Updated: Jan 11, 2021
AFRICA’S GREATEST UNSOLVED MURDERS-2
The US has its share of cold cases, unsolved murders, and murder mysteries that have never been cracked, but there’s murder in Africa too. In this series, we examine Africa’s greatest unsolved murders. These are cases in which the perpetrators have never been found, or if they have, multiple questions remain unanswered.
The previous blog in this series talked about an apartheid-era killing in South Africa. Now we move to KENYA, East Africa.
AFRICA’S GREATEST UNSOLVED MURDERS: KENYA (CIA World Fact Book)
MURDER ON VALENTINE’S DAY: BEAUTY AND CELEBRITY
Careen Chepchumba was a 26-year-old, vivacious young Kenyan who worked for Kenya Power in Nairobi. On Sunday, February 12, 2012, her brother Emmanuel Kiptoo dropped her off at her upscale apartment in Santonia Court, a gated community in the posh Kilimani neighborhood.
Careen Chepchumba (Photo: The Star, Kenya)
On Monday, Emmanuel tried but failed to reach Careen by phone. One news account states that subsequently, “he [Emmanuel] said their mother asked him to drive her to his sister’s apartment to check on her.” That seems to imply that Emmanuel and his mother went to the apartment the same day, Monday the 13th, the day before Valentine’s. Nevertheless, most accounts confirm that it was February 14th that the awful discovery was made.
There was no response to Emmanuel’s knocking on Careen’s apartment door. To his surprise, the door was open and so he entered, noticing two things: first that Careen’s sandals were at the door, suggesting she was home, and second, two used wine glasses were in the kitchen sink as he went past. Music was playing, but Careen was in bed with her laptop at the bedside. Emmanuel said he thought “she was sleeping.” (It seems odd that he wouldn’t have checked to be sure she was okay, given an unlocked door, two wine glasses and so on. In that circumstance, many would have felt that something was not quite right.)
Emmanuel returned to the car, where his mother was waiting, and they went back to Careen’s apartment together. Emmanuel’s mother started opening some windows because the room was “stuffy,” and then she went to Careen’s bedroom, shortly after which Emmanuel heard his mother screaming as she realized Careen was dead. Her autopsy would show that “death was due to lack of oxygen due to manual strangulation.” The pathologist reported that the force exerted on Careen’s throat had caused hemorrhage from her eyes and into her neck muscles.
Who had motive?
In considering possible motive, attention turned immediately to a man called Louis Otieno. This was no ordinary Joe. Otieno was one of Kenya Television Network‘s (KTN’s) most successful and high-profile TV anchors, known for his eloquence and hard-hitting interviews.
Louis Otieno (Photo: Phoebe Okall/ Nation Media Group)
However, a darker reputation haunted Otieno. Media reported his love of a lavish lifestyle with fancy cars, spending sprees, alcohol, and glamorous women. If this was the case, then it was a familiar story of becoming too rich, too young and foolishly squandering one’s earnings. I wasn’t able to put Otieno’s meeting Careen on a timeline in relation to his financial woes, but certainly by late 2011, Otieno was in serious trouble and turned to Careen for help. To support him, she reportedly borrowed heavily from family and business partners to the tune of 4.2 million Kenyan shillings, about $42,000. Some of this money she obtained under pretext, suggesting Otieno was heavily pressuring her to obtain the cash.
What was all that money for? Answering that question was the purpose of Careen’s father calling an “emergency” family meeting on Sunday February 12, 2012–perhaps a confrontation of sorts–in which Careen admitted to family that she had been paying Otieno’s rent, medical bills, and his children’s school fees. Otieno had two children from a first marriage. Careen was also paying for Otieno’s expensive taste in cigars.
The February 12 meeting, at which a chastised Careen agreed to drastic measures to pay back the money she owed, must have marked the pinnacle of the crisis with Otieno, because the police reported that on February 6, Careen had written a note to her father expressing remorse for having entered into a relationship with Otieno. She also apparently wrote, or started to write, a note to her father on February 12, but for some reason, she tore it up and put it in her bedroom trash bin.
