TICKFAW — More than a month has passed, but the image remains seared into Sharon Shaw's consciousness.
On that chaotic November night, Shaw's 36-year-old son, Terrance Williams, lay motionless in a backyard in rural Tangipahoa Parish, having collapsed after fleeing from sheriff's deputies. An investigator warned Shaw to stand back, a difficult command for a mother watching a child in distress to obey.
"I couldn't understand why he was alive one minute and then dead the next," Shaw said. "I can't get that vision out of my head."
With the holidays approaching, Shaw and her family are hoping the results of an autopsy will explain Williams' sudden death, which followed a foot chase through a darkened thicket and a violent struggle with deputies that, according to authorities, lasted about 10 minutes.
A Navy veteran and entrepreneur, Williams was in declining health and dependent on an oxygen tank at the time of his death. But his family said deputies mishandled his arrest — he had been wanted for felony theft — and ignored repeated complaints that he couldn't breathe once he was in custody.
"It shouldn't have ended this way," Shaw said. "I haven't gotten any answers."
Williams' death, which has not previously been reported, happened Nov. 17 behind his grandmother's home in Tickfaw.
Deputies had been following up on a burglary report Williams filed the day before, in which he claimed someone broke into the Durbin Road residence and stole two 50-inch televisions, some lawn equipment and six pairs of shoes.
Investigators became suspicious of Williams' claim, noting in a report that the home had "no signs of rummaging or ransacking" and no recent indications of forced entry. They suspected Williams also had provided a bogus first name, Gavin, and a false date of birth in his report.
A database search turned up a mugshot for Williams and an alert that he was wanted on one count of felony theft and for failing to appear in court. The investigating deputies, Michael D'Amato and Brian Koretzky, decided to confront Williams about his true identity and knocked on his grandmother's door after 9 p.m.
Williams welcomed the deputies into the residence and then "retreated to the hallway and put on an oxygen nasal cannula tube," according to an investigative report obtained by The Advocate. He then gave the investigators his correct date of birth, the Sheriff's Office report says, but maintained his name was Gavin.
Increasingly skeptical, the deputies returned to D'Amato's vehicle to double-check Williams' booking photo and the outstanding warrants. Upon returning to the home, the report says, the officers "could hear movement from inside the residence." Williams had jumped out of a window without his oxygen tank, his family said, and bolted into a thick patch of shrubs.
The deputies gave chase and, after losing sight of Williams briefly, radioed in that they were pursuing him on foot. Williams "continued to push through the briars and thicket," the report says, "ignoring commands to stop."
The deputies caught up with him, but Williams pulled away and began swinging at Koretzky, the report says. It says Williams fell to the ground, where he "continued to violently struggle, kicking Deputy D'Amato and flailing his arms and fists at Deputy Koretzky."
In his account of the arrest, D'Amato wrote that he "attempted to deliver a burst of Freeze + P chemical restraint to Williams' face" but could not determine whether the pepper spray "found its mark." D'Amato then began striking Williams in his legs with a baton, he wrote; "however, the strikes were ineffective as Williams continued to struggle, kick and flail his arms."
Koretzky, meanwhile, wrote that he "could not gain control of Williams' arms to place them behind his back for handcuffing."
"One handcuff was placed on Williams' left wrist, at which time Deputy Koretzky lost grip of Williams' right wrist," the report says. "After an approximately 10-minute struggle with Williams, Deputy Koretzky was able to use his right forearm to hold Williams down to place him in handcuffs."
Once Williams was subdued, he was told to stand "but was either unwilling or unable to stand," D'Amato wrote. "(Expletive) drag me out," Williams said, according to the deputies.
Williams eventually stood but collapsed after taking about four steps, complaining he couldn't breathe. Backup arrived, and the deputies moved an unconscious Williams out of the thicket, removed his handcuffs and began working to revive him, they said.
Acadian Ambulance personnel arrived at the scene and tried for 45 minutes to resuscitate Williams. Those efforts ceased at 10:23 p.m., the Sheriff's Office report says, and the body was turned over to the Tangipahoa Parish Coroner's Office.
Williams' death, now more than a month old, has not been reported to any outside law enforcement agencies. The Louisiana State Police were not brought in to investigate the incident. District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said nobody in his office "knew anything about" the case, though he added it was not standard practice for in-custody deaths to be reported to his office by the Sheriff's Office.
The investigation comes as federal authorities are closely scrutinizing the dealings of the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office, having raided the office last week, along with the Hammond Police Department, as part of a probe into a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force.
The FBI seized Sheriff Daniel Edwards' computer and copied the contents of his cellphone, according to law enforcement sources, but it's unclear whether there is any federal interest in Williams' death.
Edwards' chief deputy, Dennis Pevey, said investigators determined that Williams had "a lengthy medical history" after speaking to his family.
Williams' sister, Tamera, told The Advocate her brother's doctor had given him three years to live. A blood clot had recently traveled from his leg to his lungs, preventing him from working as a truck driver.
An autopsy revealed no bruises or signs of trauma on Williams' body, but the Coroner's Office is awaiting a toxicology report to determine the cause of death. Those tests, which could take eight to 10 weeks to complete, will be forwarded to the district attorney, along with the Sheriff's Office's investigative findings, Pevey said.
Shaw faulted the deputies for not recognizing her son needed oxygen.
"I just know he would still be here if they hadn't knocked on the door that night," she said. "I believe in my heart that if they had gotten him that oxygen he’d be alive."