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Benjamin Backstrom Case: Shock and Questions on Drake Campus

5 years ago
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old main drake universityThough national media interest has faded in the tragic and strange case of Benjamin Backstrom, a Drake University sophomore who apparently staged his own murder, shock and confusion remain in the campus community.

Early on the morning on April 27th, Backstrom was found hunched over a bridge four miles north of Indianola, Iowa. After being rushed to the hospital in serious condition, he was pronounced dead that afternoon.

Identifying the case as a serious assault, Warren County officials said that they were treating the case as a homicide. University President David Maxwell also said in an e-mail to students and faculty that Backstrom was "the victim of an off-campus violent crime." At that point, no other information about the case was made public.

After eye-witness accounts and a review of surveillance tapes, the investigation shifted from a homicide to a suicide later in the week of his death. On May 3, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation confirmed in a press conference that Backstrom died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.

Michael Motsinger, the DCI agent in charge of the case, explained that two hours before he was found, surveillance shows Backstrom buying zip-ties at a local store. At around 12:40 a.m., Backstrom parked his car in a lot 1.5 miles away from the bridge where police found him later. Three witnesses saw him walking alone on the highway that night. When officers found him, his hands had been zip-tied together in front of his body. Investigators believe a handgun missing from Backstrom's parents' home was the weapon used in his death, though the gun hasn't been found (it is presumed lost in the strong currents of the river).

The case took a turn when, hours before the DCI press conference, Backstrom's father David Backstrom released an e-mail to the local media. He said that Ben left his parents a letter that said he had been receiving direct threats from someone who made him think that he had witnessed a crime.

"From the letter Ben left, it appears that he was either going to meet with someone, or was instructed to go to the bridge location and sacrifice himself to ensure his family's safety," David Backstrom said in the e-mail. "The family is not sure if this was a prank, harassment that went too far, or an actual threat. What is clear is that Ben felt the threat to his family was real and that he felt he had no other choice but to comply."

Ben also withdrew over $1,400 from his bank account in recent weeks, money that is unaccounted for.

The story behind the suicide is still unclear, as the official autopsy has not been released yet, nor has any other information surrounding the threats. Still, the known parts of the story have had a strong hold on Drake's campus. Most students, like freshman Jess Walther, have unanswered questions.

"The whole thing was confusing from the beginning, but when it changed to a suicide case it made things even more elusive," Walther said. "I can't speak for everyone, but personally I have this sense that there's something really dark going on, and it makes me really sympathize with the family. If it really was some kind of sacrifice like it's being made to sound like, it adds a whole new eerie element sort of. It's scary."

News that the death was a suicide did not change the sentiments of some students, such junior Greg Lorence. He said that he still feels sympathy for the loss of a peer.

"I don't really look at it any differently, because a death by either circumstance at this age is a tragic death, and regardless of the cause, it is a sad ordeal," Lorence said. "I would like to know why he did it, but that may be personal information the family doesn't want to share."

Students rallied together for support, holding candlelit vigils and a memorial service in his memory. Sophomore Ari Nagaro said that she still could not wrap her head around such a tragedy.

"I think the campus was pretty shocked when it was confirmed that it was indeed a suicide," Nagaro said. "When the information was coming out, it was hard enough to believe that something horrible like this could happen to one of our own peers."

Though Nagaro did not know Backstrom well and the case is unresolved, the tragedy has still had a significant impact.

"What happened to Ben was heartbreaking," she said. "We all see and hear things like this happening all the time. It's just hard to believe that it could happen to someone we all essentially walked the halls with."
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