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A cop hung up on me when I asked questions about Nex Benedict

The Public Information Officer didn't want to inform the public.

On Monday afternoon, I spoke by phone with Nick Boatman, the Public Information Officer for the Owasso, Oklahoma Police Department. We talked for eight minutes and 58 seconds before he hung up on me.

Boatman, who's been on the force since 1999 and was City of Owasso’s Employee of the Quarter in summer 2022, made headlines on Friday. Journalist Judd Legum of the site Popular Information spoke to him about the department’s statement claiming that, based on the preliminary medical examiner’s report, Nex Benedict’s death was not caused by trauma from being jumped by three classmates in a school bathroom.

However, According to Legum’s reporting, the idea that trauma wasn’t the cause of death was actually an interpretation by the police department—not the Medical Examiner’s official ruling. Per the story:

It is not a normal practice of the Owasso Police to release "piecemeal" information regarding the cause of death before the medical examiner issues a report, Boatman said. But, in this case, Boatman told Popular Information that the Owasso Police "reached out to the medical examiner's office to try to head off some of this national scrutiny." As the case gained more attention, the school reportedly received at least one threat that was deemed credible. 

Boatman said the medical examiner did not explicitly tell him that Nex "did not die from something as a result of that fight." But that's how Boatman interpreted the medical examiner's comments. Boatman also said the medical examiner "emphasized they are waiting for toxicology,"  which Boatman interpreted as "kind of a red flag." Boatman said he is "assuming when I get that [toxicology report] back, something's going to be there." 

As someone who’s been reporting on this harrowing story, Boatman’s comments naturally created more questions than answers. As I shared on Friday, Owasso Chief of Police Dan Yancey told me via email last week that “the information you are seeing online is mostly false” regarding Nex’s case. I followed up multiple times for specifics and was finally passed along by Yancey to Boatman via email on Thursday. 

I’d emailed Boatman three times asking for clarification on Yancey’s “mostly false” comment when he finally replied Monday morning and said to give him a call. So I did. When I reached him by phone, he said he was by the high school where students were staging a walkout to raise awareness about Nex’s death, and a small counter-protest by an outside group was forming. He didn’t know which group, though. Then I got into my questions, which you’ll see below.

Just a quick note: friends of Nex’s told NBC News that Nex “primarily went by he/him pronouns at school but also used they/them pronouns, which Nex's family also used.” They also confirmed that he was transgender. I’ve updated my earlier story to reflect this, and will reflect that moving forward.

MARISA KABAS, The Handbasket: Like I said in my email, I'd been emailing with Chief [of Police Dan] Yancey last week and he said, and I quote, that “the information you are seeing online is mostly false” regarding the events surrounding Nex Benedict's death. And I just wanted to know, can you be more specific? What was false about the initial reporting?

LIEUTENANT NICK BOATMAN, Owasso Police Department, Public Information Officer: So, I don't know if it's the initial reporting itself. It's mainly the stuff that's making its way across social media. Some of the bigger ones is that the school and the police department didn't say a word about this for several weeks after the death, and that's not true. We put out a statement the night of the death, and I think the school sent something to the parents, but I don't want to speak for them. But I think they sent something out that evening as well.

Another one is the fact that the young [student]—uh, the deceased was carried out of the bathroom because [he] was beaten to a pulp. And we have since released the hallway school video that shows that's not true. [He] walked perfectly fine from the bathroom after the fight to the school nurse's office. 

Some of the other big ones is that we're taking—some people from out of state, I don't know what the rules are from out of state, but they think that the coroner's office—which we don't have coroners, we have a medical examiner—works for the police or with the police, and it's completely separate here. So any statement that we make on behalf of a Medical Examiner, it isn't our statement. We're just passing along information that was provided to us by them. Does that make sense?

KABAS: Yes. So, they're not an arm of the police department. They're a separate entity.

BOATMAN: Yeah. Correct. They're a state entity and when they do their autopsy report—which they've done and they've said [Nex’s death'] it's not related to trauma—that's a Medical Examiner saying that. Now they won't sign off on a cause of death until we have a specific toxicology report that's provided by the lab. So once they get that back, then they'll sign off on an official cause of death. But right now, they haven't provided that. So we're just basically reading off information that they provided us that is factual. It's just not complete yet because we don't have the toxicology.

