IBERIA PARISH, LA — Authorities claim that a man committed suicide via gunshot while handcuffed and unattended in the back of a police cruiser. However, an autopsy report states that the man — who had his handcuffed behind his back, and was already searched for weapons — was shot in the chest.
The controversial death of Victor White III occurred on the evening of March 2nd, 2014. Mr. White, age 22, was enjoying an evening with his brother and a few friends. After socializing and drinking for a few hours, he and Isaiah Lewis, 24, walked to a nearby convenience store to purchase cigars.
While shopping at the Hop-In gas station around 11:00 p.m., Mr. White and Mr. Lewis witnessed two other individuals outside having an argument. The strangers were allegedly in front of the store shouting and fighting, and one made a threat. White and Lewis observed from inside the store, and another customer called 9-1-1.
The fighting subsided and the two individuals ran off before the police arrived. Mr. White and Mr. Lewis completed their purchases, left the store, and began walking back to the house to be with their friends.
Around 11:30 p.m., a patrolling police officer saw White and Lewis walking and asked them to stop. Corporal Justin Ortis of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office performed a “consented pat-down” of Mr. White, NBC News reported, and discovered a small amount of marijuana in his pocket.
When asked about the scuffle in front of the convenience store, Mr. Lewis recalled telling the police officer that they could help identify the suspects and encouraged the officer to look at the store surveillance video. Instead, additional officers arrived and performed more searches on White and Lewis.
Mr. Lewis was released from handcuffs and dismissed, but Mr. White was detained and read his rights because of the substances found in his pocket. Lewis watched as White was placed in the back of Corporal Ortis’ cruiser, then left the scene to return home.
The events that followed remain somewhat unclear. Somehow, while inside the police cruiser, with his hands cuffed behind his back, Mr. White was fatally shot with a handgun in the chest.
Police later circulated a press release depicting the official version of events:
“[Victor White III] was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back, and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing. Once at the Sheriff’s Office, White became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol vehicle. As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back.”
The police narrative was that Mr. White had possessed his own gun and had committed suicide while left alone in the cruiser. Prior to entering the police cruiser, he had been subjected to two (2) separate police searches, both of which produced no weapons. Police offered no explanation for how Mr. White could have possessed a handgun after being checked multiple times.
The decedent’s father, Rev. Victor White II, stated that on the morning of March 3rd he and his wife went to the coroner’s office to see their son’s body. They were not allowed to see the body below the chin, but noted that his face appeared swollen and had a laceration on the left side.
Mr. Lewis stated that the last time he saw Victor White, he was unharmed.
Lewis also said that he received an odd visit from police a few hours after White was taken into custody. Around 5:00 a.m. on the morning of March 3rd, police knocked on his door, woke him up, and questioned him about Mr. White. At no time did police inform him that White had already been shot while in their custody.
The official contention that the gun had been fired from behind White’s back by his own hand. Among the troubles with this account was the fact that it did not align with the forensic evidence.
The autopsy report, issued by Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl M. Ditch six months after the death, revealed that the bullet did not enter the body from behind, as police had claimed. Instead, the report stated that the bullet penetrated White’s chest from the front, perforated his heart and left lung, then exited through his left armpit and injured his upper left arm.
The trajectory of the bullet places the gun in front of Mr. White, off to the right side. Despite the implausible scenario, the coroner still generously accepted that the police department’s claim that the death was a suicide.
The decedent’s hands were never tested for gunpowder residue, nor were the hands of any of the men who were holding him in their custody.
Hard to understand
Leaving aside the physical difficulties of a man retrieving an extremely well concealed handgun while cuffed and shooting himself in the heart — from any angle — some are questioning the plausibility of the motive.
White’s friends said that he was playful and jovial throughout the evening of his death. He was a hard-working, church-going, new father that spoke often of making his parents proud.
“You can’t make me understand,” White’s father, the 53-year-old Baptist reverend, said to NBC News. “You can’t make me understand how my son took his left hand, when he was handcuffed behind the back, and shot himself. I don’t believe a thing they’re saying at this point.”
How could White have concealed a handgun past multiple police searches? How could he have contorted his body while handcuffed to shoot himself in the heart? Why would he do such a thing? How did his face get injured? Why was there a disparity in the direction how the handgun was fired?
Many questions remain. It may end up that none of us ever come to understand the actual mechanics and motives behind Victor White III’s death. It seems evident, however, that the entire situation with the police could have been avoided if it weren’t for arbitrary and punitive drug laws that are regularly used to harass people who are otherwise minding their own business.