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By slitting wrists with razor, strangling himself Israel Keyes died in Alaska jail cell

Ben Anderson
Loren Holmes photo

Authorities said Wednesday that confessed serial killer Israel Keyes likely died as a combination of slicing open one of his wrists and strangling himself with a sheet in his jail cell on Sunday morning. Keyes was being held in the Anchorage facility while awaiting trial for the murder of 18-year-old barista Samantha Koenig in February. While in prison, Keyes confessed numerous other murders, as many as eight in all, according to investigators.

The Alaska State Troopers said that the state medical examiner was unable to determine which of the two methods -- strangulation or blood loss -- was the primary factor in Keyes' death. To cut his wrist, he used a blade from a disposable razor embedded in a pencil, troopers said. No other person is implicated in Keyes' death.

A brief report from troopers noted the presence of writings obtained from Keyes’ cell following his death.

"Pages of crumpled, blood soaked paper that appeared to have writing on them were recovered from the cell," troopers said. Those items have been turned over to the FBI for investigation.

According to Bryan Brandenburg, director of institutions with the Alaska Department of Corrections, the investigation is still ongoing, and several things still weren’t known about Keyes’ suicide.

That included how he got a hold of the razor that he used to slit his wrist. Brandenburg described the razor as a small one, “more like half a razor blade.” He said that the blade was flimsy, which is likely why Keyes braced it in the pencil.

Brandenburg said Keyes tied the bedding material around his neck and attached it to one of his feet, with his heel pulled up toward his buttocks. That was sometime after 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. That night, he killed himself, and wasn’t discovered until just before 6 a.m. Sunday morning.

“Under the covers, he’d arranged the noose around his neck and his foot, and slit his wrist,” Brandenburg said. He said that Keyes apparently made an effort to remain under the covers so it would appear that he was just asleep.

“He was very devious, cunning and manipulative” in the way he killed himself, Brandenburg said.

In the unit where Keyes was being kept, he was isolated from other prisoners and spent 23 hours per day in his cell. Every half-hour, a guard was supposed to come by and check on the prisoners in the unit. Brandenburg said that that was the case that night, but Keyes’ efforts to conceal his own death caused the officer on duty not to notice anything unusual.

“What he saw when he looked in Mr. Keyes’s room was what the same thing he had seen on other nights on this shift,” Brandenburg said.

Should Israel Keyes have been on suicide watch?

Earlier in Keyes's jail stay, he'd been placed on suicide watch, which entails a closer monitoring, psychiatric treatment, and the inmate being given a suicide gown and a suicide blanket.

“(A suicide blanket) is extremely thick and woven,” Brandenburg said, to prevent an inmate from twisting or manipulating the fabric into a knot. “It’s basically a quarter-inch sheet of plywood, but it allows for some warmth.”

Keyes wasn't initially on suicide watch after being booked into the jail, despite an early health and mental health evaluation upon his arrival. But he was eventually placed on watch after something piqued the attention of a corrections officer.

“At some point during the initial point of his incarceration, there was something that somebody noticed during the course of their duties that gave them cause for concern,” Brandenburg said.

Keyes was taken off of suicide watch a few months before his death, Brandenburg said.

"He was given treatment, and at some point it was determined that he was no longer suicidal -- typically, people do not stay suicidal every day for months on end," he said.

Brandenburg, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and previously worked as a mental health clinician, added that Keyes may have chosen to hide his symptoms when he became suicidal again.

"There are people who hide those things," he said. "They will not disclose that, and they’re very secretive."

Nationally and in Alaska, most suicides that take place in correctional facilities are by hanging. Numbers provided by the Department of Corrections said that 12 inmates, including Keyes, have killed themselves in the last five years.

The results of the DOC investigation will likely remain internal, despite the high-profile nature of the Keyes case. Brandenburg said that any findings will be used to improve DOC processes for prisoners and passed along to the department's attorneys.

It may eventually become public, Brandenburg said, but there was no timeline for such an action.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com