The Orlando Police Department has released records corroborating investigators’ findings that Nevan Baker Jr., a 22-year-old man found hanging from a tree in an Orlando park, took his own life.
Loved ones this weekend mourned Baker, who was laid to rest Saturday, Oct. 17, amid growing outrage surrounding his death.
Baker died Oct. 5 in what authorities quickly determined was a suicide, finding no evidence of foul play nor any probable cause to warrant a criminal investigation, according to police records. But family members mounted a public campaign for a more thorough investigation based on claims that Baker was found bruised and beaten with his hands tied behind his back.
That sparked online fervor and protests in the streets of Orlando as Baker became at least the seventh Black person in the U.S. this year to suffer a controversial hanging death that authorities declared a suicide. The hashtag #JusticeForNevan trended nationally, prompting scrutiny from some who alleged it was a modern-day lynching.
Felisha Early, a woman who identified herself as Baker’s cousin, claimed that he was “beaten beyond recognition” in an Oct. 8 Twitter post that has been shared by more than 10,000 people.
“So l’m guessing when our ancestors were hung by a tree way back then by the KKK…they all committed ‘suicide’ as well,” she wrote in a tweet Oct. 12. “According to the police, aka the Proud Boys, black people are ‘suicidal’ and will hang them self by a tree.”
A GoFundMe page created by Jamia Douglas, Baker’s sister, had raised $12,600 by Sunday, Oct. 18. Douglas said her brother was murdered.
Records released to Atlanta Black Star by Orlando police seemed to dispel many of those suspicions. We reviewed the crime scene photos and bodycam footage from responding officers, they showed Baker’s hands were at his sides and he had no visible signs of trauma when police found him.
But a local activist with ties to Baker’s family said unanswered questions still loom. Lawanna Gelzer, a longtime Orlando community advocate, met with Baker’s mother Oct. 14. Gelzer called it a “botched investigation” and said police still haven’t proved how Baker managed to hang himself alone. She described the suicide ruling as a “rush to judgment” during an Oct. 16 interview with Atlanta Black Star.
“It’s still not sitting right with the community,” Gelzer said. “We’re not feeling that there was no foul play involved. If it is [suicide], it hasn’t been proven to the community.
“It doesn’t add up that he could have done this by himself,” she added.
Hanging in a public park
Baker was found hanging shirtless from a tree limb near the front entrance of George Baker Park near Orlando’s west side before dawn Oct. 5, according to police reports. He was wearing gray basketball shorts, white tennis shoes and black socks. The noose knotted around his neck appeared to be a nylon braided rope commonly used for towing boats.
A 43-year-old man was led to the fateful discovery while walking his dog, which took off running into the park and began barking at Baker’s lifeless body suspended from the tree. The man told investigators he initially thought it was “an awful Halloween prank,” a report indicated. But he soon realized it was a frightful reality.
“I see and I panicked,” the man said in a videotaped statement. “I see a guy hanging from a tree. I ain’t never seen no s–t like that in real life. I took off running.”
Orlando’s Chief of Police Orlando Rolon vowed to expedite media requests for public records in Baker’s death investigation. His agency on Tuesday, Oct. 13, released nearly 100 case-related records, which were obtained by the Atlanta Black Star, including graphic video and photo evidence Atlanta Black Star has seen but chosen not to publish.
“The Orlando Police Department is committed to transparency and strengthening trust with everyone in our community,” Rolon said in an Oct. 13 statement. “This information is of a highly sensitive nature, as it deals with a young man’s tragic death and a family who continues to grieve.”
Among the records released by the Orlando Police Department were a 911 call, witness statements, five different police reports, as well as a case report from Florida’s District 9 Medical Examiner’s Office. Forensic pathologist Marie Hansen performed the autopsy on Baker and ruled his death a suicide on Oct. 6.
Seven different bodycam videos showed officers’ initial encounter with Baker. Two officers lifted his 200-pound body to release tension from the taut rope, while other officers worked to snip the rope from the tree limb. Police then laid Baker on the ground and began cutting the cord off his neck. They quickly stopped when it became clear he was already dead.
Police also released 79 different photos from the crime scene, many of which show Baker lying face up in the grass. By the time OPD officers converged on him, Baker had no pulse, he wasn’t breathing and rigor mortis had already set in, police said in the bodycam videos. Paramedics from the Orlando Fire Department arrived on scene seven minutes later and officially declared him dead, records indicate.
Family members have publicly stated there were bruises and swelling on Baker’s face, he was missing at least one tooth, his nose was swollen and his jaw was misaligned. They also claimed that someone passing through the park saw Baker’s hands tied behind his back.
