BLADENBORO — The long, 21-month wait is over.
After layers of investigation, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, in conjunction with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have determined the August 2014 death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy of Bladenboro showed no evidence of foul play and would not be seeking federal criminal civil rights charges.
The case initially included investigated by the Bladenboro Police Department, Bladen County District Attorney’s Office, the N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation before being sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Though the FBI didn’t open a formal investigation, investigators did conduct an assessment, the conclusion of which was released Thursday.
Lacy, a junior at West Bladen High School and member of the Knights’ varsity football team at the time of his death, was found hanging from a swing set in a Bladenboro neighborhood near his home in the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2014. According to reports, Lacy had left his home at about midnight to run and never returned home. His body was reportedly discovered at about 6:30 a.m.
Although local investigations pointed toward suicide by the teenager, Lacy’s family and many others weren’t convinced because numerous questions remained about whether the teenager could have physically hung himself. There were also questions surrounding the fact that Lacy, a black teen, had been dating a 31-year-old white woman — sparking debates as to whether that had triggered someone to harm the boy.
The case was soon taken up by the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP and President William Barber, along with NAACP attorneys, visited Bladenboro a number of times to hold vigils, town meetings and even a march in support of the family.
At the time, Barber repeatedly insisted the NAACP and family was only looking for the truth — and, at the same time, strongly hinted that a cover up was taking place locally.
Bladen County District Attorney Jon David, however, was confident that investigations had been done by the book and were thorough.
In December 2014, both David and Barber requested the federal government get involved with the investigation.
Justice Department investigators immediately began a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding Lacy’s death to determine whether it was a homicide within the scope of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which prohibits inflicting bodily injury because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity or disability.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the investigation included a review of the materials and evidence generated and provided by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, including law enforcement reports, statements made by Lacy’s family members and friends, witness statements, social media postings, surveillance camera footage, and forensic evidence reports. Federal officials also conducted independent interviews with persons identified by Lacy’s family members as potentially having information about or involvement in Lacy’s death.
“After a careful and thorough review by a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents, the Justice Department found no evidence to suggest that Lacy’s death was a homicide,” the press release read. “Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed.”
Officials from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and the Federal Bureau of Investigation met Thursday with Lacy’s family to inform them of the decision.
A spokesman with the N.C. Chapter of NAACP, Tyler Swanson, told the media on Thursday that the Lacy family and the NAACP would not have a comment about the case being closed until after they had reviewed the information provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
David’s office released its own press release Friday afternoon.
“Some have suggested that the quality of the initial law enforcement investigation was lackluster,” David wrote. “In my analysis, this is simply untrue. The FBI assessment has confirmed my initial opinion that the investigation conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Bladenboro Police Department was complete, thorough, and professional.
“I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the hard work and dedication of SBI Special Agent Paul Songalewski who went above and beyond the call of duty to see that justice was done in this matter,” he added.
David said he met with local community leaders on Friday to discuss the case, and also said it was time to let the family grieve.
“Having determined the cause of death does not lessen the pain of the Lacy family,” David said. “My thoughts and prayers are with the Lacy family during this difficult time and I encourage the community to support them in their time of need.”
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.