The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police are investigating the death of a Ferguson protester’s son as a suicide. His mother insists he was lynched.

Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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In the four years since thousands of people crowded the streets of Ferguson, Mo., to protest police brutality, two prominent figures in the movement have turned up dead. So when Danye Jones, the son of activist Melissa McKinnies, was found dead in the backyard of his mother’s St. Louis County home last month, the tragic discovery added new fuel to the unproven theory that Ferguson protesters are being targeted because of their activism.

But contrary to viral headlines that reference an “alleged lynching,” Jones’s death is being investigated as a suicide. Police said Wednesday that there were no signs of foul play, the Riverfront Times reports.

Jones, 24, was found dead Oct. 17. His death began attracting attention on social media over the weekend, after McKinnies shared graphic photos that appear to show Jones hanging from a bedsheet.

“They lynched my baby,” McKinnies wrote in a Facebook post that has since been removed. “I’m sick and losing my mind, but I had to let the world know what they did to my baby!”

McKinnies told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that her son was upbeat, not suicidal, and she believes he was killed in retaliation for her activism. She said that he had been hung from a tree with a bedsheet that didn’t match any of the ones that the family owns, and that he didn’t know how to tie the types of knots that were used. Also, McKinnies told the paper, Jones had packed an overnight bag and left it on the patio, indicating that he had been planning on going somewhere with the person who killed him.

But St. Louis County Police Sgt. Shawn McGuire told the Post-Dispatch that Jones’s family reported a suicide when they called 911. Jones’s body was on the ground when officers arrived, he said, and there were no indications of struggle or trauma. As a result, the death is being considered a suicide, though, according to the Post-Dispatch, the cause of death won’t be determined until toxicology tests have been completed.

The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office told the Associated Press that it does not issue preliminary findings, and it could take several weeks to have an official cause of death.

Three untimely deaths in St. Louis County over the past four years have inspired speculation that Ferguson protesters are being systematically murdered, although so far there is no evidence to suggest that the parallels are anything more than coincidental.

The first took place in November 2014, when riots broke out after a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown in August of that year. The next morning, Deandre Joshua, 20, was found dead inside his car not far from the apartment complex where Brown had been shot. Joshua had been shot in the head and his body was lit on fire. Police investigated his death as a homicide, and told the Post-Dispatch that they were not discounting the possibility that the murder was linked to the rioting. According to the Riverfront Times, the case remains unsolved.

Two years later, Darren Seals, 29, was found dead inside a burning car. He, too, had been fatally shot. Seals was one of the first protesters to take to the streets after Brown’s death and had become a prominent anti-violence advocate, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery reported. His death, which was also investigated as a homicide and remains unsolved, led other activists to fear that Seals had been targeted for his advocacy.

In May 2017, Edward Crawford, 27, died of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot. Crawford was best known as the man wearing an American flag tank top and hurling a smoking tear gas canister in a 2014 photograph that came to be associated with the Ferguson riots. His father contested the police’s account, telling the Post-Dispatch that Crawford had been in good spirits two days before his death and that he believed his son had shot himself by accident.

“Every few months an activist from Ferguson losses their life or loved one,” Ohun Ashe, a St. Louis-based activist, posted in a Sunday tweet that contained a graphic photo of Jones’s body. “Oct 17, a well known activist, Melissa (Missy) Mckinnies found her son hanging from a tree in her backyard. They are trying to rule it a suicide but it’s not that. Its not.”

Brittany Packnett, who along with other Black Lives Matters activists created Campaign Zero, a policy platform that aims to end police brutality, wrote, “#DanyeJones is at least the 4th person related to the #Ferguson uprising to die in more than suspicious circumstances. This is a pattern.”