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Israel Keyes slit wrists, strangled himself in Alaska jail

  • The Anchorage Daily News
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, at 6:11 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, at 6:12 a.m.

— Confessed serial killer Israel Keyes committed suicide late Saturday or early Sunday by slitting one of his wrists with a blade from a disposable razor and tying a sheet tight around his neck, Alaska State Troopers revealed Wednesday.

It's still unclear which action, alone or in combination, led to his death, troopers said.

Keyes, 34, confessed months earlier to abducting, raping and strangling Samantha Koenig, 18, in Anchorage before cutting up her body and hiding it under ice on frozen Matanuska Lake, law enforcement authorities said Tuesday. In interviews with police and federal agents while he was held in jail awaiting a March trial date, Keyes also admitted to killing Vermont couple Bill and Lorraine Currier and at least five other people over a span of about 11 years, authorities said.

Keyes knew the names of his other victims, but he never divulged their identities to investigators, said Jeff Bell, an Anchorage police officer who interviewed Keyes. The weekend suicide is frustrating, because Keyes gave few clues to help locate his other victims' remains or their families, Bell said. And while Keyes admitted to killing eight people, including Koenig and the Curriers, he indicated there are "a lot more" yet to be discovered, Bell said.

"We don't have a number, we just believe it's more than the eight," Bell said. "What we were trying to get is, you know, closure for these families, and he didn't feel that same moral obligation, and he told us that in so many words."

Early results from a trooper investigation into the suicide and a state medical examiner's autopsy indicate Keyes was as methodical in killing himself as authorities say he was with his known victims.

Keyes also showed signs at one point that he might hurt himself, spending weeks on suicide watch, but he apparently convinced jail psychiatric staff that he was no longer suicidal prior to killing himself, corrections officials said.

Because of a May escape attempt during a hearing in federal court, Keyes was placed in the Anchorage Correctional Complex' segregation unit, meaning he was the lone occupant of his cell, said Bryan Brandenburg, superintendent of facilities with the state Department of Corrections. Brandenburg would not say whether Keyes was on suicide watch before or after the escape attempt, nor would he say specifically what Keyes said or did to indicate he was suicidal. Brandenburg was not sure when Keyes was taken off the watch but said he thought it was in August.

"He had intended to hurt himself. We discovered that and put him on suicide precautions," Brandenburg said. "At some point, it was determined he was no longer suicidal. ... Our staff did a fantastic job in preventing maybe an earlier tragedy."

Inmates are allowed to shower once a day, Brandenburg said. Corrections officers handcuff and shackle an inmate, walk the inmate to the secured shower, and once they are locked inside, remove the restraints by reaching through a small hole in the shower's door, he said. An officer gives the inmate toiletries, including one plastic, disposable razor with which to shave, Brandenburg said.

The inmates are then required to return their used razor, Brandenburg said. Corrections officials are still investigating whether Keyes returned the razor he used during his last shower, Brandenburg said.

"As far as I know, yes, but right now it would be speculation to say whether it was or wasn't. That's one of the things we're looking at," he said.

Brandenburg said it's possible that another inmate passed the razor blade to Keyes using a technique called "fishing," when one person flings a weight on a string to another inmate, who then attaches a note or object to the string and reels it in. Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said investigators with her agency found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by another person but noted that having a razor in jail or providing one to another inmate would not be a criminal matter, but likely a violation of jailhouse rules.

The bloody razor found later in Keyes' cell was attached to the end of a pencil, giving it leverage and a handle, Ipsen said. Keyes also had a sheet, which he wrapped around his neck, the troopers spokeswoman said.

Keyes cinched one end of the sheet around his neck and tied the other end to his foot or ankle, Brandenburg said. Troopers say Keyes cut his left wrist and, according to Brandenburg, he pulled the sheet tight by extending his leg.

The lone corrections officer on the segregation unit was tasked with checking on each of the 23 inmates in the unit every 30 to 45 minutes, Brandenburg said. Keyes was in his cell at 9:30 p.m. Saturday and, at some point thereafter, appeared to be asleep face down on his bunk with a blanket completely covering him, Brandenburg said.

"Checks were completed, but it appeared as if he was sleeping like every other night. Because he was underneath the covers, and the officer that was on that unit reported that was how he slept, covered under his blanket," Brandenburg said. "That's what they saw when they did the checks, and it wasn't until the morning that they noticed that there was no movement and went in and looked."

That was about 6 a.m. Sunday, Brandenburg said. Keyes was "unresponsive," the superintendent said. Twenty minutes later, corrections officials notified the state troopers, who investigate deaths in state correctional facilities, and Keyes' body was transported to the state medical examiner's office, troopers said.

Investigators found crumpled, blood-soaked pages from a yellow legal-sized notebook in Keyes' cell, said Ipsen, the troopers spokeswoman. The writing was either difficult to read or entirely illegible because of the blood, Ipsen said.

"We couldn't even tell if it was pencil or pen writing," she said.

It's unclear if the pages constitute a suicide note or contain information about Keyes' other alleged victims. The handwritten notes are under analysis, according to FBI spokesman Eric Gonzalez.

"It's hard to characterize what it is until we hear back from our lab," Gonzalez said. "It's a handwritten note, but as to its content, it's too early to tell."

Asked if the corrections department could have done more to prevent Keyes' death, Brandenburg, who trains the department personnel on suicide prevention, said his staff are able to avert most potential suicides and appeared to have taken, at least initially, the proper precautions with Keyes.

"I am very disappointed that Mr. Keyes is not going to be able to stand trial for his crimes and held accountable, and my feelings are very much with the victims and Samantha (Koenig's) father," Brandenburg said. "I certainly wish we could've prevented this so that he could stand trial."

Brandenburg said he and his counterparts in the department are still looking into Keyes' suicide and have not decided yet if changes to protocol are necessary.

Reached Tuesday afternoon at home, James Koenig said he was angry that Keyes was able to kill himself before justice was served for the death of Samantha Koenig, his only biological child.

"He should have stood trial in front of everybody," Koenig said. "It's just one more thing he robbed from us."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com.

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