NEW IBERIA, La. — Victor White III died in a Louisiana hospital, the victim of a gunshot that police said White fired after being frisked twice, handcuffed and placed in the back of a New Iberia police cruiser.
The case has drawn national scrutiny because the details of the alleged suicide are so curious. White family attorney Carol Powell-Lexing says the investigation contains “an avalanche of discrepancies” and the finding that White committed suicide is preposterous.
“Short of him being Houdini or David Copperfield, it’s not possible,” she said.
To those who knew White, his March death makes less sense. Things were looking up for the 22-year-old. He had a daughter, Arianna, now 1, and a girlfriend. He was working to save money to put down a deposit on a new apartment for his family.
“My son did not kill himself. He had too much going on. He was full of life. He was working. He was about to buy a vehicle. … He was about to move into an apartment. How could he kill himself? He had too much going on,” the Rev. Victor White Sr. said.
White, who would have turned 23 on Thursday, grew up playing drums and singing in the choir of his father’s Alexandria church, and though he had moved two hours south to New Iberia five months before his death, he texted his family every night to say, “I love you.”
“If someone wanted something, he would give his last,” White Sr. said. “He gave anything of himself to others.”
His family, which includes eight siblings, will miss that about him, but most of all they’ll miss White’s energy and sense of humor, his dad said.
He had the broadest smile and loved a good joke. This past Christmas, he enjoyed being the butt of one when he stuffed a pillow under his shirt and dressed up as Santa Claus. The whole family knew the young man in the ill-fitting red suit was Lil Vic, but he kept them in stitches, playing the part, ho-ho-hoing all along the way.
“He would bring humor to cutting grass,” his father said, recalling how his son would volunteer to help him mow the six lots owned by the Baptist church where he’s a pastor.
‘Houdini handcuff suicides’
The Louisiana State Police wrapped up their investigation into the shooting last week. It was handed over Friday to District Attorney Phil Haney of the 16th Judicial Circuit, who said he will let a federal investigation run its course before making a decision.
This doesn’t sit well with White’s family, Powell-Lexing said: “If everything is on the up-and-up” with the state investigation, why would the family have to wait until the federal inquiry is complete?
“The family is not happy. I’m not happy. It shouldn’t matter what the feds say if this is an independent (state) investigation,” she said. “This family has a right to know what happened to their child.”
White’s family has expressed skepticism regarding the state investigation, and high-profile civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown fame, recently joined the family’s legal team.
In a press conference last week, Crump said White’s death is reminiscent of 21-year-old Chavis Carter’s 2012 death in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Jesus Huerta’s 2013 death in Durham, North Carolina, both of whom allegedly shot themselves while handcuffed in police cars.
“We have a terrible recent trend that is occurring across states lines … that finds these Houdini handcuff suicides while they’re in the custody of police that defies all logic, all common sense,” Crump said.
FBI and Justice Department lawyers are reviewing the state investigation and “will determine what additional investigation, if any, is necessary to determine who fired the fatal shot,” U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley said this month. The investigation will “supplement rather than supplant” the state investigation, she said.
Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Ryan Turner said Sheriff Louis Ackal “immediately after the incident contacted the state police to show fairness and impartiality in the investigation.” Ackal was refraining from comment for the time being so as not to influence the investigation, Turner said.
“We are definitely going to stay out of the investigation until it’s complete,” he said.
Capt. Doug Cain, state police spokesman, granted an interview but declined to discuss specifics of the case until the district attorney makes them public.
Search for a possibly armed man
White had the day off from his job at the Waffle House on March 2. He and a friend, Isaiah Lewis, had just arrived at a gas station to buy cigarillos when a fight broke out in the parking lot.
Lewis could not be reached for an interview, but White family attorney Powell-Lexing said she has seen surveillance tape from the store and knows White and Lewis were not involved in the fight. They left the Hop-In shortly after the quarrel began, she said.
About six blocks from the store, an Iberia Parish deputy responding to the fight saw White and Lewis walking and stopped them, according to a state police news release.
“Upon responding to the area, deputies located White and discovered he was in possession of illegal narcotics. White was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing,” the release said.
According to the service report from the sheriff’s office, Cpl. Justin Ortis received no description of the men involved in the fight. He was told only that they were black, “and one of the males mentioned having a gun,” the report said.
