As "Sugartown" opens, the camera pans across acres and acres of Iberia Parish cane fields, but this is no sweet story.
What unfolds during the two-hour Investigation Discovery documentary airing Monday night is an examination of the 2014 death of Victor White III while in the custody of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, the subsequent national exposure and criminal and civil proceedings surrounding the case, and the White family's crusade for justice.
The city of New Iberia, meanwhile, is painted as one of contrasts, where million-dollar homes aren't far from poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Some former slave cabins are still residences on "the other side of the tracks."
"You do have a very strong sense of segregation because of this," journalist Dwayne Fatherree says in the documentary.
Police alleged White shot himself in the back with his own gun while handcuffed in the rear of a squad car. The coroner's report, however, indicates White shot himself in the chest. The man's family never believed either of those accounts.
After 22-year-old White left the Hop In, a New Iberia convenience store, with friend Isaiah Lewis the night of March 2, 2014, the pair, traveling on foot, were stopped and questioned by deputies who were in the area to investigate a fight reported at the store. During a pat-down, deputies found a small bag containing marijuana and another containing cocaine in White's pockets, reports say. He was arrested, his hands cuffed behind his back, and he was placed in the police car and taken to the station. Lewis was let go.
"We got here. He said, 'Look man, I can't go back to jail,' " arresting officer Cpl. Justin Ortis said while giving his statement following White's death. "You know, he wanted me to promise him that he wasn't going to jail. I told him I couldn't promise anything. … He said 'OK.'
"When I went to get him out of the car and he refused, he stated that he couldn't go back to jail and to tell my family I love them," Ortis said.
"I remember him saying, "I can't go back to jail, and then he said, 'I'm gone,' " Lt. Jeffrey Schmidt, also at the scene, said in his statement. "Right after that is when I heard the gunshot."
Ortis said he pulled White from the car, uncuffed him and looked for wounds on White's body, finding one in his right chest and one under his left armpit. Ortis said he administered first aid, including applying pressure to the underarm wound, which was spurting blood, and doing chest compressions.
At 5:41 a.m. the following day, the Rev. Victor White II said he got a call from another of his sons, L.C. (Leonard) White, who also lived in New Iberia.
"He was crying and he said Lil Vic was dead," the elder White told ID. "I felt empty. My heart dropped. Actually, my heart stopped."
The White family drove to New Iberia from their home in Alexandria. Not getting any answers about his son at the hospital or from authorities, the minister ended up at the parish morgue. He was able to view his son's body and administer last rites.
"I saw a mark from about his left eyebrow down to the top of his jawbone. I could see he was beaten. I could see Lil Vic's left eye was turned inward," he said, sobbing.
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When a State Police investigation into White's death concurred with the sheriff's office and the coroner that the young Waffle House worker killed himself, the White family was outraged.
"He was ready to become a man and step up, you know, and take care of his responsibilities and getting his life together. Just no. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now," mom Vanessa White said.
The family reached out to Alexandria radio talk show host Tony Brown and civil rights attorney Carol Powell Lexing, who both joined their cause. Brown often discusses on his show the alarming increase in African-American men dying at the hands of police, while Lexing is well-known for defending six black teens charged in the beating of a white student at Jena High School in 2006 in what became known as the Jena 6 case.
"The most shocking thing about this case (the White case) is the fact that they are alleging that this young man committed suicide," Lexing said.
"The inconsistencies all by themselves lay out that something is terribly wrong with this picture. It just defies logic, and it's an insult to this family to try to perpetuate that on them," Lexing said at a press conference.
With the case gaining national exposure and the work of the Justice for Victor White Foundation formed by his family unrelentless, others came forward about physical mistreatment by the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, led since 2008 by Sheriff Louis Ackal. With the release of a video of police dogs being allowed to attack a black parish inmate already on the ground in compliance, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI launched an independent investigation of the sheriff's office. In 2016, Ackal and Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy were charged with civil rights violations in the 2011 beatings of five pre-trial parish jail detainees. Savoy was one of 10 former Sheriff's Office employees who pleaded guilty in the investigation and received prison time. Ackal was acquitted and continues in his third term as sheriff.
A civil rights lawsuit was filed against Ackal and Ortis on behalf of White's young daughter. A settlement was reached in March. The Advocate and KATC-TV are seeking to have the amount of that settlement released.
"I think the positivity of Lil Vic's death is already here," his sister Lakeisha Green said. "With my daddy spearheading (the exposing of) the injustice of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department, Lil Vic's death was the beginning. We may never receive justice but I betcha another family will."
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday
CHANNEL: Investigation Discovery (cable Channel 103)