In 1986, Keith Warren, 19, was found hanging from a tree in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Now, his sister seeks answers in the NowThis docuseries “Uprooted.” Part 1 premieres Wednesday at the AFI Silver Theatre before Part 2 and 3 hit Discovery+ on Feb. 18.
“My brother Keith Warren was found strung up on a tree,” Sherri Warren told WTOP. “From 1986 to 2009 until he passed away, my mom was seeking answers as to how and why he ended up on the tree. From 2009 to current, I am still continuing to search for answers.”
Police ruled it a suicide at the scene, but something didn’t sit right with Warren.
“There was no investigation. No one was interviewed. No one was questioned,” Warren said. “The scene was not cordoned off. It was not treated as a crime scene. It was unfortunately rushed to get his body removed and sent to the funeral home … and have his body embalmed prior to notifying my mom. Those two items should start ringing bells.”
She says no autopsy was ever performed on her brother’s body.
“He should have left that scene and gone either to the coroner’s office or a medical examiner’s office,” Warren said. “You didn’t notify my mom until six or seven hours later. By the time his body was ID’d, which was not until 24 hours later, they had already processed the body, meaning [they] embalmed him.”
She also found the handling of the crime scene suspicious.
“There was nothing at that scene … that would declare this to be a suicide,” Warren said. “I don’t know where that determination came from, but a month later, they cut the tree down without telling us. If the case is closed as a suicide, why are you cutting a tree down? They said, ‘We’re collecting evidence.’ … Where’s the pictures of the tree? Where’s the pictures of the limb?”
She says the case looks even more fishy the more it’s examined.
“Evidence starts disappearing, you have questionable actions taken by the lead [detective] and the officers at the time,” Warren said. “There’s a lot.”
Director Avril Z. Speaks was intrigued by the true-time mystery, which was first highlighted in a podcast hosted by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.
“I came on board when Matt McDonough, our executive producer at NowThis, found this story five years ago listening to a podcast,” Speaks told WTOP. “I lived in Silver Spring, so I have my own connections to the D.C.-Maryland area and had never heard this story. … That thought of a young man hanging from a tree and the fact that it doesn’t send alarm bells is baffling to me.”
Her job as the filmmaker was to divide the story into the three parts.
“We have three hours to cram in 35 years,” Speaks said. “In Episode 1 … [we] get to know the family and Keith. … I wanted to see Keith as a human being, not just someone in a tree. … We wanted Episode 2 to focus more on the case itself, what was done, not done, what was fishy. … Episode 3 is about where we go from here. This is a relevant story.”
The end goal is to change Keith’s death certificate and reclassify the case.
“The evidence should reflect the classification of this case — and there is no evidence to show this is a suicide,” Warren said. “That fact alone, this case should be reclassified. Either ‘undetermined’ or ‘murder,’ but it’s not a suicide.”
She hopes not only to solve the case, but also to remember her brother as a human.
“He was a people person,” Warren said. “He was very loyal. He was my best friend, my protector. Everyone who knew him automatically was drawn to him. He was handsome — and he thought he was, as well. He had a good personality. He was a son, a brother, nephew, cousin, grandson. He was loved. He’s not something you can just make go away.”