Unitarian church members and Baton Rouge residents gathered on the steps of the State Capitol on Sunday night as an Alexandria father described his futile search for information in the death of his son about six months ago.
“We really have no closure — and it appears to get worse without getting any better,” the Rev. Victor White Sr. said of the search to find out what led to his son’s death.
The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office has said 22-year-old Victor White III killed himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser on the night of March 2. White had been arrested after deputies were called out to reports of a fight — but when deputies arrived at their headquarters, they say White shot himself after refusing to get out of the car.
White’s death has provoked anger among those who believe there’s no way a handcuffed man who had been searched by deputies at least once could brandish a handgun and shoot himself.
At the memorial Sunday, organized by the Rev. Steve Crump of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, White’s father provided details of his search for answers, saying he has been denied basic facts at almost every turn. He spoke at the memorial while his wife, two daughters and one granddaughter listened.
To date, the elder White said he has still not had a conversation with anyone from law enforcement about where the investigations into his son’s death stand.
White’s search began when he received a call at 11:30 p.m. from his other son saying that Victor White III had been arrested — but when the elder White called, an official at the parish jail told him his son had not been booked yet. White said he thought his son may have been released before being jailed.
But his confusion gave way to anger as the night wore on, and by 6 a.m. the following morning, White received a call saying that his son had died — but a State Police investigator declined by phone to say how.
White then drove from Alexandria to Lafayette to see his son’s body, but said he was told even less about the incident than what emerged in news reports the following day. White said he didn’t even know that sheriff’s deputies found narcotics in his son’s clothes, or that they said his son did not cooperate with police, until the elder White read about it in a news report online.
“No one called us, and all we want is the truth. All we want is justice,” White told the crowd Sunday.
Even more painful was the Iberia Parish coroner’s findings released about five months later, saying his son’s death had been a suicide.
A summary of Coroner Dr. Carl Ditch’s report states a single bullet entered White’s chest between his right nipple and his right armpit, and exited near the left armpit.
“I know my son didn’t kill himself,” the elder White told the crowd Sunday, adding that his son was planning to buy a car and settle into an apartment with his girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter.
The coroner’s report also confused him because the document showed his son’s time of death as close to 1 a.m., about two hours after his arrest, even though the younger White is said to have shot himself upon arrival at the Sheriff’s Office, just minutes after the alleged argument.
White now suspects that he will have to wait until the FBI completes its investigation before he learns of any new details in the shooting. State Police finished their investigation earlier this month and sent the report to the District Attorney’s Office but have not made the results public.
The memorial follows a Southern University gathering earlier this month, when the Rev. Al Sharpton cast doubt on how a man handcuffed from behind managed to shoot himself in the chest at the angle the Sheriff’s Office and coroner described. He called the Sheriff’s Office narrative “an insult to the intelligence of the people of this state.”
Representatives from the NAACP, ACLU and Dialogue on Race Louisiana also briefly spoke on Sunday and made clear their frustration and disappointment that the narrative behind the incident leaves too many questions unanswered.
Dawn Collins, a mother of two sons, 18 and 17, said she feared that as black teenagers they would encounter harassment by police one day and that as they were growing up she taught them, along with other more conventional parenting lessons, how to be respectful to police.
She said she told them to “swallow your pride so you can live another day.”
“We are burdened with teaching our children the lessons of the color of their skin,” Collins said. “Most families don’t even think about that burden.”
Memorial attendees said they were shocked by White’s death and disturbed that his father could have so much trouble getting basic information in the wake of the incident.
Irene Kato, who also is a member of the Unitarian Church, called Victor White Sr.’s story “tortuous.”
“I think it’s important to hear his story,” Kato said. “I think it’s absolutely unacceptable that happened to this family.”
Marjorie Bourgeois said she could not imagine what the elder White has gone through in the incident’s aftermath.
“How can that happen?” she asked.