Police consider murder charges as Nex Benedict’s family pursues independent investigation

LGBTQ

Police in Owasso, Oklahoma are walking back claims that Nex Benedict’s death was not “a result of trauma” as at least one investigator has said he’s examining the school bathroom attack on the nonbinary teen as a possible murder. Benedict’s family has pledged to conduct an independent investigation into the teen’s death.

This last weekend, LGBTQ+ community members held weekend vigils in Benedict’s memory. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s head of education Ryan Walters has blasted “left-wing media” coverage of Benedict’s death and said that the teen’s death hasn’t changed his strong support for anti-LGBTQ+ school policies, even as people blame Walters’ policies for encouraging the attack on the teen.

Last Wednesday, the Owasso Police Department (OPD) posted a statement to its Facebook page. The statement said that Benedict’s death on February 8 was unrelated to the trauma they sustained after being attacked by three freshman girls in their school bathroom on February 7.

However, OPD spokesperson Lieutenant Nick Boatman told the investigative news site Popular Information that the medical examiner never specifically said that Benedict “did not die from something as a result of that fight.” In fact, it will take weeks until the medical examiner can determine an official cause of death, pending a toxicology report from the state’s Bureau of Investigation. The report’s findings could take weeks to determine.

Nevertheless, large sections of the OPD’s statement were copied verbatim from a February 20 statement released by Owasso Public Schools, the aforementioned publication noted. The police statement sought to confirm facts previously stated by the school that were later versed through police interviews with school officials, Boatman told the publication.

Boatman acknowledged that the OPD’s statement “kind of came across as us being a voice piece for the school” and said that the OPD released its inaccurate statement to “head off some of this national scrutiny” around the student’s death.

Boatman also said that murder charges are still “on the table,” despite the OPD’s earlier statement. A February 9 “Affidavit for Search Warrant” by OPD Detective Penny Hamrick explicitly stated that investigators were actively looking into the teen’s death as a “murder.”

A side-by-side comparison of verbatim phrases used in statements from Benedict's school and OPD.
Popular Information A side-by-side comparison of verbatim phrases used in statements from Benedict’s school district and OPD.

An attorney representing Benedict’s family said that the family would conduct its own investigation, including “independently interviewing witnesses and collecting all available evidence,” Popular Information reported.

Gay Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) has called for a federal investigation into Benedict’s death.

“Nex Benedict’s death is a horrific tragedy and cannot be allowed to go overlooked. I stand by @HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] in calling for a federal investigation into what happened,” Torres wrote in a February 23 post on X. “I fear a dangerous climate of right-wing anti-LQBTQ+ rhetoric played a role in the unjust end to a young promising life.”

Nicole McAfee, executive director of the state LGBTQ+ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma, told The Hill, “I hope that we will see an independent investigation. I hope that Nex’s indigenous identity will be recognized … and the fact that they were both beaten and died on tribal land, in that will mean resources from the FBI and [Department of Justice] into finding out what happened in this scenario.”

“I hope that we will see an independent autopsy as well given the long history of very politically convenient reports that have come out of the Oklahoma office,” McAfee added.  

Many online commenters and media outlets have implicated Oklahoma’s top education official, Ryan Walters, in Benedict’s death, as Walters has pushed inflammatory anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric during his tenure. In an interview with The New York Times published nearly two weeks after Benedict’s death, Walters called the death a “tragedy” but said the student’s death hasn’t changed his anti-LGBTQ+ views or school policies.

“There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us,” he said, denying the existence of transgender and nonbinary people, a religious view that many Christians disagree with. “You always treat individuals with dignity or respect, because they’re made in God’s image — but that doesn’t change truth.” A 2022 study found that 5% of young Americans identify as either nonbinary or transgender.

McAfee told the Times, “Ryan Walters has created a devastatingly hostile environment for trans, two-spirit, and gender-nonconforming students. McAfee noted that during Walters’ election campaign, Walters shared an image of “folks in a bathroom with language villainizing trans youth specifically.”

In a February 25 video posted to X, Walters mentioned his critics, stating, “Unconscionably, radical left-wing groups and the media have lied about the death of the student and have intentionally lied to push an agenda that was politically motivated to attack me and conservatives in the state of Oklahoma … The media has lied locally and nationally … It is despicable.”

He added, “I will never back down to the woke mob. We will not allow leftist radicals and left-wing media to push an agenda that is anti-American.”

Walters, who wants to ban LGBTQ+ books but teach the Bible in public school history classes, has previously pushed the transphobic lie about schools providing litterboxes to students who identify as cats. He also referred to teachers’ unions as “terrorist organizations” and illegally tried to make rules banning LGBTQ+ books and transgender bathroom access in schools. He has appeared at events hosted by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing anti-LGBTQ+ “parent’s rights” group that has been called an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Last weekend, vigils commemorating Benedict took place nationwide in Oklahoma, Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington.

At a Sunday night vigil in Owasso, a person named Spencer, identified as Benedict’s partner, said that Nex helped him come out to his parents as gay, NBC News reported.

“[Nex] kept energy levels high. He would always keep the room in a good mood,” he said. “He was always one of the brightest kids in the room, whether he would smile or not.”

One of Benedict’s friends, named Ally, said at the vigil, “[Nex was] always someone who was never afraid to be who they are. It was like wherever they went, you were going to accept them, and if you didn’t, that was your problem, and they were going to make it your problem.”

“For some reason, it’s like I’m always looking for them wherever I go, even though I was there at the funeral,” the friend continued. “I watched them be placed in the ground. I was one of the last people to leave. I always look for them in crowds, and I’m still waiting for them.”

At a Saturday vigil in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Sanj Cooper, president of the local LGBTQ+ advocacy group TahlEquality, told the media, “It’s really hard being an LGBT community member in Oklahoma nowadays because suicide ideation and suicidal thoughts happen quite a bit… If anything we are impassioned, the fire in our belly has been lit up again to continue to fight. If anything it doesn’t oppress or keep us from our voice from being heard. If anything it makes it louder.”

As of Monday evening, a GoFundMe campaign for Bendict’s funeral costs has raised $152,183, well over its initial $15,000 goal.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.

Originally published here.

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