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Family suspects racism played role in death of Black Missouri man initially ruled suicide

Investigators who initially concluded that Derontae Martin shot himself April 25 were also aware of claims of racism and allegations of murder, reports show.
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Ericka Lotts waited three months for a jury to tell her what she always believed — that her first-born child, Derontae Martin, did not fatally shoot himself at a house party in rural Missouri.

On April 25, her son was found unconscious in an attic closet, dead from a gunshot wound to his left temple. Martin was at the Fredericktown home of a white man who has posted racist memes on social media, which NBC News has viewed.

Lotts, 37, said authorities concluded that Martin, 19, who was Black, died by suicide and repeatedly told her that she was in denial about the nature of her son's death.

Lotts felt publicly vindicated on July 30 after a jury of six people ruled during a coroner's inquest hearing that Martin was killed by violence.

"I already knew he was killed violently. It wasn't a shock to me," Lotts said Thursday. "I was just happy they let it be known that somebody needs to speak up and let these people pay for what they did."

IMAGE: Derontae Martin
Derontae Martin.via KSDK

'This is what they wanted it to be'

NBC News obtained investigative documents from the police investigation into Martin's mysterious death from a doctor who performed an independent autopsy. Records show that police investigated allegations of racism and foul play by the homeowner. NBC News is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.

Police and medical personnel who handled the initial death investigation were blinded by tunnel vision, Lotts said.

"This is what they wanted it to be," she said. "When they walked in that house and they seen Derontae was a Black male, they were sure he had shot himself. That's all the information they needed."

A witness told police in June that he had a conversation with the homeowner at a Walmart in May and that the homeowner used a racial slur before admitting to having participated in Martin's death, according to a report from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

According to what the witness told police, the homeowner approached him and asked whether he wanted to "come out there and kill some n------." When the witness declined, police said, he asked the homeowner whether the rumors were true that he was responsible for Martin's death.

"Damn right I did," the homeowner told him, according to the witness statement. The witness then told police how the homeowner "described ways to get away with murder via wearing gloves, face coverings, etc," the highway patrol report said.

The homeowner could not be reached for comment during the past week.

Reports said investigators with the highway patrol asked the homeowner about the alleged conversation with the witness. The man told police that he may have used racial slurs, but he rebutted an admission of murder.

He agreed to take a polygraph test, which indicated that his answers were "nondeceptive in nature," the highway patrol said in its report. The homeowner also testified during the inquest that he had used racial slurs in the past and on social media but that he did not kill Martin.

Police have only ever concluded Martin took his own life. The homeowner has never been arrested or charged in connection with Martin's death.

The Daily Journal of Park Hills reported that the witness who spoke to the highway patrol testified about his encounter with the homeowner at the Walmart.

The man who accused the homeowner of admitting to killing Martin told NBC News that everything he said on the witness stand was true.

"I wouldn't let it come out my mouth if it wasn't true," the man said. He added: "I don't know if [he] was telling the truth or not. I just know what he told me."

Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins did not respond to calls during the past week for comment about how the investigation will proceed. Coroner Collin Follis also did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr. Russell Deidiker, the pathologist who performed an initial autopsy on Martin, rejected Lotts' allegation that racism influenced investigators. He said Monday by email that Martin's race did not affect how he conducted the autopsy.

The two police agencies that investigated Martin's death — the highway patrol and the Madison County Sheriff's Office — referred questions to Robbins and Follis.

The jury ruled that Martin was killed violently, rather than by natural causes, an accident or suicide.

Robbins told NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis that he likes to call an inquest if there is uncertainty about a death. Inquests occur in counties that do not have medical examiners, KSDK reported.

Lotts' attorney, Nimrod Chapel Jr., said by text message Monday: "The jury's decision shows that there are fair minded people that can see that Mr. Martin was the victim of gross violence and that the decision of local law enforcement and the coroner are unsupported on the facts.

"Ms. Lotts and her family are seeking the truth and want the individuals involved in the death of her son Derontae Martin brought to justice."

Details emerge about the party where Martin died

Police and medical documents shed light on how Martin died during a pre-dawn shooting at an 18th birthday party for the homeowner's daughter.

