Nevan Baker is the young Black man who was pronounced dead after he was found hanging from a tree in a park in Orlando, Florida. According to the obituary, Baker died on October 5. He was just 22 years old.
The Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Baker’s death a suicide. But Baker’s family has argued that certain details do not add up and they are calling for a deeper investigation.
One of the details that was discussed on social media is whether Baker’s hands had been tied behind his back. The Orlando PD says that bodycam footage proves Baker’s hands were not restrained when officers found him. The department addressed this in an updated statement on October 12:
Today, Chief Orlando Rolón met with Nevan Baker’s mother, other family members, and their lawyer to provide additional details on the investigation conducted by our detectives. Some of the investigative details provided to family members include body worn camera video that showed Nevan’s hands were not tied behind his back, and crime scene photos that illustrated Nevan had no bruising on his body.
While we are awaiting the final report from the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office, an agency independent of the Orlando Police Department, their initial findings ruled the death a suicide.
The case remains open, and if any members of the public have any additional information about this case, we encourage them to contact the Orlando Police Department at 321-235-5300.
Heavy has submitted a formal request for the full autopsy report from the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office. Final autopsy and toxicology reports can take weeks to complete.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. A Witness Told the Police His Dog Alerted Him to Baker’s Body
Nevan Baker’s body was first spotted around 3:30 a.m. on October 5 at Orlando’s Barker Park, according to the case report obtained by Heavy. A witness told police he was out walking his dog when the animal broke loose. As he chased the dog, he realized the animal was barking at something within the park.
The witness caught up to his pet and realized the dog had been barking at a body that was hanging from a rope. According to the report, the witness initially thought the body was some sort of prop; he didn’t think it was real. The body was hanging “just outside of the parking lot” in the southwest corner of the park.
The witness returned with the dog to a nearby home, where his ex-girlfriend was staying. He told her to grab a flashlight and a phone. She returned to the scene with him and “observed the body hanging.” The two witnesses alerted the police and waited for officers to arrive in order to direct them to the body.
According to the case report, the responding officers quickly removed Baker from the tree and placed him “on the ground to render aid.” The officers reported that they did not feel a pulse. Baker was wearing shorts and shoes but did not have a shirt on.
Baker was pronounced dead by first responders from the Orlando Fire Department at 3:56 a.m., the case report states.
The case report also states that the responding officers interviewed another potential witness who had been sleeping in the park’s picnic area. The man told officers he had been sleeping for about two hours and had not seen or heard anyone else in the park and was “unsure why police were in the area.” You can see the case report here. Heavy has blocked out the witness names.
2. The Orlando PD Says There Was ‘No Evidence of Foul Play or Any Kind of Physical Struggle’
The Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Baker’s death as suicide by hanging. Dr. Marie Hansen performed the autopsy, which has not yet been released to the public. The medical examiner’s case synopsis, supplied to Heavy by the Orlando PD, did not include specifics as to how the medical examiner reached that conclusion.
On October 9, the Orlando PD issued a statement about Baker’s death without identifying him by name:
We have seen social media posts regarding a man who was found deceased in Barker Park. This is a tragic case of suicide, and it is difficult for investigators to discuss details publicly, out of respect to the victim’s privacy, and that of his family.
Officers have exhausted all leads and, at this time, there is no evidence of foul play or any kind of physical struggle. The medical examiner also investigated and ruled the cause of death as suicide. Our detectives continue to support the victim’s family where they can. We are keeping the victim, his family, and friends in our thoughts during this difficult time.
3. Baker’s Mother Says His Face Had Noticeable Injuries But Police Say Crime Scene Photos Prove Baker ‘Had No Bruising on His Body’
On October 5th my Cousin Nevan Baker was found beating beyond recognition and hung to death at George Barker Park in Orlando the Police Department ruled as a suicide without doing any investigation. No News Team covered it. #justiceforNevanBaker part 1 pic.twitter.com/WzmjlSdQSi
— Ladiilibra (@EarlyFelisha) October 8, 2020
Baker’s mother, Sharhonda James, told the Orlando Sentinel that she noticed injuries on her son’s face when she viewed his body at the morgue. James explained to reporter Grace Toohey that Baker’s jaw was out of place, his nose was swollen and there were “bumps on his forehead.” Neither the case report nor the medical examiner’s case synopsis mentioned noticeable injuries to Baker’s face.
James told the newspaper she does not believe her son would have committed suicide. “I’m not done with this situation; it’s just beginning,” James said. “My son didn’t hang himself. I know my child.”
