Death and Doubts

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

When Ray was 22 years old and Chanta was 18, Ray asked Chanta's mother and grandmother for her hand. They wed in February 1993. Louizie says there weren't a lot of options. Chanta was pregnant with the couple's second child, Fercaris Raeshadd, who was born in October 1993.

Even before he married, Ray had run afoul of the law. He had two domestic-disturbance complaints against him, including one involving Chanta. And he already had a drinking problem. Louizie says Ray told her he had started drinking when he was 4 years old.

In March 1993, a month after his marriage, Ray was arrested by the Pahokee Police Department on a felony charge of auto theft. He told Louizie the police made a mistake. He was just sitting in a car he didn't realize was stolen. Then a month before Fercaris was born, Ray was arrested on a felony charge of battery on a pregnant female. Neither the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office nor the clerk of courts can locate a copy of the complaint.

On September 24, 1994, Chanta and Ray spent the evening dancing and drinking at Club Zanzibar on Canal Street in Belle Glade. They were having a good time until around 2 a.m. For no apparent reason, Ray pulled a gun and stuck it in Chanta's face, she told police. He said she didn't love him because she wouldn't dance with him, Chanta explained. Ray made the claim despite the fact that the couple had just left the dance floor. She defused the situation by convincing her husband to leave. But when, as a precaution, she stopped by the Pahokee Police Department to report the incident, Ray jumped into the driver's seat and drove off.

Chanta didn't want to press charges, she told a sheriff's deputy, because the couple was "working their differences out and are trying to become a happily married couple again."

In April 1996, Ray was arrested on a DUI charge in Pahokee. His license was suspended for six months. Over the next several years, he was repeatedly arrested for driving on a suspended or revoked license.

The couple separated in October 1995. On June 9, 1997, the Palm Beach County Circuit Court granted Chanta Golden a divorce.

Though New Times couldn't reach Chanta for comment, her sister, Jamila Smith, told the Palm Beach Post that the couple's marriage fell apart because of Ray's drinking and because he couldn't hold a job. At the time of the split, Ray was earning $1,222 a month as a maintenance man at the Palm Beach County Housing Authority. The court ordered him to pay Chanta $89.68 a week for child support. By June 2002, he owed $27,706. By the time of his death, he owed $50,000.

Louizie Smith says Ray was like a child. He was silly and loved to play. "He was right down there on the floor with the children," she says.

In March 2000, Ray married Donna Willis of West Palm Beach. Attempts to contact Willis were unsuccessful, but police records show that Ray's anger and alcoholism ruined his second marriage as well. On September 29, 2001, Donna told a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy that she and Ray argued about his drinking. When the debate escalated, Ray picked up a glass table and threw it at his wife. The table shattered, and a shard cut Donna's leg. The couple separated that day, and Donna was granted a divorce on May 16, 2002.

Chanta remained friendly with Ray. They spoke frequently on the telephone. Ray caught rides to Pahokee to visit his kids, often attending his son's track meets and sleeping at Louizie Smith's house. Louizie says Ray looked up to her. He would promise to quit drinking and start attending church. "It wouldn't last," she says. The day Bernice Golden discovered her son's body, Ray was supposed to fix a leaky handle on Smith's bathtub.

In November 2002, Chanta married again, to Francis Wheeler, a white Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy.

According to Ray's friends, he wanted Chanta back, but there wasn't much he could do about it when she married Wheeler. "He knew he couldn't provide for them, so she had to do what she had to do," says one of Ray's friends who asked not to be named.


Hours after police cut Ray's body down from the schefflera tree, word of his death ricocheted through Belle Glade. In a town with no television stations and only a weekly newspaper to relay stories, information is often spread by word of mouth. When the news reached Ray's stomping ground on SW Sixth Street near Bobby's Market, people were stunned. The thought of Ray's body dangling from a tree in his grandmother's yard could be interpreted only one way on these streets.

Ray Golden had been lynched.

On any street corner in Belle Glade today, the depth of knowledge of the case is stupefying. People criticize police for trampling the crime scene when they knew upon arrival that Ray's body was cold. They ask whether DNA testing was done on the sheet or on beer cans strewn in the Lumpkin's backyard. (It wasn't.) They question why nothing was mentioned in the medical examiner or police reports about whether Ray had tree bark on his clothes or hands. They ask how Ray could climb a tree and hang himself while drunk on a rainy night. "Not to make levity of it, but I think people watch entirely too much Law and Order and entirely too much CSI," Belle Glade Police Chief Michael Miller says. "We did a very thorough, very complete investigation handled with standard protocol."

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