Man linked to Bethel slaying was victim of torture in Africa

REFUGEE: Law clerk was charged with hindering prosecution for not reporting beaten victim.

November 4, 2010 

David Kenney stands by a vehicle in June 2010, that he pulled out of the dump in Bethel for his own transportation.


A bizarre twist in the Bethel torture killing involves the 7-foot-tall law clerk who didn't notify police about the bloodied, naked man tied up in a shed, though the law clerk himself had been tortured and nearly killed in Africa.

David N. Kenney, 36, a political refugee who moved to the Southwest Alaska city with his wife and two children this year, co-authored a book about his imprisonment, "Asylum Denied: A Refugee's Struggle for Safety in America."

Police pored through the book this past weekend after buying a digital version online, said Bethel Police Chief Larry Elarton.

They've found "intriguing" similarities between Kenney's experiences and the torture and death of Benjamin Kaiser, a 19-year-old from Hooper Bay, Elarton said.

Elarton would not describe those similarities.

Jeffrey Allan Hout, 46, and Henry Ned Williams, 32, have been charged with murder in the killing.

Kenney was charged on Oct. 29 with felony first-degree hindering prosecution, police said. A grand jury this week added a charge of tampering with physical evidence, according to court records.

At least four people saw the bloodied victim, including the two murder suspects. They may have told several others about the crime, Elarton said.

Kenney, a law clerk for Bethel Superior Court Judge Marvin Hamilton III, initially told police he knew nothing of Kaiser's torture.

But his story changed after police presented him with evidence that he had seen the body, according to documents filed in court.

Kenney told investigators he saw Kaiser alive on the morning of Oct. 26, a Tuesday, while searching the shed near his residence for jumper cables to start a car, documents show. Kenney also told police his black Chevy Silverado -- apparently a different vehicle than the one that wouldn't start -- had been stolen.

The belief that Kaiser knew something about the allegedly stolen truck has been cited in court records as one possible motive for the kidnapping and vicious beating Kaiser took. Multiple weapons used included a "blunt-impact device" and an electrical cord used as a whip, police said.

Kenney lived beneath Hout and said he bought the truck from him. Police confiscated the vehicle and plan to investigate it after they finish gathering evidence at the shed and Hout's residence where the body was found, Elarton said.

After getting a tip about the attack from Nick Cooke, another witness, police found Kaiser's body late Wednesday night, Oct. 27, about 36 hours after Kenney is alleged to have seen him.

The body had already begun stiffening, one sign Kaiser had been dead for a while. Kenney told at least one co-worker at the courthouse what he'd seen -- the fellow law clerk initially kept quiet too -- but Kenney never called the hospital or police to report the attack, police say.


Kenney, bright, talkative and idealistic, suffered his own torture in a cell after he was arrested in his homeland in Kenya, according to his book.

A therapist's evaluation in the book says the experience left him with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered nightmares and hallucinations, but the emotional damage can be controlled with antidepressant medication.

Kenney writes in the book of trying to avoid situations that force him to relive his brutal experience.

A tea farmer who inherited land in Kenya, Kenney's trouble began when he led marches and a farming boycott in the early 1990s to demand more money from the government-run tea agency.

Police cracked down on the uprising and arrested and beat farmers. Torn by guilt for leading the demonstrations but escaping penalty himself, Kenney walked into a police station and turned himself in, he writes.

Officers soon removed Kenney from his cell, blindfolded and handcuffed him. They threw him into a van for a long drive into what he believes was a forest.

He was forced to the ground. He felt a gun barrel against his head and heard the gun cocked. But the men decided not to kill him, believing he'd be a valuable informant.

After another long drive, the men took Kenney to a prison and eventually shoved him naked into a dark cement cell with water.

Kenney writes of going without food for days. He stood to avoid drowning when the water randomly crept to his neck. Only when it fell back to his ankles could he lie down and sleep. He survived by drinking the water he'd urinated and defecated in, he writes.

After that experience, he spent several months in solitary confinement before his release. In the end, the government raised the price of tea, and Kenney was hailed as a hero, he writes.

Though he was still under Kenyan police surveillance after his release from prison, he escaped and fled to the U.S. in 1995. Peace Corps volunteers helped Kenney win a basketball scholarship at a community college in California. He ultimately earned a law degree, married a fellow attorney, Melissa Ngaruri, and started a family.


This spring, the couple and their two young children moved to Bethel from the state of Maryland. Ngaruri accepted a job as a social worker at the Office of Children's Services, where she works to reunite children removed from their parents.

Kenney, denied entry to the Maryland Bar because of character issues, had hoped for a fresh start in Alaska, said Ngaruri, reached by phone in Bethel this week.

She would not say what those character issues were.

Calls and an e-mail from Alaska Newspapers Inc. to the Maryland Judiciary's State Board of Law Examiners went unanswered.

Ngaruri said she couldn't imagine why Kenney didn't initially tell police about the body. The couple is going through divorce proceedings, and his personality has changed in recent months, she said.

"The Jeff I know, that's his nickname, would stop a car in the middle of D.C. if he saw somebody fall down, and he'd get out and help them up," she said.

In August and September she won domestic violence protective orders against Kenney after filing a civil lawsuit, forcing him out of the family's residence. Later, he moved into the place beneath Hout.

According to e-mails sent to family and others and filed with the court, Ngaruri claimed that Kenney threatened to kill her and punch her through a wall. She said he threw a reclining chair at her and locked her in a bedroom for long periods.

"He says he wants to do it because 'I've hurt him so badly,' but he can't say what I did."

"If something happens to me, it wasn't suicide," she wrote.

She never called police because she didn't want to ruin Kenney's law career, she said in court. She also claimed in court that he becomes violent when he doesn't take medication.

Kenney said he's never hurt his wife in their seven years together. He can't recall ever wanting to hurt her, he said, according to court documents.

"I am not a violent man," he said.

Ngaruri told a reporter that Kenney did not physically hurt her during his outbursts that led to her lawsuit.


Kenney was arrested on Oct. 29 in Anchorage on the charges stemming from Kaiser's slaying. He was planning to board a plane headed out of state, police said. He had left Bethel that day, the same day police issued a warrant for his arrest.

Ngaruri told a reporter Kenney wasn't fleeing. He was taking a long-planned trip to Seattle. He didn't know about the warrant when he left Bethel, she said.

Ron Woods, area court administrator for the Fourth Judicial District, also said Kenney had long planned to take time off from work starting on that Friday.

Kenney is still employed with the court but is indefinitely on leave, Woods said.

He said court employees can have civil decisions on their record -- such as Kenney's restraining order -- without losing their job.

Such cases involve allegations, not proven crimes, he said.

Ngaruri said she's concerned that news about the heinous case has given Bethel a black eye.

But the community's full of good people, including strangers who keep approaching her to offer any help they can, she said.

"People reach out and show love and support in a way that you don't find in most places in the Lower 48," she said.

Alex DeMarban can be reached at, or by phone at 348-2444.

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