A woman who identified herself as Baker’s cousin also discussed Baker’s alleged injuries on social media. She wrote on Twitter that Baker had been beaten “beyond recognition.” She also accused the police department of closing the case “without doing any investigation.” She described Baker in a follow-up tweet on October 11: “My 22 yr old Cousin Nevan Baker with his life ahead of him was planning on going to the military who changed his life around was into God who had a good heart was found beaten and hung from a tree. OPD ruled it as a suicide.”
The hashtag “Justice for Nevan” has been a gathering place for people to discuss the case on Twitter. The idea that Baker may have had his hands restrained behind his back picked up steam on the thread. Twitter user @MandaMillions wrote on October 8: “22yo Nevan Baker was found hanging from a tree Tuesday night in Barkers Park in ORLANDO. @OrlandoPolice immediately ruled it as suicide despite his hands being tied behind his back, bruises on his face & missing teeth. We need f****** answers.”
22yo Nevan Baker was found hanging from a tree Tuesday night in Barkers Park in ORLANDO. @OrlandoPolice immediately ruled it as suicide despite his hands being tied behind his back, bruises on his face & missing teeth.
We need fucking answers. pic.twitter.com/nqPMoqfhgk
— no pronouns, don't refer to me🇯🇲 (@MandaMillions) October 9, 2020
Ben Crump, the attorney who represented the family of Breonna Taylor, has also weighed in on social media about the case. He wrote on Twitter on October 11, “Nevan Baker was found HANGING from a tree in Orlando. @OrlandoPolice quickly ruled his death a suicide but now we learn his hands were tied, teeth missing and face bruised. We demand transparency and a comprehensive investigation so we know exactly what happened!”
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UPDATE: Please see the statement below: "Today, Chief Orlando Rolón met with Nevan Baker's mother, other family members, and their lawyer to provide additional details on the investigation conducted by our detectives. Some of the investigative details provided to family members include body worn camera video that showed Nevan’s hands were not tied behind his back, and crime scene photos that illustrated Nevan had no bruising on his body. While we are awaiting the final report from the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office, an agency independent of the Orlando Police Department, their initial findings ruled the death a suicide. The case remains open, and if any members of the public have any additional information about this case, we encourage them to contact the Orlando Police Department at 321-235-5300. "
The Orlando PD has since addressed the speculation. On October 12, the Orlando PD explained that Chief Orlando Rolón met with Baker’s mother and other family members. In a statement, the department said the family was provided with “body worn camera video that showed Nevan’s hands were not tied behind his back, and crime scene photos that illustrated Nevan had no bruising on his body.”
4. Baker’s Sister Has Called His Death a Murder
Baker’s sister, Jamia Douglas, launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the family cover funeral costs. As of this writing, the page had raised more than $10,000. Douglas described her brother as a “good kid” who had given “his life to Christ.” She said he had planned to become an electrician. She added that Baker’s unexpected death had “left my family with many unanswered questions behind his murder.”
Douglas explained in an October 10 update that the family planned to use any extra funds to push for another investigation into Baker’s death: “We are now accepting more money to pay for a further investigation for Nevan Baker’s murder. We will also organize a peaceful protest next week to get Orlando Police Department to reveal the evidence leading to this case. We need Answers. NOW!”
— Luis Ortiz (@ActivistLue) October 11, 2020
Supporters have taken to social media to encourage community members to call the Orlando Police Department about Baker’s death. On the #JusticeForNevan Twitter thread, commenters are sharing the department’s phone number and asking supporters to demand additional investigating and that officials release photos from the scene.
5. Separate Hangings Over the Summer Prompted Alarm
Baker’s death is one of several recent cases that have sparked alarm. There have been multiple cases, that were officially ruled suicides, of Black men found hanging from trees. In California, Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch died 10 days apart back in June. Both cases were ruled as suicides but both families demanded officials further investigate the deaths. The Associated Press reported that federal officials, including agents from the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, were also reviewing the investigations. Fuller’s death was ultimately confirmed as suicide and the family’s attorney did not dispute that result. As the AP reported, investigators found Fuller had a “history of mental illness and suicidal thoughts.”
Also in June, Bronx native Dominique Alexander’s death was ruled a suicide after he was found hanging from a tree in Fort Tyron Park in Manhattan, Revolt TV reported. In Spring, Texas, a Black teenager was found hanging in an elementary school parking lot in mid-June. Officials said there was no sign of foul play, Newsweek reported.
The hangings created concern about whether the deaths could have been the result of targeted lynchings rather than suicides. Howard University history professor Thomas Foster told the Washington Post, “The numerous accounts of a deceased black man found hanging in a tree are a horrific reminder of our country’s history. We are in a moment with parallels to the era of lynching that should cause us great suspicion of any rush to label the cases as suicide.”