu Salaam on April 8. Worstman retrieved texts and photos from Sky's cell phone. In his report, under the "type of incident" heading, Worstman types "death—suicide."
Two months later, Dr. Timothy Williams of the county medical examiner's office signs her autopsy report. The report reads like a mechanic's assessment of a damaged machine: "The body shows injuries associated with hanging and blunt force injuries, described below..." The injuries are mostly on her head and lower legs. They're small bruises and a few scattered cuts that could have happened any number of ways—practicing a dance routine, riding a bike, her fall when Abdu Salaam cut her down, the vagaries of life.
The medical examiners had gone to work on Sky's body with their blades and speculums and test tubes. They found no overt signs of a struggle—no scratches or bruises that would indicate a fight, none of Abdu Salaam's DNA under her fingernails.
So the medical examiners went deeper—they scalped her, sawed open her skull, and weighed her brain (2.99 pounds, totally normal). They exhumed and weighed her heart (0.805 pounds, also normal). In the autopsy photos, her heart is an iridescent red-meat color, tinged with blue. Three deep-blue veins running from its top to its bottom look like rivers on a map, like an Egypt with three Niles.
The medical examiners pried open and photographed her vagina. It looks pink and young and healthy, with some streaks of blood on her inner thighs. She was wearing a menstrual pad. They cut her open at the throat and pried it up with metal instruments. The close-up of her flayed throat looks like a spray of peacock feathers—a weird palette of pinkish muscle, bright yellow fat, blue blotches, and red rivulets of blood.
The photographs of the dissected Sky—turned literally inside out, parts of her anatomy so intimate that not even she knew what they looked like, pried and poked and photographed by strangers—are disturbing. But the most horrifying photos aren't of Sky's inverted corpse. They are of her face, mouth, and throat just after she died, when she still vaguely resembles the happy young woman in the photos forwarded to me by her family and friends—photos of Sky holding an elaborate-looking flower in Hawaii, Sky sitting on the couch with friends, Sky on the beach with her arms around Abdu Salaam.
In the autopsy photos of her face, her lips are purple, ragged, and swollen. They resemble slugs. Below her lips, two trails of crusted saliva frame her chin like slug trails. In the close-up photos of her mouth, her tongue is swollen and twisted, poking through her teeth. The injuries to her throat where she'd been hanging (by a yellow martial-arts belt—she'd been taking tae kwon do) are livid, intertwining streaks of purples and yellows, all bruised and scabby-looking. In some places, you can see the threads of the cloth belt as if it had been made of hot metal and seared her skin.
The autopsy report calls everything else about Sky's body "unremarkable." Her deep cerebral nuclei and extrahepatic biliary system are unremarkable. Her proximal spinal cord is unremarkable. Her heart valves, atria, and aorta are unremarkable. Her spleen, bladder, intestines, pancreas, thyroid, lung, liver, kidneys, ribs, abdominal fat, clavicles, and sternum are unremarkable. Her toxicology report—totally clean, no drugs or booze—is unremarkable. Her oral, anal, and vaginal swabs are unremarkable.
Nothing about Sky's autopsy report is remarkable. Except the first paragraph:
This 22 year old woman, per report, was found in her apartment hanging by a ligature about the neck. Autopsy revealed findings consistent with hanging, and no other fatal injuries. The cause of death is certified as asphyxia due to hanging. Due to uncertainty pertaining to the circumstances in which the death occurred, the manner of death is certified as undetermined.
In an autopsy, "undetermined" is a remarkable word.
Each year, a handful of people in the United States die in ways that cannot be explained. In 2009 (the most recent year that figures are available), King County medical examiners classified 59 causes of the year's 12,967 deaths, just 0.46 percent, as "undetermined." Four of those 59 people died of gunshot wounds. Three died by falling. Three had "no anatomic or toxicological cause of death." And so on.
According to SPD homicide detective Wilske, most "undetermined" deaths are a question of accident versus suicide—drug overdose, drowning, fatal fall, that kind of thing. Sky's friends and family may be convinced that she was murdered, but it's "pretty rare," Wilske says, for the medical examiners to classify a possible murder as "undetermined." He repeats the phrase, saying, "It's pretty rare that they would say, 'We're not sure which it is, but it could be a homicide.'"
The verb "to determine" comes from the Latin determinare, which means "to enclose, bound, set limits to." Determinare is related to terminus, which means a "limit" or an "end." Death is terminal, by definition. But an "undetermined death" is an undetermined terminus, an endless end—it is a void, a black hole that sucks things in and never lets them go. The death of Sakara Kachina Yepa Dunlap is a void.
Undetermined deaths have been rare throughout the history of forensic medicine, and they provoke both curiosity and anxiety. The majority of Hamlet, Western literature's first great murder mystery, follows the main character as he plunges into an ocean of existential dread, trying to figure out whether his father was murdered or bitten by a snake. Hamlet's obsession with his dead father poisons all of his relationships with living people: with his mother, his stepfather, his childhood friends, his lover, her father, her brother, and random people who happen to live in the castle. By the end, all the major characters have died violently. And Hamlet's father is no more dead or alive than he was before.
I have received hundreds of e-mails about Sky's death in the past month or so, at least 125 of them from Sky's parents. Several of their e-mails contain variations on the question "Who did this to my little girl?" They claim that Abdu Salaam is manipulative and promiscuous, and all sorts of other things—for example, that the SPD hasn't thoroughly investigated Sky's death because she was involved in protests against the SPD about the murder of local Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
Sky's father, Michael Kahdushan, put his friend Jim Spiri on the case. Kahdushan met Spiri while they were working for military contractors in Iraq—Spiri, in his own words, has done "a lot," including war photography, lobbying to get a military health-care bill passed in Congress when his son (a marine with a fatal brain tumor) died, and private detective work on a kidnapping case in Belize. Spiri agrees with Kahdushan that Sky's death is suspicious. "Things don't sit right with me with this story," he says, mentioning "clothing found on the scene related to that asphyxiation stuff. There are a lot of red flags." (Maybe so, but bondage paraphernalia doesn't equal murder.) Spiri also admits that the psychology of grief might contribute to the family's monomaniacal insistence that Sky was murdered.
