IOWA CITY, Iowa – A college student from Africa warned that someone or something was “going to kill me” on a frantic 911 call shortly before his January death in northeast Iowa, a prosecutor acknowledged this week while saying he remains confident in the conclusion the death was an accident.
Authorities have declined for months to publicly release key details about the death of Luther College student Nana Kwasi Baffour-Awuah. But Winneshiek County Attorney Andy Van Der Maaten provided the most complete account yet of the investigation during an interview with The Associated Press.
Van Der Maaten acknowledged that Baffour-Awuah pleads for help and appears to warn “he’s going to kill me” or “that’s going to kill me” on a 911 call placed at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 1 and that investigators found evidence Baffour-Awuah was running at the time. He said Baffour-Awuah’s cell phone was found broken near a campus building where he unsuccessfully tried to tell the 911 dispatcher where he could be found. And his body had some scratches on it; his jacket was recovered across campus.
The prosecutor also said investigators have no evidence of foul play and are standing by the conclusion that the 24-year-old accidentally died from hypothermia on the small, liberal arts college campus in Decorah. They say he froze after coming home from a party and was locked out of his dormitory because he forgot his keys. Authorities say hypothermia symptoms such as disorientation were aggravated by a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit to drive and he died after wandering down a wooded, snow-covered embankment.
Questions still have persisted on campus about the death of the popular student and residence hall adviser from Tema, Ghana. Friends say Baffour-Awuah would have called campus security if he were locked out as he’d done before and that the 911 call previously shared with Baffour-Awuah’s family led them to believe he was being chased.
“For those of us whom it means something to, this is something that’s never going to go away until we get answers,” said friend and former roommate Ekow Blankson.
Van Der Maaten said that, although the case is closed, anyone with evidence suggesting a different conclusion should come forward.
“We’re looking at the entire sequence of events and this was the conclusion reached at this point,” he said. “What’s going on in his mind at that time or what’s motivating him to say or do what he’s doing, whether it’s the cold temperature, we don’t know. We just have a very unfortunate situation of a young man dying in extremely cold temperatures. We don’t have all the answers and probably never will have all the answers.”
Decorah Police Chief Bill Nixon said that no transcript of the 911 call exists and that some of the audio is difficult to decipher. But after telling the dispatcher he was at Luther College, Baffour-Awuah appears to say, “he’s going to kill me. Do something,” and makes a desperate plea for help.
Van Der Maaten said others believe he said “that’s” or “it’s” going to kill me.
“Different people hear it different ways,” he said. “But as far as any evidence of any other person being present, there doesn’t appear to have been anyone.”
Luther spokesman Rob Larson said college officials were aware of the 911 call and do not doubt the official conclusion about Baffour-Awuah’s cause of death.
“The entirety of the information that’s been shared to us gives us no reason to believe anyone was at risk nor was the investigation incomplete,” he said.
Baffour-Awuah’s friend Judith Bannerman-Quist, a student who also hails from Ghana, said international students were frightened for weeks after his death. She said she believes he was in danger because he made the call at 1:45 a.m., just a few minutes after being dropped off by a taxi driver who took him home from a convenience store where he stopped after he attended a house party. She said Baffour-Awuah, a residence hall adviser, would have called campus security rather than 911 if he was simply locked out.
“Even if he died of hypothermia, I feel like he must have been running from someone or something, a situation that left him helpless down there,” said Bannerman-Quist, who listened to the 911 call last week after the AP obtained its release under the public records law.
“The call was sad because I’ve never heard him so scared,” she said. “You could hear the wind and you could tell it must have been a freezing night. For him to be in those conditions running around and looking for help, it’s just heartbreaking.”
The call ends after Baffour-Awuah repeatedly tries to tell the dispatcher his specific location, and she is unable to understand. Bannerman-Quist said it is clear he was at Sampson Hoffland science building, which Van Der Maaten confirmed. Van Der Maaten said investigators recovered Baffour-Awuah’s broken cell phone “from near where we believe he made the call.”
Baffour-Awuah’s body was found by a passerby down the hill near a baseball field about six hours later.
Van Der Maaten defended authorities’ decision to give up searching after about 2 1/2 hours, saying rescuers committed “significant manpower” and explored other avenues to find him even after they stopped physically looking on campus.
The county attorney said the state medical examiner’s autopsy found scratches on Baffour-Awuah’s body, which the prosecutor believes he got running down the hillside through bushes. He said DNA testing confirmed that only the student’s blood was present, and authorities found only one set of footprints in the snow.
Baffour-Awuah was found wearing long pants and two T-shirts. His jacket was found across campus near a college entrance, Van Der Maaten said.