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April 16, 2012
The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru
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April 16, 2012

To Run In Kenya, To Run In The World

The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

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Njeri told reporters that she had learned of Wanjiru's fall from the police. But both Ngatia and Gatheru say that she called them around 11:30 p.m. the previous night to tell them that the watchman had called her to say Sammy had fallen and was hurt.

Hannah Wanjiru is adamant that her son was hit in the back of the head and killed, and that Njeri and the police were conspiring to take Sammy's money. Hannah forced the police to watch security footage from her son's home in her presence, but the camera that was pointed at the balcony was not functioning. (The footage shows several men entering the compound on foot. The footage is dark, and the men have not been publicly identified. Because the balcony camera was not working, people who saw the video say they could not tell if the men entered before or after Wanjiru fell.)

In June, Hannah brandished a machete at her own relatives, demanding that they not bury her son until an investigation was completed. (She lost a court battle to stop the burial.) For unknown reasons Wanjiru's body was partly embalmed before it was thoroughly examined, and, bewilderingly, 11 months after the national hero's death, no final autopsy report has been issued. But a preliminary postmortem report released last June says that Wanjiru had injuries on his hands and knees "consistent with conscious landing on fours" but that he died from blunt trauma to the back of the head.

That report made headlines and fueled widespread suspicion in Kenya that Wanjiru was murdered. SI gave a copy of the report and pictures of Wanjiru's balcony to Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of New York City. Baden says that Wanjiru suffered a "typical contrecoup injury to his head." A contrecoup injury generally occurs when a person falls backward, and the signature is a fracture at the back of the head and bruising on the front of the brain that occurs when it slams forward against the inside of the skull. "That's what helps distinguish a fall versus an injury [in which] a person is hit in the head while stationary," Baden says. "Falling from 10 feet is more than enough to cause this fatal injury." The injury is most often seen in drunk people who slip while walking and fall backward without twisting to protect themselves. Baden says Wanjiru may have tried to step over the railing and fallen forward on all fours onto the sloped roof below the balcony and then tumbled backward to the ground. Most of Wanjiru's friends doubt that he would have tried to get down from the balcony intentionally; however, one of Wanjiru's closest friends, Norman Mathathi, told SI that he and Wanjiru had jumped down from the balcony before.

But perhaps the reason that makes it hardest to believe a conspiracy theory about Wanjiru's death is that if anyone wanted Sammy's money, it seems all he had to do was ask for it.

There is a Kikuyu saying: Ido cia mwene cimumaga thutha. (When the owner dies, they follow him.) It refers primarily to living things, such as livestock. As Wanjiru's family has fought over his estate, the investment closest to his heart—the dairy farm five miles outside of Nyahururu—has wasted away.

Nobody tended to the cows after Wanjiru died, and most perished from neglect or were sold. When James Mwangi, the veterinarian, visited in early February, he had to tear down branches from Graveria trees to feed the two remaining animals, a skinny black heifer and an auburn dairy cow, to keep them from starving. The auburn cow had once been the pride of the farm, producing 10 gallons of milk a day. Wanjiru loved her. He named her Beijing, after his great triumph.

In the Chinese capital, Wanjiru changed the marathon forever. Runners could once coast the first 20 miles of major marathons, but since Wanjiru's bold example, the race has started when the race actually starts. Thirteen of the 17 sub-2:05 finishes in history have come since Wanjiru's epic performance at the Olympics. Expect Kenyans at the London Games to try to break the rest of the world from the gun. That will be Wanjiru's legacy.

Now he rests, buried at the dairy farm. Mwangi, who is helping raise money for an ICU in the town's hospital, returned there in mid-February to check on the two cows. The little black heifer had died.

Now all that remains is Beijing.

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