"I never let go after my son died, until I got the bill passed in Congress," Spiri said. "And Michael doesn't want to face the loss of his daughter, and he's staying on this case until he gets some resolution."
Resolution is a key part of the grieving process, according to youth-suicide expert Sue Eastgard. "There's always the notion that a family is going to accept a murder or an accident before a suicide," she says. Could it be that Sky's family and friends are insisting that she was murdered because they're being driven by their own refusal to admit that she was so unhappy that she'd kill herself? "Well, I've seen that before," Eastgard says. "The medical examiner makes a finding of suicide, but the family says I don't believe that, she would never do that sort of thing. What's confusing me here is that the medical examiner is doubting it. And it is easier in our society to accept an accident or a murder than a suicide, even though they end the same way—in death."
Eastgard asks me the kinds of questions that some investigators pose to conduct what she called a "psychological autopsy." (According to Lieutenant Wilske, the SPD does not conduct psychological autopsies.) Many youth suicides, Eastgard says, are impulsive acts, "the act of an unformed brain," with a trigger event, like a fight with one's parents or sudden bad news. Had she just lost her job? (No.) Was there a breakup? (Not that we know of.) Had she recently discovered that she was pregnant? (No, she was menstruating.) Was she an addict of some kind? (Not that we know of, and her toxicology tests came up clean.) Had she shown signs of depression? (No, everybody describes her as happy and outgoing and forward-looking.)
Then it's a puzzle, Eastgard says. "Unless she was an incredibly gifted actress and it was all inner torture, I would be less inclined to look at suicide than something else—accident or murder."
That leaves us where we started—guessing. We have forensic material, but the forensic material doesn't explain what happened. In the absence of an explanation, there are at least four possible scenarios—four fictions—that can be strung together based on the facts.
Fiction number one: Abdu Salaam murdered Sky. Sky's friends and family would tell you to consider his call to 911 and how he started building his alibi immediately—"five hours"—even though nobody had asked. Consider everyone's description of her as a happy person and the photos that depict her that way. Consider her friends' stories about what a lying, jealous, manipulative, "boundary-crossing" jerk Abdu Salaam was. Consider that Sky had no history of diagnosed depression and hadn't said anything about being depressed to anyone—she was studying tae kwon do, doing burlesque with her friends, talking about studying French. Maybe she'd taken on another lover, or maybe Abdu Salaam just thought she had. Maybe, hypothetically, for reasons we will never know, he lost his cool and strangled her, then tied a yellow tae kwon do belt in a loop around the top rail of their raised bed, hoisted her head through it, and left to let the ligature do its work, then went to a club, made a late-night stop at a convenience store to substantiate his alibi, and walked home to call 911 and tell the lie that would save his life.
Fiction number two: Maybe Sky died accidentally while she and Abdu Salaam were having sex—technically that wouldn't be murder. She'd admitted to a friend that she liked to be tied down and that he liked to put his hands around her throat. Maybe on the evening of April 4, 2011, he went too far and then, after realizing what he'd done, faked her suicide.
Fiction number three: Sky was killed by a mystery person, either herself (accidentally) or someone else—someone who broke into her room for reasons we don't understand. Or she was experimenting with autoerotic asphyxiation. Or something. Wild card.
Fiction number four: Sky committed suicide for reasons nobody will ever understand. If the stories Sky's friends tell are true, Abdu Salaam may be a jerk, but being a jerk is not the same thing as being a murderer. Sky didn't demonstrate any overt suicide tip-offs, but so what? Everyone is different and every suicide is its own cipher. In The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides—in which five sisters living in suburban 1970s America kill themselves on the same night—there is a scene in which a middle-aged American doctor is in a hospital, talking to young Cecilia, who slit her wrists for reasons nobody besides her can understand. (Her suicide attempt is the prologue to the sisters' impending suicide spree.) The doctor is trying to understand why Cecilia tried to kill herself. "What are you doing here?" he asks, baffled. "You aren't even old enough to know how bad life can get."
She answers, "Obviously, doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl."
Which is another way of saying: You may be an expert, but you are not me. You do not live inside my head. You have no idea how unpleasant my life can be.
Since nobody has forensic evidence that points definitively to homicide, suicide, or accident, we're left with an undetermined death. A mystery.
"Death by suicide is more complicated than any other kind of death," Eastgard says. "This situation is even more complicated. When my dad got colon cancer, I knew he was going to get smaller and smaller in the bed and then die. It didn't make me jaded, but at least I could make sense out of it. With a car accident or murder, at least people can say, 'There's the causality'... This group of family and friends has a tremendous amount of struggle ahead of them to come to peace with her death. When they lie in bed and think about her hanging—which I'm sure they are—they don't know how to come to peace with that. Blame is a huge part of grief. A HUGE part!"
She adds, "They don't have anything to hold on to and get mad at. Change, loss, and grief are all a process of understanding, in our little pea brains, what happened and why."
Some say that death is the great equalizer, but not all deaths are equal. Some voids are deeper than others.
"The only thing we are certain of after all these years is the insufficiency of explanation," the narrator of The Virgin Suicides says. "It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us... calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together."
Only one person in this story knows for sure how Sakara "Sky" Kachina Yepa Dunlap died, but she's dead. It's possible that another person knows more, but he won't talk to me.