A Maryland teen is poisoned

Keith Warren

Keith Warren

A Maryland teen is poisoned, but police say he committed suicide.

On July 31, 1986, a mother’s quiet world was shattered.  Her only son, 19-year-old Keith Warren, was dead.  Keith had lived with his sister and mother since his parents’ divorce when he was 10.  By all accounts, Keith seemed destined for a promising future.  Instead, his life had come to an untimely end.

Paramedics found Keith in a wooded area behind his family’s townhouse.  He was hanging by the neck from a small tree that was bent double with his weight.  The elaborate arrangement of the hanging rope would later be the source of bitter debate. The cord was anchored around the base of a large tree.  It extended some 25 feet to a small sapling.  It encircled the sapling’s trunk and then arched up through a fork.  However, authorities saw nothing suspicious about the scene.  After a brief visual inspection, the county’s deputy medical examiner determined that Keith Warren had committed suicide.  No autopsy was ordered and the body was dispatched to a funeral home for embalming.  It was already dark when Keith’s mother, Mary Couey, was informed of her son’s death:

“I didn’t realize at the time that Keith’s body was not in a morgue.  There’d been no investigation and his body had been discovered maybe five or six hours earlier… I didn’t know at the time that the officer had chosen a funeral home.”

Initially Keith’s mother accepted the finding of suicide, but over time she found discrepancies too numerous to ignore.  Her doubts began after she heard from a friend of Keith’s named Rodney Kendell.  Rodney reported that a parade of suspicious characters had been looking for Keith shortly before his death:

“It was mainly black males that were in the car.  And Keith did not associate much with black males.  Most of his friends were white males, so I thought that was pretty strange.  After I told them I hadn’t seen Keith, they left.”

Several days later, Rodney Kendell had another odd encounter, this time with a high school acquaintance of Keith’s named Mark Finley:

“He seemed pretty urgent.  I thought it was strange because he acted like he needed to find Keith very quickly.  And I told him I didn’t know where Keith was and he left.”

Weeks after Keith’s death, Mary asked Rodney to show her the tree where her son’s body was found.  But when they arrived to the site, they noticed that only the stump remained.  Mary panicked and called the police:

“And they were very rude and told me that ‘Well, what do you want us to do?  Yeah, we cut it down.  What do you want us to do about it?’”

The police said they needed to cut down the tree for evidence, but this seemed strange since they had already closed the case.  Keith’s mother no longer trusted the police or their explanations.  She launched a letter-writing campaign, targeting state and federal officials.  But for six long years, Mary Couey hit a stone wall every way she turned.

Then came April 9, 1992, her son’s birthday.  Keith would’ve been 25.  That afternoon, Mary found a plain manila envelope at her doorstep.  The stunning contents swept her back to the day of her son’s death.  There were five pictures inside the envelope.  Each showed a different view of Keith hanging by his neck.  Mary forced herself to look, and in the process, found a glaring discrepancy:

“His clothing didn’t fit him. He was wearing somebody else’s clothing. But the real eye-catcher was that he was wearing white sneakers.”

For Mary Couey, it was a nightmarish inconsistency.  It was her son in the photographs but whose clothes was he wearing?  Whose white tennis shoes, and why was he wearing them?  The only items of clothing the police returned to the family were Keith’s jacket and brown boots.  Neither was shown in the photographs, although authorities said that they had been found near Keith’s body.   Mary now feared police were working against her and hired private investigator, Joe Alercia:

“The police department conceded that they were copies of original police photos, but they had no idea where they came from, none whatsoever.  They were questioned numerous times.”

When Joe Alercia examined the pictures, he noticed leaves on the back of Keith’s shirt.  To Alercia, this suggested Keith had been lying on the ground and was hoisted into a hanging position by someone else.  Alercia said that his theory was bolstered by the complex path of the rope found at the scene:

“The perpetrators noticed that the tree was small and wouldn’t hold the body.  Therefore they needed some security by tying it around the big tree.”

Finally Keith’s family had his body exhumed for an autopsy.  The results were shocking.  Tests on Keith’s body showed deadly levels of several powerful chemicals that are usually found in glue and solvents.  According to forensic pathologist Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, the levels found in Keith’s body were more than enough to kill him:

“These substances can get in there by inhalation, or they can actually even be taken in by mouth… I believe that Keith Warren’s death being listed as suicide is medically not supportable.”

Maryland’s chief medical examiner reviewed the report and claimed the toxic chemicals were part of the embalming process.  But Dr. Mihalakis disagreed:

“The substances found in Keith Warren’s body could not have been introduced by the embalming fluid because, the embalmer, in his report never mentioned using any of those substances…  Secondly the distribution of the key substance trichloroethane is more consistent with inhalation…  And third, two additional substances were found which are totally unrelated to any embalming solution.”

But if the chemicals were not in the embalming fluid, where did they come from?  Joe Alercia had his own theory:

“He could’ve been at a party with some drugs involved and he accidentally killed himself and they were afraid.  And then they decided to take and hang him, make it look like a suicide… Or he could’ve been attacked from the back.  And that particular chemical is so potent, that one chemist said that he was dead before he hit the ground.”

If  Keith Warren didn’t hang himself, then who did hang him?  In a final disturbing twist, the one person who might’ve answered that question also turned up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Mark Finley was one of those who came looking for Keith a few days before he died.  Six years later, when Mary received the photographs, a note attached to one said “don’t worry, Mark Finley will be next.”  Two months after Mark learned he had been singled out, he contacted Mary Couey:

“Mark called my residence, left a message on my answering machine to the effect of something that said ‘Miss Warren, this is Mark Finley.  I got your message and I will be by to see you.’  I do remember the specific words were ‘I need to unload.’”

One month later, Mark Finley was dead.  According to the police, Finley died accidentally when he struck a curb and was thrown from his bike.  But why was Mark Finley targeted in a threatening note?  Did he truly have information about Keith Warren’s death?  As with all the other nagging questions, the authorities have a standard answer—this case is closed.