Death and Doubts

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

In the underground newspaper da Undergrind, Mucksteppin' to da Light, Jermaine Webb this past June laid out the rumors flying around Belle Glade and put them into print. In a paragraph headlined, "Peculiar Fruit in the 21st Century!" Webb wrote that, "According to information received from his family, [Ray's] hands were tied behind his back, his nose was busted, teeth shattered, and blood was coming out of his eyes... A suicide? I think NOT!"

Webb also repeated the speculation that Ray was murdered for dating a white woman. "With the history of Klan members holding rank within southern police departments, we just may have to solve this horrible crime and bring justice to this Brother's killers ourselves," Webb declared.

When the community's outrage at Ray's death reached the ears of civil rights organizations and the media, the response was prompt. On June 9, Linda Johnson, president of the Glades-area branch of the NAACP, asked for an inquest. During two days of testimony, Belle Glade police detective Sawyers testified that Ray had told his grandmother the night before his death that he was going to kill himself. Sawyers also reported that Ray had been asked to move out of his grandmother's house. Indeed, every time Ray drank, he threatened to kill himself, Sawyers said. After reviewing the investigation and the pathologist's report, a psychologist and a psychiatrist said the handyman was depressed. Ray might have been able to climb to where he hanged himself. Because he drank a lot, he likely had a high tolerance for alcohol, pathologist Christopher Wilson testified.

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.

When the inquest was over, Judge Cohen ruled Ray's death a suicide. "Depression killed Mr. Golden," Cohen wrote. "He did not die because he was black."

No members of Ray's family testified, even though Sawyers had attributed much of what he had learned to Juanita and Shresee Lumpkin, Ray's aunt. The pair now both deny the accuracy of statements the detective credited to them.

Dissatisfied with the inquest's results, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference became involved. On September 14, SCLC President Martin Luther King III met with the Golden family and local African-American leaders. Meanwhile, state Rep. James Harper, D-West Palm Beach, contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). He told investigators the inquest didn't address key information.

FDLE agents, assisted by the FBI, investigated seven leads. They interviewed a woman who had a spiritual vision of two people hanging Ray. They talked to a schizophrenic who overheard a conversation at a convenience store in which three black men claimed they'd murdered Ray because of a drug debt. They also chased down a rumor that there had been two police videotapes at the scene -- one showing Ray's arms dangling and the other with his hands tied behind his back. All were found to be baseless. They even studied a photo that Rep. Harper gave to them that he said showed tire tracks under the schefflera tree. Investigators said it was a patch of dead grass.

The most damning piece of FDLE work, though, was a sworn statement from Ray's cousin Dewayne Rumph. He said that Ray spoke of committing suicide frequently, and that he once said he would hang himself in his grandmother's yard.

On September 17, 2003, the FDLE released a five-page report saying that it "has not uncovered any credible evidence that Feraris Golden did not die by suicide." Hoping to answer questions still circulating about the death, the Belle Glade Police Department distributed nearly 100 copies of the report. "Sometimes you have to do unusual things to deal with unusual situations," Police Chief Miller says. "The report was very, very considerable in pointing out just how without merit [state representative] Harper's and [the NAACP's] Johnson's accusations were. I would characterize them as ridiculous... The report clearly showed that the rumors were completely false, and the community had the right to know."

Dan Paige, an attorney representing the Golden family, doubts that any police investigation will uncover the truth about Ray Golden's death. "[The Belle Glade police investigation] started out with the suggestion of suicide, and it has been a domino effect from there," he says. "No matter who comes in, the investigation continues to be tainted because most of the information they get comes from the City of Belle Glade Police Department."


Most days, all day long, the chairs that line the northern wall of Bobby's Market, 340 SW Sixth St., are filled with people. The talk is easy, the ribbing constant. The center of activity at this spot is a domino table where three men and a woman hover over a chain of ivory chips. The sound of pieces slamming onto a varnished square of plywood set atop a table pedestal provides percussion. The plaintive sound of a rooster's crowing slices the air.

Ray Golden's father, Jackie, sits on the sidelines awaiting his turn at the game. A hulking 53-year-old produce-truck driver, Jackie Golden wears a blue baseball cap turned backward and a creased and faded tag still attached to his sneakers. Golden says he was hauling a load of corn to Georgia the week Ray died, so he doesn't know what kind of spirits his son was in. But whatever Ray might have been going through, Jackie doesn't think he'd kill himself. "Hell no," he says. "He wasn't that crazy."

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