Death and Doubts

Ray Golden's hanging was a national curiosity. Maybe his legacy will be social justice.

It rained all night on May 27. Early the next morning, Henry Drummer and his wife, Bernice, stopped by the house of Bernice's mother, Juanita Lumpkin, in southeast Belle Glade. Juanita had recently suffered a stroke.

After checking on her mom, Bernice left $10 in bus fare so her 32-year-old son, Ray Golden, who was living with Juanita, could go job-hunting. Then she put some meatloaf in the refrigerator for his dinner.

As the couple walked outside, Bernice looked across the broad swath of grass that stretches from the south side of her mother's modest white-shingled home to the corner.

Colby Katz
From left: The spindly schefflera tree in southeast Belle Glade where Bernice Golden found her son Ray hanging on May 28; a yellow ribbon and a cluster of flowers remind passers-by that Ray Golden died here; the bleak streets of southwest Belle Glade where Ray Golden spent many a day hanging out.
Colby Katz
From left: The spindly schefflera tree in southeast Belle Glade where Bernice Golden found her son Ray hanging on May 28; a yellow ribbon and a cluster of flowers remind passers-by that Ray Golden died here; the bleak streets of southwest Belle Glade where Ray Golden spent many a day hanging out.

In a schefflera tree 100 yards away, she saw a terrible fruit.

The body of a black man dangled there.

At 6:58 a.m., Henry dialed 911 on his cell phone. "We need the police and the emergency wagon at 659 SE Third Street," he told the dispatcher.

"What's wrong there, sir?" the dispatcher asked.

"Seems like somebody hung himself in a tree," Henry said, his voice quavering.

While Henry Drummer talked to dispatch, Bernice approached the body. The gruesome discovery turned horrific. It was Ray.

The Palm Beach County 911 dispatcher urged Henry to cut him down. After a few seconds of silence, Henry's words landed with a thud. "He's cold, sir," he told the dispatcher.

At 7 a.m., cruisers from the Belle Glade Police Department swarmed into the yard. Neighbors on the quiet road, dotted with small homes and neatly clipped yards, emerged to investigate the commotion. A video camera in Sgt. William O'Connell's police car recorded the scene.

A green sheet taken from his grandmother's house was tied with a slip knot at one end and wrapped around Ray's neck. The rest of the sheet was looped around one of two V-shaped trunks that split the schefflera. He wore blue jeans, a blue- and white-striped long-sleeved shirt, a silver watch, a silver bracelet, and a blue Kangol knit cap. His clothes were wet from the rain, and his arms hung at his sides. Rigor mortis stiffened his body.

Belle Glade police detective Steven Sawyers climbed into the crook of the tree, making several tries before securing his footing. He cut the sheet and freed Ray's body from the tree.

Paramedics tried to revive Ray, but it was merely an exercise. Police covered the five-foot-six 131-pound man with a yellow body blanket. In his pockets, officers retrieved two slips of paper with telephone numbers scribbled on them, a red lighter, a book of matches, and an unused condom.

At 7:39 a.m., Sawyers called Palm Beach County's forensic investigator to say he was investigating an apparent suicide.

Five hours later, pathologist Christopher Wilson performed the autopsy. He found two reddish-brown abrasions on the body -- a rectangular one under his right jawbone and a triangular mark on his neck. He recorded the young man's blood-alcohol level. It was 0.334, four times the legal limit for driving in Florida. Tests also showed cocaine in Ray's system. Wilson noted tattoos on Ray's upper left chest. They read, "Denise, Li' Ray, Ra'Shadd, Ra'yon, and Ray" -- the names of Ray's five children.

The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide by hanging.

In most such tragedies, the medical examiner's report would be the final word. The family would agonize. Friends would be shocked. Both might have a hard time accepting that a person they knew and loved had killed himself.

But Ray was a black man found hanging in a tree.

In the African-American community of this remote town situated among sugar-cane fields, the Everglades, and Lake Okeechobee, people said Ray Golden crossed the color line. He dated a white woman -- the daughter of a Belle Glade police officer. And for that transgression, many people contend, Ray was lynched. Some said the Belle Glade Police Department killed him. But regardless of who did it, most agree, the police so botched the investigation and compromised the crime scene that the truth of Ray's death might never be uncovered.

Members of the mostly white police force maintained that Ray killed himself because he was depressed. Police reported that Ray was an unemployed alcoholic who was behind on his child-support payments. And, the authorities added, he had fought with his family the night before over money. Most whites in Belle Glade accepted the police explanation.

The polarity of opinion might have settled into an O.J.-style standoff -- yet another example of just how intellectually segregated our country remains, another instance of how blacks and whites can look at the same set of information and come to opposite conclusions.

But in Belle Glade, the black community's doubts about the official version of Ray's death didn't just become one more layer of loam in Belle Glade's disturbing racial history. The local chapter of the NAACP demanded a deeper probe. On July 28, Palm Beach County Judge Harold Cohen held the first inquest in the county in 18 years to investigate Ray's death. The New York Times, CNN, ABC, and CBS all covered the story, as did newspapers from as far away as Australia, England, and India. Martin Luther King III, the son of America's greatest nonviolent civil rights fighter, visited the town to study the matter, as did two documentary film crews and several national magazine correspondents.

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