Was Careen a case of a young, smitten woman falling into a relationship with a celebrity only to realize, too late, that she was trapped in a hornets’ nest with no escape? On occasion, she had denied being anything more than a “friend” of Otieno’s, but her family and a close friend, Paul Ng’ang’a, stated that she was having a full-blown romantic relationship with him. Clearly, something went terribly wrong to the point that Careen, just before she was murdered, had been about to file an extortion claim with the police and get a restraining order for Otieno not to visit or call her. It had taken her a while to realize how much she had been used by Otieno, but she was seeing it now.
A bungled investigation
Clearly, Careen was pulling away from her lover just before her death. This could be the classic case of, “If I can’t have you, no one else will,” one of the strongest motives around for murder. The inquest into Careen’s death was, incredibly, delayed for 4 years, and the case was still open and at an impasse as recently as 2018. At the inquest, the judge ruled that the police had bungled the case, making it impossible to arrest and convict anyone.
It appears that DNA testing of possible suspects was never done. The chief government pathologist thought Careen might have been sexually assaulted by the assailant. “We took samples for further analysis but I have never seen the report,” he said. The samples were supposedly handed over to the detectives at Kilimani Police Station, but no one seems to know what happened to the samples after that.
Colorful Kilimani Police Station, slated to be replaced with a more modern, larger facility (Photo: The Star, Kenya)
So, here are some of the major unanswered questions (there are probably many more):
What about the two wine glasses in Careen’s kitchen sink? Glass is a gold mine for fingerprints and there might have been DNA as well.
Otieno’s nail clippings were not tested for DNA. It turned out that the clippings obtained were Careen’s and not Otieno’s –a clerical error or mixup in the chain of custody, perhaps. Still, Careen’s nail clippings could have been tested against samples from possible suspects with whom Careen might have struggled as she was being strangled.
Questioned, Careen’s friend Mr. Ng’ang’a said Louis Otieno often “sneaked” into Careen’s Santonia Court apartment. This corroborates what one of the security guards at the apartment complex reported. According to him, Careen had instructed him to give Louis Otieno unrestricted access to her.
A taxi driver called Samuel Gacheru was a kind of gofer for Careen. He sometimes took her shopping, and on other occasions he went to the airport to pick up packages for her, including Otieno’s costly cigars. Careen owed Gacheru money as well! On February 14, he had texted Careen to remind her to pay up. The prosecutors alleged also that Gacheru made a 17-second call to Careen the day she was killed. All this is murky. What’s the taxi driver’s story? Did he have a crush on Careen? Was his alibi explored?
On the face of it, all the above speaks of incompetence to such an egregious degree that it makes one speculate whether there was a coverup. In some ways, Louis Otieno seems to have been calling the shots, e.g. refusing to do a DNA test, and securing the exoneration of the police authorities even before they had carried out any forensics on his mobile phone. An inquest four years after the event seems an excessive period, and with this passage of time, the specter of a cold case becomes increasingly likely.
The decline, fall, and rise again of a celebrity?
Louis Otieno’s glorious past is exactly that–past. It could be said that it began as a falling-out with the KTN editors and crew as Otieno became arrogant, egotistic, and short-tempered. But his fall became more precipitous once the scandal and murder of Careen Chepchumba broke. In 2014, Otieno was admitted to the hospital with acute pancreatitis, likely as a result of alcohol abuse. He subsequently lost his hearing, a rare complication of pancreatitis, as well as suffering a loss of balance and difficulty walking (ataxia). The medical details are complex and beyond our scope here. Otieno, all but penniless, crowdfunded enough money, about $40,000, for a cochlear implant. The surgery was performed in Nairobi in 2018 and appears to have been successful. Otieno’s deafness had been a major cause of his depression. Will restoration of his hearing set him on a path to a reinvigorated life? We don’t know, but meanwhile, Careen is still dead. What will happen to the investigation into her murder? We don’t know that either, but the prospects do not look good.
Update (December 28, 2020)
As of July, 2020, there appears to have been no break in this case--that is, if it's still being investigated. When I first read about it, I shook my head in dismay at the incompetence of the investigation by the Kenyan authorities. However, I wasn't shocked. It's easy to bungle an investigation and it happens all the time, and not just in Kenya.
The mystery of who killed Careen is baffling, which is what drew me in. As I sometimes do, I took this real event and adapted it to fiction as SLEEP WELL, MY LADY. Although there are some similarities, there are many differences between my novel and the real events, the first being, of course, that my story takes place in Ghana, not Kenya. But as you read the novel, you will notice some hints of aspects of the real story.
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