The night Victor White Sr.’s son died in the backseat of a cop car in New Iberia, Louisiana, he called the local sheriff’s station to figure out where his boy was.
“I asked them if he’d been apprehended, and they told me no,” he said to me. It wasn’t until the following morning, March 3, that Victor Sr. found out his son, Victor White III, had been arrested and died while in police custody. But he didn’t receive the news from the New Iberia Sheriff's Department—he got the call from his son Leonard, who also lives in New Iberia and had been questioned that morning by police in connection with the death of his brother.
Immediately, of course, Victor Sr. made the two-hour drive from his home in Alexandria down to New Iberia to find out what the hell was going on. But the cops refused to tell him anything about the circumstances surrounding his 22-year-old son’s death, citing an ongoing investigation by the state police. At that point, Victor Sr. had no idea his son's death was caused by a gunshot to the back while he was still in handcuffs in the backseat of a patrol car. Every official he talked to was cagey.
“They wouldn’t even let me see the body,” Victor Sr. told me over the phone. Eventually, when they realized he wouldn’t take “no comment” for an answer, they brought in the coroner and allowed Victor Sr. to take one look at his deceased son—but even then, they had conditions. “They told me I couldn’t see his lower body,” he told me. “I could only see his face.”
Still completely in the dark about what had taken place, Victor drove back home in utter shock. “It wasn’t until I got back and looked on the state police's Facebook page that I found out what had happened to my son.” Even then, the official version of events opened up even more questions than answers.
Here’s what is known at this point: On Sunday, March 2, Victor White III walked down to a convenience store with a friend to pick up a cigar. When he got there, a fight broke out—it's unclear if Victor and his friend were involved, but in any case the cops arrived on the scene shortly after the fight ended, stopped Victor a couple blocks from the store, and discovered that he had some unidentified narcotics on him. They cuffed his hands behind his back and put him in the back of their cruiser—and that's where the story stops making much sense.
The sheriff's deputies who arrested Victor III allege that when they arrived at the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, Victor III wouldn't leave the car and became “uncooperative.” They say he pulled out a handgun, while his hands were cuffed behind his back, and shot himself in the back.
I called the state police and the local sheriff's office to ask questions about whether Victor's last moments were caught on video, who the officers in question are, and how a suspect in police custody could have had a gun after being frisked, but no one would comment anything of substance since the shooting was being investigated. (This is standard operating procedure at police departments.)
Lieutenant Anthony Green, however, was willing to give his take on New Iberia's response to the shooting, stating, “The community is not really up in arms about this. I don't sense any large unrest.”
This isn’t the first time the Iberia Sheriff's Department has been suspected of brutalizing the people of New Iberia. Last year, a group of officers were caught on video beating a handcuffed man at the town's annual Sugar Cane Festival, an incident that led to a deputy’s firing. And at least a few activists are upset by this history of mistreatment. On March 11, Reverend Raymond Brown, a fast-talking New Orleans preacher, hosted a small rally in New Iberia and called for the US Justice Department and the FBI to investigate Victor's death.
“We believe they murdered him," he told me over the phone. "They shot him in the back and then drove him to the sheriff’s office. We don't buy the police’s story. If he's handcuffed around the back, it would be impossible for him to reach down and grab a gun like that.”
To those close to Victor III, the claim that he would try pull out a gun and shoot himself while in the custody of police is just absurd.
“He was a respectable person. He went to church. It’s so unusual for them to say he was ‘uncooperative.' And for them to say he shot himself, that’s just unbelievable,” said Victor Sr. “I saw his face. I know they beat him before he arrived at the station, because those who were with him before he was arrested said he didn’t have a mark on him.”
According to his father, Victor III's previous run-ins with the law were minor—the kind you'd expect of any young man: He was caught once with pot, he got a traffic violation for making a U-turn a while back, and when he was 16 he broke someone's window. Local police officials, however, would not elaborate for me on Victor White III’s criminal record, once again citing the ongoing investigation. But Victor Sr. said that at the time of his death, Victor III was getting his life on track: He’d moved down to New Iberia in November to be with his girlfriend and his six-month-old daughter and was living out of a hotel called the Cajun Inn with one of his brothers, his girlfriend, and his baby. He’d taken a job at the local Waffle House, but his long-term plan was to go to vocational school for welding. The day Victor III died, he told his dad over the phone that he was planning on using his $800 income tax refund, which he was carrying around that night in cash, to get a permanent home for his girl and his baby. Everything seemed to be falling in place.
Outraged and dissatisfied, Victor Sr. and his family have banded together to try and get to the bottom of what happened to Victor White III. They’ve hired attorney Carol Powell Lexing, who gained statewide recognition for her work on the Jena Six case. Severely skeptical of the state investigation and the local police, Victor Sr. and the White family have also created a campaign to raise funds for an independent autopsy and crime-scene tests. Simply put, they're tired of waiting to hear from the police.
"My family has no closure, because there are all these questions still looming over us," Victor Sr. said to me in a moment of reflection and lamentation. "I'm just in disbelief. I still call out his name. I still think I'm going to wake up from this nightmare."
UPDATE: According to the White family's lawyer, Carol Powell Lexing, there is video footage that confirms Victor III was not involved in the fight outside the New Iberian convenient store, which caused the police to arrive on the scene and stop and question him.
Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.