When he stopped White, the service report states, White consented to a pat-down, and Ortis found marijuana in his pocket. After reading White his rights, he searched White more thoroughly and found “suspected powder cocaine and a packet of cigarillos. … White stated the marijuana and cocaine belonged to him and the cigarillos were used to smoke the marijuana.”
Crump was especially suspicious of this aspect of the report and asked, “If you pat someone down and you can feel a small package of marijuana, wouldn’t you feel a gun?”
White’s cooperation apparently dissipated en route to the station, according to the state police news release. Once at the station, he refused to exit the patrol car.
“As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round, striking himself in the back,” the release states, adding that White was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Answers raise questions
Though the news release issued by state police provides scant details of White’s arrest and subsequent death, White Sr. says the statement spurred doubts in his mind.
Why did it seem to imply White was involved in the fight at the gas station? And more importantly, why did it say White shot himself in the back when the coroner’s autopsy shows he was shot in the chest?
The initial report that White was shot in the back rather than the chest has gotten some unfair media coverage, Cain of the Louisiana State Police said. The bullet entered the right side of White’s chest, perforating his lung and heart, before exiting near his left armpit, according to the autopsy report.
In the rush to release information on the shooting in the hours after the incident, Cain said, investigators were guilty of a lack of a specificity but never intended to mislead the public as to the nature of the wound.
“It’s not indicative of the intensive investigation we’ve undertaken in the last three months,” he said. “We work diligently to gather the facts. We’re certainly anxious to meet with the family and share our findings.”
Yet that is just one question White Sr. said is raised by the autopsy report, which states that his son was “reportedly in a locked patrol car with his hands handcuffed behind him when officers heard a shot and found the decedent slumped over.”
The report, which noted White had alcohol and marijuana in his system, contains other findings that Powell-Lexing said were notable: There were “abrasions” around White’s left eye, White reportedly said something to the effect of “he was gone” before being placed in the police car and there was no “stippling,” or unburned gunpowder, around the bullet wound.
Stippling, Powell-Lexing said, is a sort of trademark of point-blank gunshot wounds. As for the claim that White’s words were proof he was suicidal, the attorney can find no other word but “ludicrous,” she said.
The autopsy report concludes that White committed suicide, “every other manner of death is ruled out” and the injuries White suffered “are possible to be self-inflicted even with the hands handcuffed behind the back.”
After the report was provided to the family last month, coroner Carl Ditch issued a news release to elaborate, saying his ruling of suicide was based on information that hadn’t yet been released to the public. He added that because of White’s “habitus” — his physique or build — “the pathologist and investigators agree that he would have been able to manipulate the weapon to the point where the contact entrance wound was found.”
A father’s frustrations
After getting a call on March 3 at 5 a.m. from his son, Leonard, who told him Victor was dead, White Sr. drove from Alexandria to New Iberia, where he was met with only mystery, he said.
The sheriff’s office referred him to state police. State police referred him to the sheriff’s office. He also had difficulty getting access to the body. How, he wondered, did authorities identify the body without consulting the next of kin?
He was finally allowed to see his son, but with restrictions, he said.
“They told me I would be able to see my son, but I would only be able to see him from the neck up,” he said.
Not able to see the bullet wound beneath the sheet, the first thing White Sr. noticed was a wound — it resembled a bruise — extending from above White’s left eye down to his cheek.
“How did my son die?” he demanded of Ditch, the coroner, who replied that the case was under investigation, according to White Sr.
Police told him the same thing. Upset, he drove the two hours back to Alexandria, he said. Once there, he received calls from friends and family members stunned by a news release posted on the Louisiana State Police website. White Sr. was baffled. He had badgered authorities all day, to no avail, and he gets home to find they issued a press release?
“We’re the last to know,” he said. “They haven’t told me anything. They haven’t even spoken to me. We’ve been in the dark the whole time.”
Ditch said in his August news release he would not comment further on the case.
The whole experience has left White Sr. angry and distrustful of the police, but more concerning to him, it has robbed him of something that would be important to any father who loses a child, he said.
“Right now, we have no closure because of what they’re saying. There’s no way we can get closure, and there’s no way the grief process can take shape,” the Baptist pastor said. “That’s all I really want, is the truth to be told about what happened, and we want justice to be served.”