In the wee hours of the morning on March 2, 22-year-old Victor White III was shot while in the custody of Louisiana's New Iberia Sheriff's department and was pronounced dead later that day at a local hospital. The case has been of particular interest to me for the past few months because of who the law enforcement officials fingered as the triggerman. They alleged that White III shot himself—in the backseat of a police car, while his hands were cuffed behind his back, with a gun that mysteriously appeared after they had searched and arrested him.
According to initial information offered by Trooper Stephen Hammons to the press back in March, Victor III was stopped under the suspicion that he was involved in a fight at a convenience store near his home. Hammons claimed the unnamed deputy involved searched White III, found unidentified narcotics on his person, and arrested him. When they arrived at Iberia Parish Sherrif's Office, they said Victor III refused to exit the cruiser and became "uncooperative." That's when he allegedly "produced" a handgun and fired off one round into his back, killing himself.
Other than those basic details, it's been radio silence for months in terms of official information from the local authorities, who've cited an ongoing investigation into the shooting by the state police as their reason for not sharing any more details or answering any questions about Victor White III. I know—I've reached out to everyone from the local to state police, not to mention political officials like New Iberia's Mayor Hilda Curry, only to fall on deaf ears or get the line about an on-going investigation.
However, late last week some new information eked out via the Iberia Parish Coroner's Office. Victor III's autopsy was performed the day he died by local forensic pathologist Christopher Tape, who has yet to return my calls for comment. The report itself offers fresh insight into what happened that night, while fueling the only natural suspicion that we still don't know the full story of this incredible backseat shooting.
First off, the cause of death according to the report was a suicide, which is drastically different from the seemingly accidental shooting initially described by police officials. According to Victor III's family, he had no history of mental illness or depression. And even if he did, the back seat of a cop car at one in the morning is a strange place to decide to snuff it.
Despite initial statements made by authorities that said Victor III was shot in the back, the report describes no back wounds at all. Instead, his cause of death is described as a gunshot to his right chest that perforated his left lung and heart, exited through his left armpit, and lacerated his upper arm. It was reported in initial local accounts of the shooting that Victor III was handcuffed behind his back. So in order for him to have shot himself in the chest, he would have had to pull himself through his cuffed arms in the backseat of that cop car—and of course, have a gun in the first place.
The report also lists two abrasions on Victor III's upper left face and around his eye, which seems to be in line with what White's father, Victor White Sr., told me a couple weeks after his son's death: "I know they beat him before he arrived at the station," he said, "because those who were with him before he was arrested said he didn’t have a mark on him.”
I spoke again with Victor Sr. after he'd spent some time looking at the report. The man was in a state of bewilderment and exhaustion, because after more than six months, he still has no idea what happened to his son and the explanations just don't add up.
Authorities have kept Victor Sr. in the dark since the very beginning. He was never alerted by officials that his son had been arrested and died in police custody in the first place. Instead, he found out from his son Leonard, who had been questioned in connection with Victor III's death. When Victor Sr. went to New Iberia, at first the police refused to even let him see his son's body. Then, when they allowed him see his son, it was only from the neck up. The police wouldn't even reveal to him how they thought that his son died. He ended up finding out that the police were claiming his son shot himself in the back by way of a public Facebook post published by the department.
Now, he's got the skeleton of an autopsy report that begs more questions than it provides answers. Did Victor III actually have gun residue on his hands? What kind of gun fired the shot and what kind of bullet was used? Based upon what new information did this shooting suddenly become a confirmed suicide? And how do the police reconcile this report with their initial account? All of these are ringing in his head with all the old, unanswered questions, like who were the officers involved? Is there a weapon or a bullet? And, maybe most important, was this incident caught on videotape?
So much has happened across this country since I first reported on Victor White III's shooting in March: An unarmed, asthmatic father named Eric Garner was strangled to death by the NYPD in Staten Island. An unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was shot six times—once in the head—and killed by his local police in Ferguson, Missouri. And an unarmed, mentally ill 25-year-old named Ezell Ford was shot three times in the back and killed by two LAPD officers.
Righteous anger and frustration at these all too familiar occurrences have lead to protests and demonstrations across the country. However, little national attention has been paid to the curious case of Victor White III. The lack of credible information as to what actually went down surely has something to do with it. And as time goes on, there is the very real possibility that his death will drop out of the news cycle. However, headlines and protest wouldn't provide much solace to Victor White Sr., who's had to live the last few months in purgatory wondering what in the world happened to his boy.
UPDATE: We posted this link in our first story about Victor White III, but we wanted to remind readers again that the White family has created a campaign to raise funds for an independent autopsy and crime-scene tests. If you want to help them get answers, please donate.
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