Black man’s hanging in NJ park is ruled a suicide — but many not so sure
MORRIS TOWNSHIP — Investigators say that the hanging death of a 20-year-old Black man at a Morris County park was a suicide, and does not appear to be a crime. But a local Black Lives Matter activist and others aren't convinced and have suggested, without having evidence, that he may have been lynched.
The body of Amanuel "Amani" Kildea, a Washington Township resident who was known online for his work exposing alleged child-sex offenders, was found on the afternoon of June 28 by visitors at Lewis Morris Park with a cord around his neck that appeared to be tied to a tree.
On Wednesday, in response to online comments suggesting that Kildea might have been killed, Morris County Prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp issued a written statement saying that the Medical Examiner's Office had determined Kildea's death to be a suicide and that "there is no cause to believe there is any criminality involved."
“The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office ordinarily does not issue public statements on active investigations," Knapp's statement said. "However, given the fact that unsubstantiated statements have circulated on social media, there exists a need to provide more information to the public at this time."
On Friday, the prosecutor released a second statement to clarify that the investigation into the death "remains open and has not concluded."
“As of this time, no evidence of a criminal act has yet been found, however, our efforts to determine what occurred remain very active," Knapp said Friday. "We have followed and continue to follow all investigative leads and will go where the evidence takes us."
Hanging deaths of Black men
Kildea, who was born in Ethiopia, was adopted in 2005 when he was 5 by the Kildeas, a white family from Long Valley.
Kildea's family described him as "exceptionally bright," "sensitive, tender-hearted, gentle and kind."
His father, Lutheran church pastor Tom Kildea, said on Facebook (in a post that is no longer publicly available) that his son had taken his own life. Kildea's obituary also mentions that his death was a suicide.
"He felt deeply, observed closely. He was broken in ways that very few could see or would ever know," his father wrote. "Although life with Amani was often challenging at home, we loved him dearly. His departure from us and from this world is an unspeakable tragedy for us all."
But many people who either knew Kildea or recently learned about him are struggling to accept the fact that the smiling athletic man — who in February had graduated from basic training in the Army Reserves, was set to enroll at James Madison University in the fall and was planning a career with the FBI or CIA — would have taken his own life.
Kildea's death is the latest in a series of hangings of Black men across the country that were quickly deemed suicides by California investigators, conclusions that were met by incredulous relatives and activists who, in the wake of a national movement confronting the nation's struggles with racism, had trouble believing that a Black person would take their life in such a manner considering lynching's place in American history. Nearly 3,500 Black people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.
Reporting from Palmdale, California, where 24-year-old Robert Fuller had been found June 10 hanging from a tree across from City Hall, the New York Times last week quoted a real estate agent saying that “Black people don’t do that ... They don’t hang themselves from a tree in a public park.”
Fuller's family is still waiting for the results of an independent autopsy.
Malcolm Harsch, 38, was found hanging from a tree in Victorville, California, on May 31. His family last week, after watching surveillance video, concluded that Harsch had indeed taken his own life.
Authorities pressed for more information
Now Kildea's death in New Jersey has also raised questions and skepticism.
A Change.org petition, "Justice for Amani Kildea," suggests that his work with PedoGotCaught — a "To Catch a Predator"-like group of young men who would "catfish" or lure adults seeking sexual encounters with minors — could have been a factor in his death. The group's social media accounts boasts having ensnared more than 30 predators.
"This was clearly a racially charged lynching and Amani deserves better than to have his death ruled a suicide," the petition, with nearly 25,000 signatures, says. "He was an active vigilante in his community helping to bring child predators to justice ... This was not even a factor when considering his death."
Black Lives Matter Morristown on Friday also cast doubt on the prosecutor's public statement, saying that Kildea's PedoGotCaught work provided "a possible motive to kill and silence him."
"We have been forced to conclude that this investigation was insufficient given Prosecutor Knapp's failure to provide the Morris County community with the pertinent details of Amani's death," the organization's founder, T'Anna Kimbrough, said in a Facebook post.
Kimbrough tied Kildea's death to other recent hangings of Black men, saying that "Black bodies are being lynched all across the United States of America, in public places," although none of the hangings have been determined to be homicides.
"It is obvious that there is, and continues to be, a rush to judgment without thoroughly investigating all of the facts when it pertains the death of Black people," Kimbrough wrote.
The statement calls on prosecutors to conduct "a full investigation into the suspected lynching of Amani Kildea" and an independent autopsy report.
Later on Friday, the prosecutor said that the determination by the independent medical examiner "was disclosed publicly to provide as much transparency on this investigation as possible. However, we cannot disclose all investigative steps we have taken or that we will be pursuing, so as not to compromise our investigation."
"We are guided by the Medical Examiner’s findings, however, that does not mean that our investigation has concluded," Knapp added.
Investigators ask anyone with information about the case to call 973-285-6200.
Private services for Kildea will be Monday at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Succasunna. Davis & Hepplewhite Funeral Home is in charge. The family has asked that donations in lieu of flowers be made to Cross Roads Camp and Retreat Center, 29 Pleasant Grove Road, Port Murray, NJ 07865, or any suicide-prevention organization.
Need someone to talk to? New Jersey has an anonymous, confidential suicide peer-helpline staffed every day at all hours: 1-855-654-6735 and at email@example.com.
KEEP READING: George Floyd Protest in Toms River
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.