KABAS: So, I'm just going back to an interview you did the other day. You said that the medical examiner “may not have provided Nex’s family with their report because they wanted to wait until the cause of death is actually determined.” And then you-

BOATMAN: Well, I was talking to the reporter. That wasn’t an actual question. They were just asking me something. I was like, “Well, look, this is off the record.” Of course, they posted it all. I don't know what the Medical Examiner's procedure is. I don't know if they provide the family a report once the cause of death—I would assume that, but I don't know that.

KABAS: I mean, isn't that something that you would deal with? You know, not super often, but—that's just not a procedure that you're aware of?

BOATMAN: Well, I mean, generally we get the official cause of death back because it's usually not this much nationwide—or actually international-wide now—media attention, and we're not having to put out these misinformation fires. So, whenever we do these death investigations, you know, we have time to actually do a good report and get the information back before we release it. And on this case, everybody is demanding information so quickly and there's so much misinformation out there that the administration felt that we needed to get on top of it and try to correct some of these falsehoods that are being presented around.

So to answer your question, I've never been with the family of a deceased when they got the report from [a Medical Examiner], so that's why, I don't know. I know that we get it, and usually it's our investigators that talk to the families. It isn't usually the [Medical Examiner’s] office scheduling appointments with the family to have these talks. So, does that make sense?

KABAS: So if your investigators are the ones that usually talk to the families about the medical examiner's report, why couldn't you just ask one of your investigators what usually happens?

BOATMAN: Yeah, I can. But I mean, that's what I'm telling you is like, I know that normally whenever they get a signed cause of death back is when we have these talks. That that's when we talk to the family. We don't have that yet. All we have is the initial autopsy report done by the medical examiner.

KABAS: Ok, I see what you're saying. I just wanted to touch on something quickly you mentioned. Did you say that your conversation with the reporter was off the record?

BOATMAN: Yeah, I don't remember which one that was. [Editor’s note: It was with Judd Legum at Popular Info]. What I mean is like, I'm trying—they want a statement, so I give them a statement, and then like you're doing to ask questions, and I'm trying to explain the process. But that's between me and you. Like, I'm trying to explain the process. That's not our official statement that that reporter put all that in the paper, what I was trying to explain to him. And I was like, “Dude, why’d you do that to me? Now I'm not gonna wanna talk to you ever again.”

KABAS: Right, but you know our conversation right now is on the record. You understand that, right?

BOATMAN: Yeah, I get that. And if that's the way it's gonna be, then I'll give you our official statement and that's all you'll get. If you don't want my backchannel—or not backchannel—but if you don't want our side conversation, me explaining to you how the procedures work, that's not our official position. That's just me telling you what you don't know.

KABAS: Right. But by me asking you what I don't know, that's so I can help explain it to other people. I mean, that's my job. So, I'm not trying—

BOATMAN: OK, I'll tell you what, I'll be happy to send you the official releases and that'll be the end of it. How's that?

KABAS: No- [line goes dead]

I tried calling back, but Boatman didn’t answer. I texted and emailed to explain that I just wanted to understand what happened—and to reiterate that we had been on the record. 

I’d hoped to ask him about the body cam footage released by the department showing chilling footage of the School Resource Officer (AKA the school cop) interviewing Nex in the hospital. I wanted to know why the officer attempted to dissuade Nex and his mom from pressing charges against his attackers. I wanted to know why the officer told Nex he wasn’t a “true victim.” But I didn’t have that chance.

More than an hour later, Boatman replied to my email saying, in part:

I replied explaining, probably futilely, that it wasn’t a matter of “style,” and reminding him that he had told me to call him after not answering my emails. 

But I can handle an irate cop yelling at me: What I can’t handle is the police spinning the results of a medical examiner’s incomplete report in an attempt to smear a dead trans kid. We will never be able to bring Nex back, but the best we can do is help protect the many other trans kids who’ve seen Nex’s story and fear they might be next.

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