Death and Doubts

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

The idea that his son would commit suicide over money is preposterous to Jackie. "He didn't have an easy life," Ray's father says. "Ain't no easy life around here 'less you rich." That's one of the reasons he thinks his son wouldn't take his life. "If I was going to kill myself over money, I would have done it a long time ago," he says. "That's the difference between us and [white people]. Things don't faze us like they do y'all. We learn to live with it, and we learn to live without it."

Jackie says he would often run into his son at Bobby's Market. If Ray needed money, Jackie would give him some. If Jackie needed money and Ray had it, he would give some to his father, Jackie says.

Ray had told his father he was having conflicts with the sheriff's deputy, Francis Wheeler, who married Chanta. But he said he didn't know whether Francis had threatened Ray. "I'm kind of a violent man," Jackie says, "so he wouldn't say nothing to me anyway. I'd go and find out why."

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.

A June 3 statement that Francis gave to Detective Sawyers shows that Francis has a temper too. In a rambling, expletive-filled monologue related to the rumors circulating about Ray Golden's death, the deputy asserts Ray was an alcoholic. And he says he became really angry at Chanta when he overheard someone saying Ray had been murdered. "It's a bunch of bullshit, and I told her, I said, 'Cut the bullshit. This is a circus atmosphere, and it's bullshit. Point blank, the bitch killed himself.'" He then says he can't understand why Chanta would care if Ray were dead. "I don't know why you're shitting a goddamned care," Francis told his wife. "He used to beat the fuck out of you, never paid a lick of child support, I'm raising those fucking kids, so what's the big deal?"

Chanta and Francis Wheeler recently separated, Louizie Smith says. Francis didn't kill Ray, she adds. He was at her house in Pahokee the night of the hanging. "He didn't have anything to do with it," she comments.


On SW Sixth Street at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard, another game of dominoes is being played on a lot partially shaded by two trees. A group of elderly men, one in a wheelchair, lines a back wall like sentries. Underneath the shade trees is clustered a group of younger men who say they all knew Ray Golden from high school. A massive pile of plastic soda bottles and other debris has accumulated near where the men stand. One of them, who has a mouth full of gold teeth, pulls a wad of bills from his pocket and counts off the cash. The sweet pungent smell of marijuana tinges the air.

A hefty man nicknamed "D" sprawls over a beige car seat set up on the ground next to a broken plastic lawn chair, a crushed shopping cart, and the remains of a second car seat. He doesn't want to give his name because he says he fears speaking out would mean a visit from the police.

The men describe Ray as someone always ready with a joke. In a world where people pass the day talking, a sense of humor is gold. It brings a welcome touch of the unexpected. Ray always had a Natural Lite in his hand, a Black & Mild cigar between his lips, and something crazy coming out of his mouth.

Like Jackie Golden, the four men don't buy the explanation that Ray would kill himself over money. "Couldn't have been no financial problems. He got a family. He got lots of friends," D says. "All of us 'round here have rough times. Good times. Bad times. We don't kill ourselves."

Solomon Gooden, a tall bleary-eyed man holding a Natural Lite outside Bobby's Market, says he knew Ray like a brother. He saw him every day in front of Bobby's. Ray was always bragging about his kids, and he was always trying to find work. To Gooden, Ray had too much to live for to take his life. And Gooden doesn't believe that any black man would take his life the way authorities claim Ray did. At the inquest, a psychologist explained that suicide is comparatively rare among African-American men. Between 2000 and 2002, 47 whites and three African-American men committed suicide by hanging in Palm Beach County, he said.

While some of Ray's friends understand that a guy might hang himself in jail, they'll never accept the idea that a black man would hang himself from the limb of a tree. "What African-American is going to take his life in the [manner] of a lynching?" Solomon asks. "You find them shot, maybe stabbed, but you are not going to find them hanging from a blang tree. You ain't never heard of nary a person kill themselves in the ideological way of a lynching. Regardless of what oppression you been under."

Then Solomon predicts that Belle Glade is too small a town for the truth about Ray's death to remain hidden. "Everything in the dark shall come to light," he predicts. "The Lord knows all."

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