The Rev. John Kaiser, 67, of the Society of St. Joseph, also known as the Mill Hill Fathers, was found dead on the side of a road Thursday near Naivasha, 50 miles northwest of Nairobi, police said. He had a shotgun wound to the head.
The slaying of Kaiser was on the front pages of Kenya's daily papers Friday and reverberated throughout the human rights community.
Local newspapers, quoting investigators at the scene, said the killers at first tried to make Kaiser's death appear to be an auto accident. Because that attempt may have failed, the body was then positioned to make it appear as a suicide. But the reports said police had discounted both theories and were treating the death as a homicide.
Michael Njuguna, a reporter for the Daily Nation who visited the crime scene, said Kaiser was shot in the back of the head at close range and that the body was found 50 feet from where his pickup truck had been pushed into a ditch.
Police reportedly also said nothing was stolen from the scene. They said Friday they were investigating.
The Rev. Charles Ng'anga, an assistant to the bishop of the Diocese of Ngong, said church officials were pleased with the investigation.
"We are in a great state of shock. We cannot imagine how a person can kill such an innocent person," Ng'anga said.
U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson issued a statement Friday saying that the FBI agent assigned to the U.S. Embassy was working closely with Kenyan police.
"Father Kaiser was a true man of God," Carson said. "He was a man of high principles and tremendous energy in the cause of social justice."
Gibson Kamau Kuria, chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, declined to confirm or deny whether Kaiser had approached the organization expressing fear for his life but called the late priest a patriot.
"Although according to the law he was an American citizen, in real life he was a citizen of this country," Kuria told a news conference. "He was as patriotic as any Kenyan could be. His assassination has left much sadness and fear."
Kuria said the society plans an annual Father John Kaiser Human Rights Award for "those who have, through their lives, defended human rights, the idea of one nation and constitutionalism."
Since arriving in the East African country more than three decades ago, Kaiser had worked in the densely populated diocese of Kisii and the diocese of Ngong. Fluent in Kiswahili and other African languages, he had been deeply involved in community affairs.
Testifying before a special government commission earlier last year, Kaiser accused two Cabinet ministers of fomenting tribal clashes and seizing land vacated during te fighting, which broke out before the 1992 multiparty elections.
The government was heavily implicated in instigating the clashes for political motives.
The Law Society of Kenya gave Kaiser its highest humanitarian award in March. He had recently testified against a district officer accused of rape and had agreed to speak at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Netherlands, against the Kenyan government on human rights abuses.
"John said he would go and bring witnesses," said Kaiser's sister, Carolita Mahoney of Underwood, Minn.
Kaiser was born in Perham, Minn., and raised in Underwood, Minn. He attended Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and in 1954 enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper, achieving the rank of sergeant.
In 1960, he graduated from Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., and later studied philosophy and theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Mill Hill, England.