Keith Warren, Uprooted docu-series
Sherri and Keith Warren (middle) with their mother, Mary Couey; Courtesy of NowThis and Discovery+

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Sherri Warren has survivor’s guilt. More than 35 years have passed since her brother’s death, and she still wonders if he’d be alive today if she had been home the last week of July 1986 when 19-year-old Keith Warren was found hanging from a tree in Silver Spring. Montgomery County police ruled his death a suicide, but as a new docuseries reveals, holes in the shoddy investigation leave unanwered questions. 

The Warren siblings and their mother, Mary Couey, are the focal points of Uprooted, the three-part documentary that looks at Keith’s death and Sherri’s ongoing fight for justice.

The three-person family had moved to Silver Spring for Couey’s career. They were among other Black families starting to relocate to the predominately White Maryland suburb. Racial tensions were high. In D.C., Marion Barry was mayor, and the crack epidemic gripped the city. While the country’s attention was focused on controversy in D.C., the documentary suggests suburban cops could “get away with things.” (The documentary compares Silver Spring and the surrounding area at the time to modern-day Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered by a cop in 2020.) 

Shortly before his death, Keith had graduated high school and was headed to college in the fall. He had a gaggle of friends, and he’s described as happy, laidback, handsome, and observant. So it came as a brutal shock when the police told his family that he ended his own life. 

The problem was, a coroner didn’t make that determination. The docuseries from director Avril Z. Speaks shows how officers cut down Keith’s body and immediately sent it to a funeral home for embalming. Officers told the coroner to not bother coming to the scene, according to records obtained by Sherri and her mother, and they didn’t notify his family until six hours after Keith’s body was discovered. The area was never taped off, and the tree was cut down within a month of closing the case.

Dallas Lipp, an EMT who arrived on the scene before police that day in 1986, says in the docuseries that it appeared as if “this wasn’t something that he did to himself, this was something that was done to him.”

“To have a lynching happen in 1986 in Montgomery County,” Lipp suggests on camera, “that is disturbing.”

Speaks, who attended the University of Maryland and Howard University, and later taught at Howard, says she wanted the narrative to be clear: Keith Warren was a person. His life mattered. “I wanted to show his life in a way to make them understand that what happened to him was not OK,” she says.

Told in three, hour-long segments that are now streaming on Discovery+, the documentary peels back several layers to the story that shockingly few DMV residents are aware of. Speaks admits that part of what drew her to the project, with NowThis and executive producer Matt McDonough, was the fact that she’d never heard of Keith Warren’s death despite her local roots. She also took note of the various twists and turns to the Warrens’ story. “When you look at all the pieces of the story, you’re shaking your head like how can it be,” Speaks says. “Almost like fiction.”

Speaks’ telling outlines the oddities and strange circumstances surrounding Keith’s death, as well as the questions that remain due to the lack of police investigation. Drugs found in Keith’s system via an autopsy of his exhumed body suggest poisoning. And in 1992, his mother received an anonymous package containing several crime scene photos. A note on one of the photos said, “Don’t worry, Mark Finley will be next.” Soon after, Finley, an acquaintance of Keith’s, left a voicemail for Sherri and her mother saying he needed to “unload.” But a month later he died in a freak bicycle accident. By the end of the series you’re left shaken and uncertain. It’s part of what makes Uprooted such a well-told story.

The series could’ve easily dug into potential conspiracy theories, but purposefully does not, Speaks says. “There are 35 years worth of information about this case. I didn’t want to get into rabbit holes because we don’t know what really happened.” While many theories exist, Speaks focused on what we know for certain: There’s no remaining evidence, no official state autopsy was conducted (Keith’s family paid for an autopsy eight years after his death), no witnesses have come forward, and on the day his body was found, “things were not handled properly,” Speaks says. The series also notes that all but one of Keith’s friends declined interviews with the filmmakers due to “safety concerns;” the friend who speaks briefly remains anonymous.

Del Walters, a former news anchor and investigative reporter for WJLA-TV, states: “The police botched this case entirely, making it impossible to ever solve.” Speaks agrees in part. She doesn’t believe it’s impossible to solve.

“Some people out there know what happened,” she tells City Paper. “I can’t speak to why they’re not speaking out, but I do think there are some people who have information that would help solve the case.” 

McDonough came to the Warrens’ story five years ago. Speaks came on board soon after. Discovery greenlit the project last spring and production took place in summer 2021. Speaks decided to anchor Uprooted around Sherri, Keith’s younger sister, and her fight for justice that continues today. As a Black woman, Speaks feels a connection to the younger Warren sibling and remains in awe of Sherri’s strength and tenacity.

The docuseries—and its filmmakers and sources—grapple with the idea of justice and what that looks like for Keith’s family. After more than 35 years, for Sherri, justice is as simple as getting Keith’s death reclassified from suicide to “inconclusive.”

Uprooted shows Sherri making repeated phone calls to Maryland’s medical examiner and Montgomery County police. The agencies send her back and forth to each other in her efforts to reclassify her brother’s death. The continued failures of the criminal justice system overshadow the series. Despite a state prosecutor’s interest, a grand jury’s ruling, and a current Montogomery County councilmember’s support, police continue to insist they’ve found no evidence of murder in their reviews of the case. Sherri calls it a “broken system.”

Uprooted, presented by NowThis, is available for streaming on Discovery+.