When 16-year-old Hamza Warsame plummeted 60 feet from the balcony of a Seattle apartment building on December 5, rumors and speculation about what led to the Somali teen’s death started to spread almost instantly.
“This was murder, this was not a suicide,” Warsame’s 18-year-old sister Ikram told a blog that covers the Capitol Hill neighborhood where the incident occurred. “He was content with his life, he had high hopes for the future.”
The son of Somali immigrants, Warsame had hoped to attend MIT and pursue a career in computer science. A high school student, he was enrolled in classes at Seattle Central Community College. The campus is not far from the building where he died, and he told his parents that Saturday afternoon that he was going to study at a friend’s apartment nearby.
Zamzam Fidow, another Somali student who attended college with Hamza, claimed on Facebook that his classmate was first beaten and then thrown from the rooftop deck of the residential building. “It was a hate crime,” Fidow said, “and considering the current attitude of this country towards Muslims and immigrants, I no longer feel safe in my own campus.”
“[If] the body of Hamza shows signs of him being beaten prior to his death, that clearly shows he was murdered,” another Facebook commenter added. “I would encourage the college students to go out and demand this case be investigated… then the police will be forced to reopen the case.”
But the case hadn’t been closed, and, though Fidow and Warsame’s sister along with dozens of others on social media did not provide any evidence to support their claims, the hate crime accusations got widespread play on TV and the web, causing police to announce they were extending their investigation.
“As with all death investigations, we ask the community to be patient and avoid jumping to conclusions while detectives conduct their work,” Seattle police said in a statement printed in both English and Somali. A police spokesman also noted that the department’s assistant chief was “personally supervising the matter.”
More than two weeks later, police still haven’t formally announced the results of their investigation. The county medical examiner’s office, though it has completed an autopsy, is holding back information until police complete their probe. Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb told VICE News that eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence from the balcony have provided “no indication of foul play.”
Another Seattle police official familiar with the case, who asked to remain anonymous because the investigation is still underway, said that an announcement about the probe is likely to be made early next week. And based on what he knows, he says there is still nothing to suggest that Warsame was beaten and forced off the roof.
“There was no indication of that,” the police official said. “This is based in part on the condition of the body and the information provided by the eyewitness. There were no signs whatsoever that he’d been beaten, no injuries consistent with that.”
Police are also reportedly awaiting the results of a toxicology test that should provide additional answers. The source did not want to go further into details, but indicated the investigation does not support claims of murder. “What really needs to be done, by the media perhaps, is to go back and examine this case as it unfolded and see how and what exactly gave rise to those claims,” he said.
The murder allegations went viral on Facebook and Twitter and were reported by media outlets across the US. Helping fan the flames was a tumultuous weekend of divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who proposed barring Muslims from entering the US because there may be jihadists among them.
Trump’s proposal generated a worldwide sneer, and the Donald’s name came up repeatedly in the reaction on social media to Warsame’s death, fueling the notion of a hate crime. In Facebook and Twitter posts, many of which used the hashtag #Justice4Hamza, fear of Islamophobia quickly spread. So did more rumors. A page hosted by Americans for Refugees & Immigrants even had Warsame laying out his case from the grave.
“My name is Hamza,” the post said. “I was 16 years old. What is my fault? Am I the wrong color? Do I worship the wrong God? Do I look different? Why is the world not mourning for me? Does my blood not matter?”
The post noted that the initial response by Seattle police was muted, adding, “Students and community members have expressed concern for [my] death and their own safety. We need SPD to prioritize this investigation. We need answers and justice, and we need them now.”
“You will not ignore us. You will not brush our rights under the rug. You will not use the 1st Amendment to stir hate and violence in our communities,” the post said, concluding with the claim that “every single person from FOX News to the GOP presidential candidates and their supporters are responsible” for Warsame’s death.
That’s a fairly large dragnet. And as one post fed off another, others began to say with certainty — but again without proof — that Warsame was murdered and “it looks like a cover-up.” Many cited the claims of Warsame’s sister, mostly bypassing the more guarded statements of another family member, Warsame’s cousin, Mumin Dimbil.
“I would like to ask all those who are making comments to refrain and wait until we find the truth,” Dimbil told a reporter from KIRO-TV in Seattle. “I want to know what happened to Hamza, how he died… I really want this case to be more facts rather that what someone believes.”
The online speculation did bother Warsame’s sister, although only when commenters suggested his death wasn’t murder. “I want to condemn the threads going on social media about my brother committing suicide,” she said. “I knew my brother for the past 16 years that he was alive, and no one is going to step up now and tell me he committed suicide.”
Nonetheless, her family is devastated by the teen’s death and keeping his story alive will undoubtedly help them grieve and get the thorough investigation they seek. As Warsame’s sister tweeted a few days ago, “Had a great interview earlier today with the LA times on my bro Hamza. It’s great to see that #Justice4Hamza getting national attention.”