Yet photos showed no bruises or blemishes on his body, while video seemed to prove that his unbound hands were at his sides when police arrived.
Despite the new revelations, those closest to Baker remained unconvinced he took his own life. Atlanta Black Star could not reach family members for comment this week. But Baker’s mother, ShaRhonda James, told to the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday, Oct. 13, that Baker had been in good spirits and was not acting strangely. She disputed claims that he tried to kill himself twice, saying he only made one suicide attempt after losing out on a job he’d been promised. James also said that marijuana was the only drug her son used.
“He was definitely acting himself,” she told the Sentinel. “They’re going to try to make him look bad, but to me, that says a lot about them.”
Police investigation points to suicide
A supplemental report written by Orlando detective Annemarie Esan indicated the lead investigator looked for battery marks on Baker’s face, head, arms and legs but she found no visible signs of trauma. His clothing, was intact and the ligature mark around his neck appeared to be an upward motion. The medical examiner agreed that was a sign of suicide.
“I found nothing of significance that would lead one to believe there was a struggle prior to the male hanging himself from the tree,” Esan wrote in her report.
Hansen also ruled out foul play, finding no contusions, abrasions, cuts or swelling on Baker’s body. The doctor also noted there was no petechiae in Baker’s eyes, another indication of a physical struggle.
Officers canvassed the park and didn’t find a suicide note in any trash cans. They also found no indications that anyone accompanied Baker to the park.
When Esan went to Baker’s home to notify family about his death, his sister-in-law answered the door and asked if she was there because of Nevan, the detective’s report stated. When the detective explained how urgent it was that she speak to Baker’s mother, the sister-in-law asked if he’d died.
Francine James, Baker’s grandmother, told investigators he’d overdosed on sleeping pills and prescription medicine in 2018 and tried to overdose again in 2019, according to Esan’s report. She also told officers he was addicted to drugs and said he “has not seemed right in the last several days.”
It wasn’t clear which one of Baker’s alleged suicide attempts his mother, ShaRhonda James, disputed. But the Orlando Police Department contends he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility in May 2018 after he took a handful of pills and admitted he intended to hurt himself.
Francine James also told officers she found it odd that Baker left his favorite cup on the front porch. She walked back some of her initial claims to police during an Oct. 11 vigil held beneath the tree from which her grandson was found hanging.
“I didn’t see no mental illness,” Francine James said, speaking directly to television cameras. “He was a good kid. He was sharp in math. He could do anything to your iPhone. He was smart. … I don’t know nothing about any mental illness. I don’t know why all y’all are talking about mental illness. Nevan was a genius.”
Police met with Baker’s family and Black community leaders on Oct. 12. During the meeting, detectives laid their findings out in a PowerPoint presentation. They said it’s likely Baker climbed the tree, wrapped the rope around the limb more than 14 feet off the ground while sitting atop it, then used the rope to lower his body with it knotted around his neck.
Investigators acknowledged the possibility that Baker flung himself off a stone pillar or wrought-iron fence about 11 and 12 feet, respectively, from the tree limb. But investigators found none of his fingerprints on a park sign in front of the fence that he would’ve had to hold onto to balance himself. The pillar was not ruled out as a possibility, according to investigators’ presentation.
But family members found it hard to believe that Baker climbed the tree at all because its lowest scalable limb was more than seven feet off the ground.
A surveillance camera mounted at the park’s front entrance did not capture Baker entering the park. Police said he hanged himself just outside the camera’s scope. Investigators theorized he walked there from his grandmother’s home more than a mile away and entered through the park’s back gates.
But family members questioned why detectives never produced surveillance footage from homes and businesses along Baker’s supposed route to the park. They are now raising money to conduct their own investigation, and hope to find footage from cameras surrounding the park.
While officers regarded Baker’s unblemished body as evidence that disproved foul play, Gelzer found it suspicious that he managed to climb the tree shirtless without sustaining any scratches or bruises.
She said Baker’s death opened fresh wounds from the killings of Salaythis Melvin and Kevin Adolphe, two 22-year-old Black men gunned down by law enforcement in separate Orlando police shootings this year. Adolphe was shot dead by an Orlando police officer Feb. 18, and an Orange County sheriff’s deputy killed Melvin outside an Orlando shopping mall Aug. 7. Authorities said both men were armed.
Gelzer said Baker’s death has only exacerbated the distrust of police and deputies in Orlando’s Black community.
“There is a history of cover-ups and mistrust,” Gelzer said. “This is nothing but PR. We know Polk County’s the KKK capital for Florida. We understand that we have that in our law enforcement agencies, but we also know that we have good officers. However, it’s just too many incidents that are happening here that a lot of people are not aware of.”