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Handcuffed Black Youth Shot Himself to Death, Says Coroner

Image: Rev. Victor White and Vanessa White, parents of the deceased Victor White III photographed in their living room in Alexandria.

Rev. Victor White II and Vanessa White, parents of Victor White III, photographed in their living room in Alexandria, Louisiana. William Widmer / for NBC News

A coroner’s report obtained exclusively by NBC News directly contradicts the police version of how a 22-year-old black man died in the back seat of a Louisiana police cruiser earlier this year -- but still says the man, whose hands were cuffed behind his back, shot himself.

In a press release issued March 3, the day he died, the Louisiana State Police said Victor White III apparently shot himself in an Iberia Parish police car. According to the police statement, White had his hands cuffed behind his back when he shot himself in the back.

But according to the full final report of the Iberia Parish coroner, which was released nearly six months later and obtained exclusively by NBC News, White was shot in the front, not the back. The bullet entered his right chest and exited under his left armpit. White was left-handed, according to family members. According to the report, the forensic pathologist found gunshot residue in the wound, but not the sort of stippling that a close-range shot can sometimes produce. He also found abrasions on White’s face.

And yet, despite the contradictions – and even though White’s hands were never tested for gunpowder residue – the Iberia Parish coroner still supported the central contention of the initial police statement issued back in March. Dr. Carl Ditch ruled that White shot himself, and declared his death a suicide.

In a press release issued Monday, Dr. Ditch said that based on the findings of the pathologist and investigators, it was possible for White “due to his body habitus” to manipulate the gun to shoot himself in the chest.

White’s father doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t believe that a man with a new baby, a girlfriend and a job had the motive for suicide, and he doesn’t think any version of events in which White shot himself, whether in the front or back, is physically possible.

“You can’t make me understand,” said Rev. Victor White II, 53, a Baptist minister and former substance abuse counselor. “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.”

Image: Victor White's family
In Alexandria, Louisiana, Vanessa White (left), mother of Victor White III, eats dinner with her daughters Precious (13, left) and Victoria White (20, right), and her husband, Rev. Victor White II. William Widmer / for NBC News

Facebook posts reveal two different sides of Victor White III; some photos show a young man acting tough, and another catches him reading the Bible with his brother.

Those who knew him describe him as a goofball, eager to make friends and family laugh. For a time he had struggled to get himself on track, they say, and there were arrests for property damage and marijuana possession, but six months before he died he seemed to be accepting adult responsibility.

After months without work, he got a job at a Waffle House in New Iberia, a sugar cane town of 30,000 more than two hours west of New Orleans. He had begun saving for an apartment with his long-time girlfriend and their infant daughter. Family members say he was trying to decide whether to go to community college or apply for a more lucrative job working on one of the oil rigs that dot the Gulf of Mexico. He’d even started commuting to Alexandria, Louisiana now and then to attend Sunday services at Harmony Missionary Baptist Church, where his father is the preacher.

"He was ready to start,” said his father, Rev. White. “He’d call and text the family every night. ‘I love you, y’all would have been proud of me, I’m working another double [shift].’ ”

On March 2, the younger White was blowing off steam on the one night a week he had off from Waffle House.

Ashley Boutte, 24, said she picked White and his brother Leonard up around 6 p.m. outside a convenience store. They went back to Boutte’s father’s house to hang out.

“[Victor White] was very social,” Boutte said. “Very happy. He didn't seem like he was mad or sad or anything. He was in a real good mood.”

While at Boutte’s father’s house, they ran into Isaiah Lewis, 24, who was visiting his own father next door. Lewis and White, who had never met before, hit it off. They talked for a few hours, about problems Whitewas having with his girlfriend, about work and life. "We just clicked,” Lewis said.

Boutte and Lewis both say they don’t know whether Victor White had a gun.

Boutte said that when White and his brother were rough-housing in the kitchen, she overheard White say, “Oh yeah, I got mine on me,” in reference to a handgun.

Said Boutte, “Leonard was like, ‘Pull it out,” and it was like, ‘No.’ They were playfighting. I know a lot of guys joke around about having [a gun], so I don’t know, as far as if it was true or not.”

Lewis also said he never saw a gun. Leonard White did not agree to be interviewed for this article.

Lewis and Victor White talked and drank for a while, and White asked Lewis if he would help him buy a small amount of marijuana. After they purchased $10 worth at around 11 p.m., Lewis said, the pair walked to the Hop-In, a gas station a few blocks away, to buy cigars.

According to Lewis and the manager of the Hop-In, while Lewis and White were inside the store, a fight started outside.

Two men in front of the store began shouting. One told the other he was going to get a gun. White told Lewis they should stay inside. A woman called 911. After the men ran down the street, Lewis and White left.

Around 11:30 p.m. White and Lewis were walking a few blocks down the road when a police cruiser slowed, Lewis said. According to a service report provided to NBC News by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, Corp. Justin Ortis asked the men to stop.

Ortis performed a “consented pat-down” of White, according to the report, and “located suspected marijuana in front pants pocket.”

They told the officer, Lewis said, that they could identify the men who were fighting. He said they offered to go to the convenience store with them, to talk to the clerk. “I said, ‘You can still probably catch them,” Lewis said. “You’re just burning time here. Victor said, ‘Why can’t you go back to the store and look at the camera?’ They said they didn’t have time for that.”

According to a public information officer for the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, no one was ever apprehended for that alleged offense.

Lewis said that after finding the marijuana, the officer told them, “I’m going to let y’all go, that’s nothing.”

