THE PREACHER AND THE SHERIFF

 
The Rev. Victor White at the railroad tracks that divide New Iberia.
RUDDY ROYE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Preacher and the Sheriff

A young, shackled black man is shot to death — and the police say he killed himself. The resulting investigation has pitted the victim’s father against the most powerful man in New Iberia, La.

By NATHANIEL RICH

No one would tell The Rev. Victor White how his son died. Everyone seemed to know — but no one would tell him.

When a detective from the Louisiana State Police spoke to him at sunrise on a Monday morning, she wouldn’t say much; she said his son was dead and his body transported to a hospital. White, in disbelief, did not give the full story to his wife, Vanessa, but he could tell she feared the worst. During the two-hour drive to New Iberia, where his son and his son’s infant daughter lived, neither parent spoke.

At the Iberia Medical Center, nobody would answer White’s questions. An administrator directed him to the admitting doctor, who directed him to the attending state trooper, who directed him to an investigator from the coroner’s office, who directed him back to the trooper. White left Vanessa sobbing in the waiting room and at last was taken to the morgue. He was allowed to view the corpse only from the neck up, but that was enough; he could see that his son had been beaten. A bruise extended from his left eyebrow to his jaw. His lips and nose were swollen, and, White says, his left eye was bashed in. When White returned to the waiting room, his wife was gone. She had been taken away to be sedated.

The coroner’s investigator approached White. “It was like he wanted to say something, without saying it,” White says. “He said: ‘I’m so sorry.’ ” White said the investigator mumbled this repeatedly for several minutes. “I can’t say anything,” the official said finally, “but you should look into your son’s death.” (A lawyer for the coroner’s office, citing litigation, declined to respond to questions for this article.)

The Louisiana State Police never did tell White what happened to his son. He learned of their account through a news release posted online that evening, March 3, 2014. The police said that Victor White III, while detained in the back seat of a locked police car, his hands shackled behind his back, had committed suicide by shooting himself in the back with a handgun that an officer had not found during an earlier search.

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