They expose critical details, such as that a 31-year-old man said he gave Martin a .38-caliber semi-automatic pistol. The same man told police that a 19-year-old man was allegedly with Martin when the gun was fired. Several partygoers said Martin was acting erratically and paranoid, police reports said.

"Methamphetamine intoxication" may have contributed to his death, according to Martin's initial autopsy report from Deidiker. The report also said Martin died from a gunshot wound to his left temple that showed "evidence of near contact range of fire."

Martin's mother said her son did not do heavy drugs but had been prescribed pain medication following surgery on his right wrist shortly before the shooting.

The morning of Martin's death, police were called to the home at about 3 a.m. for a report that a man had shot himself in the head. The homeowner directed a Madison County sheriff's deputy to the attic, according to a police report.

"I discovered a silver in color semi-automatic pistol directly below his left hand with the muzzle pointed in the direction of his hand in a pool of Martin's blood. ... The pistol was no longer loaded with bullets at the time I secured it," the sheriff's office report said. Police said Martin's right hand was in a cast, according to reports.

The man who said he gave Martin the gun — with one bullet in the chamber and a magazine missing — told police that a male teen was in the room with Martin pleading with him not to shoot himself, according to police reports. The teen then "ran out of the room after the shot was heard" and was seen crying and heard yelling "'NO NO NO' loudly," according to the sheriff's office report.

The man who said he gave Martin the gun told police in an interview in June that he gave it to him for security after Martin said he felt unsafe. A coroner's report from Follis said the homeowner and the man who gave Martin the gun "appeared heavily intoxicated" when he arrived.

NBC News was unable to reach the man who told police that he gave Martin the gun and the man who was reported to have been in the attic with Martin when the gun was fired.

Investigators reported observing an apparent suicide scene.

"It appeared the injury sustained by Martin was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The closet in which the incident occurred was very small. Martin had a cast on his right hand and was shot in the left temple," the highway patrol said in a report.

"The way Martin's body was laying appeared consistent with a direct fall to the floor," the report said. "It did not appear his body had been drug or moved after he was shot, according to the pool of blood in the pictures."

A witness told investigators that Martin "seemed off, bothered, paranoid." A female witness wrote in a voluntary statement that Martin was not himself, police reported.

"He kept looking all over the place, moving really fast saying 'I can't do this. I can't do this right now,'" the witness told police.

Police said an additional witness told them that Martin asked her, "Why did you set me up?"

A man also told highway patrol investigators that he had heard that Martin was set up, because there was a rumor on social media that Martin was an informant who helped send a man to jail over a shooting months earlier. Police could not substantiate the man's claim, a highway patrol report said.

Forensic pathologist says death should be investigated as homicide

Dr. Jane Turner, a forensic pathologist in St. Louis who conducted a second autopsy commissioned by Martin's family, said last week that she determined that Martin was not shot at close or intermediate range.

She said she reached the conclusion without the aid of supplemental evidence, such as autopsy photos and investigative photos. She also said she examined Martin's body after he had been embalmed against his mother's wishes, which may have been why his body showed no evidence of soot from gunpowder during a second autopsy May 11.

"It does need to be investigated as a homicide. Whether they'll be able to find evidence of that is another matter," Turner said.

Lotts, who works as a medical assistant at a nursing home, said the months since her son died have been hell. She said she does not have faith that investigators will get it right, even a second time around.

Martin, who stood about 6-foot-3 and weighed about 250 pounds, graduated from high school last year and scored a scholarship to play football at a small school out of state. He was working to improve his SAT score so he could become eligible to play in college, Lotts said. Martin also worked at a Walmart and a restaurant during the past year.

"He wanted to play football because he didn't want to be broke," she said. "He felt like that was his way out."

Lotts, who has five children, said she misses her eldest's presence, which was as big as his stature. She fondly recalls how he once made himself a sandwich stacked with four chicken patties and how he scarfed an entire bag of 44 pizza rolls and quipped, "It was only enough for me."

She cried throughout a conversation about her son's life and death.

"I just miss everything about him," Lotts said. "His smile. His laughter."