But after the officer ran the men’s names through a police database, he called for backup. As they waited, White and Lewis sat on the ground in front of the police cruiser, headlights cutting into the dark.

By the time a second officer in a separate cruiser arrived, Lewis said, White had been handcuffed behind his back, and placed in the back of the first car. The police report says White was detained and read his rights.

According to the report, a second search of White produced the cigars and a small amount of cocaine, and White said both the cocaine and marijuana were his. “White was then transported to the patrol center to be questioned by narcotics detectives,” the report concludes.

The officers dismissed Lewis, and he walked back to his father’s house.

But by 5 a.m., Lewis said, detectives were knocking on his door, asking that he come to the station to answer questions about his friend. At no point throughout the course of the subsequent interview, Lewis said, did they tell him that White had died while in the custody of police officers.

"I try playing it out in my head,” Lewis said. "If we had different timing … I don’t know what went wrong exactly that night.”

Image: A recent photograph of Victor White at age 22.
A recent photograph of Victor White III. White died in March at age 22 after suffering a gunshot wound while handcuffed in a police cruiser. The coroner of Iberia Parish has ruled his death a suicide. William Widmer / Courtesy Vanessa White

Early on the morning of March 3, Rev. White and his wife Vanessa, 44, raced down Interstate 49 in their powder blue van, toward Iberia Parish, two hours south of their home in Alexandria. They’d received two disturbing and cryptic phone calls – one from their son, Leonard, and another from the Louisiana State Police. Both said they needed to get to New Iberia because “something had happened” to their son Victor.

"I tried not to think the worst of it,” Vanessa said. “I was never imagining that he had gotten shot.”

When they arrived in New Iberia, Rev. White said, a state investigator told him over the phone that his son was dead and that she was investigating the circumstances. Officials said the family would not be allowed to see the body. Rev. White rushed to the parish jail on Broken Arrow Road to find someone who could tell him what happened. After panicked phone calls to the local coroner and the doctor who pronounced his son dead, Rev. White was finally led into the parish morgue, where thebody lay waiting on the coroner's slab.

Rev. White said that his son’s face seemed swollen, but he could not tell if it was the swell of death, or if his son had been hit. He noted a laceration on the left side of his face. He was not allowed to view the body below the chin.

“I saw distress in his face,” he said. “I saw death.”

As police investigators stood on either side of him, Rev. White performed the last rites over his son’s body, then left the room to tell his wife what he saw.

The Whites did not know anything about the circumstances of their son’s death until after their visit to the morgue, when a family friend in New Iberia called to tell them the State Police had issued a press release on Facebook.

The press release stated that, “[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.”

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Within hours of White’s death, the Louisiana State Police had assigned investigators to the case.

Due to the pending investigation, records normally considered public are not available. The State Police will not yet release dash cam footage, or the number of or names of any officers present during White’s death. They will not give any timeframe as to when they expect the investigation to conclude.

“You always want to make sure in the end you did whatever you could do possible, that in whatever case you put forward, is the right case, and the outcome is the right outcome,” said Trooper Brooks David, public information officer for the Louisiana State Police. “So if it takes us eight months, or two months, you always want to make sure that you do the right thing.”

The State Police did issue a cursory preliminary incident report stating that White had been shot with a .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun, but that no weapon had been found when White was searched prior to the shooting. According to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, parish police are issued .45 caliber handguns.

The Sheriff’s Office also said via email that White had not been involved in a physical altercation with officers.

The coroner’s report notes that White had two lacerations on the left side of his face – one above his left eyebrow, and one on his left cheek. Lewis said that the last time he saw White – meaning after the police stop, when he was about to walk home and White was in custody – White’s face was unmarked. The original police statement in March said White had been “uncooperative” before the incident, but the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office told NBC News that White had not been involved in any physical altercation with police.

According to the coroner's report, White had a blood alcohol content of .132 percent, which would have made him legally drunk if he were driving, and he also tested positive for marijuana. He tested negative for cocaine and any other narcotics.

The coroner’s report states that according to police, White had intimated he was going to commit suicide before he shot himself.

“The decedent was a 22-year-old black man who was reportedly in a locked patrol car with his hands handcuffed behind him when officers heard a shot and found the decedent slumped over,” the coroner’s report reads. “A small caliber pistol was found and a projectile was found within the shirt. Allegedly he had made a statement that ‘he was gone’ or some similar phrasing before being placed in the patrol car.” The coroner’s report does not say whether White’s wound is consistent with that caliber.

The report does not explain why the initial police statement said White shot himself in the back. Officials declined to comment on why no weapon was discovered during the two recorded searches of White.

The Sheriff’s Office and the State Police both declined requests from NBC News to discuss the forensics of the case. The Sheriff’s Office did say that no civilian complaints have ever been filed against Corp. Ortis, the officer who first stopped White and Lewis. Ortis did not respond to requests for comment, and a second Iberia Parish officer who was on duty that night declined to speak to NBC News.

In the press release issued this morning, Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl M. Ditch, said that he ruled on the White case "without bias."

"Although the decedent was handcuffed at the time with his hands to his back, due to his body habitus, the pathologist and investigators agree that he would have been able to manipulate the weapon to the point where the contact entrance wound was found," Ditch wrote.

The White family says that although they are anxiously awaiting the final results of the Louisiana State Police’s investigation, they have little faith investigators will contradict the coroner’s ruling. “I don’t’ think anything is going to be different from what they already said,” said Rev. White, who has retained a lawyer but hasn’t yet decided whether to file a lawsuit. “It’s difficult to see that anything else would bring us back what we need. The only thing we want back is our son.”