What Killed Junior?
Just before it reaches Sunrise Boulevard from the south, Fort Lauderdale's NW 19th Avenue shrivels into a forlorn road lined by the razor-wire-topped walls of a junkyard. At the end, oil-soaked asphalt gives way to tire tracks woven in mud. Then, a scrubby, sandy berm rises about three feet to a six-foot-high chainlink fence separating the eastbound lanes of Sunrise from this low nub. In the daylight, it appears to be a pen of salvaged cars, spiky gates, loose trash, and decaying animal shit.
In the dark, it is a scary place indeed.
It was from this dead end -- and to another far worse -- that Raymond Sterling Jr. fled police shortly after 1 a.m. on April 19, 2003. What follows is the police description of subsequent events:
Officers Carlton Smith and Patrick O'Brien, who were patrolling NW Eighth Street a few blocks south of Sunrise, remember spotting the 21-year-old Sterling driving an '87 Buick Century with a paper tag. Just south of the junkyard nub, Officer John Clarke, who was cruising NW 19th Lane, signaled Sterling with lights and siren. Something stirred the stocky, 5-foot-3 inch cook to ditch the car and bolt. The three officers made chase.
O'Brien got a hand on Sterling's shorts as the young man cleared the chainlink fence. But the officer couldn't hold him. Sterling, who had nine gold teeth and cornrows, and wore a blue Michael Jordan jersey, dashed northeast across six lanes of highway and cleared another fence near Sunrise Meat Market. Several drivers who were stopped at a nearby red light cheered. Across NW Tenth Place, near the New Testament Church of God, Smith nabbed Sterling as he tried to climb a fence into a backyard. They were about 300 yards from the original stop.
The officers contend that the cook took a swing at Smith, landing a glancing blow with his elbow. Then, as Sterling tried to climb back on the fence, the officer punched him in the ribs and brought him down by the left arm onto an asphalt carport outside a NW 17th Avenue home. When Clarke arrived, Sterling was on his belly but not giving up his arms to be cuffed. During the struggle that ensued, the young man allegedly struck the officer in the forehead with an elbow. Next, Clarke says, Sterling got "a real hard death grip" on his gun. The cop hit the suspect in the kidney. Another policeman arrived to find Sterling kicking at the two policemen from the ground, so he piled on the cook's legs. Finally, Clarke was able to cuff the young man. They took him to the front of the house, where three more officers were waiting.
When Sterling was dumped into a back seat, he allegedly kicked at the door. It was then that officer Allen Diamond hit the suspect's face with a one-second blast of pepper spray. Neither he nor the other officers noticed any reaction.
They drove to the NW 19th Avenue nub, where, the officers report, Sterling seemed exhausted. After exiting the car, he took a couple of steps and collapsed. Clarke searched the cook and put him in the cruiser. Another officer asked Sterling through the open window why he ran, and he replied that he didn't have a driver's license.
On the way to jail, Sterling complained that his eyes stung. Clarke, who hadn't been told of the pepper spray, figured it was sweat and rolled down the window.
"Officer, I'm having some trouble breathing," Sterling then told Clarke. He said his legs were sore. He felt tired. When they reached the booking area for the (now-closed) Fort Lauderdale jail, Sterling couldn't get out of the car on his own. After he was helped up, he began swaying, then leaned against the rear bumper, sweaty and panting, covered in white sand from the tussle. Clarke radioed for paramedics, then helped Sterling to a sink, where he ran water over his head and sat.
Within three minutes, paramedics arrived. Twenty minutes later, Sterling lay dead in the parking lot.
His death touched off a series of investigations: by the police homicide and internal affairs units, the fire department, and the state attorney. Four paramedics on the scene that night -- Keith Webster, Michael Bucher, Wally Schrubb, and Michael Hicks -- were sacked in August, igniting tensions in that already volatile department. A grand jury in December found that while the personnel who watched Sterling die that night were negligent, no one was criminally culpable. It's not a crime to share information as badly as the police and firefighters did, though Sterling's case should concern anyone facing a medical emergency in Fort Lauderdale.
But there may be more to the situation than just bad communication. The speakers of Sterling's car were ripped apart, hinting to the family that the police may have been trying to teach the cook a lesson. And, Sterling's family says, he wasn't the kind of guy who would have fought back or grabbed for a cop's gun -- a claim borne out by his police record. Finally, there's the cops' unconvincing history of investigating themselves. Of 118 complaints about excessive use of force filed in the past eight years, only one has been sustained.
Sterling's family wants answers that the police reports haven't provided. They want to know how no one can be at fault when an apparently healthy 21-year-old man dies in front of more than a dozen police and paramedics. Or more directly: How in the world did a traffic stop kill Junior?
Toni Pompa seethes on a drive along her nephew's final run. She's a heavy woman, only 11 years older than her nephew, with his large eyes and round cheeks. Arriving at the nub on NW 19th Avenue, she points to the grim, high walls. "You don't want to be black and have four police cars in this alley," she says, trying to make sense of Junior's bailing, her tan eyes open wide. "The medical examiner, Joshua Perper, says he died because of extreme physical exertion and then pepper spray inhalation... Him running [300 yards] is not extreme physical exertion. I could run it. I could run it, and I'm 500 pounds overweight."
That estimate is hyperbole. Her anger isn't.
"I've done it," she continues, nearly yelling. "I've done it. Just because I need to know. I didn't climb the fence, I went through it -- I did it. His father has done it a billion times because, what do you do?
"They didn't think that when Junior expired that it would be a big deal to his family. They didn't think it would be a big deal, because let me tell you something, when black people in Fort Lauderdale become educated, when they get jobs that enable them, they move out of here. We don't stay in Fort Lauderdale. We move to Coral Springs, we move to Tamarac, we move to Plantation. So your higher-educated black echelon, we're not here. We leave our parents here until we can afford to move them out of here.
"So the people who are left here are usually people who are not going to create a stink about their child being killed by the police. They're not even going to call it that. They're not even going to have suspicions that it happened. The police call and say, 'We don't know what happened. He just died.' And you go, 'OK, then.' And you're done; you don't want to get involved. Because you don't want to deal with City Hall.
"But we know better. I said to my mom, 'Something awful happened.' You can't tell me that this boy is dead. His son turned 1 year old two weeks before. There was nothing wrong with Junior."
Toni Pompa's brother, Raymond Senior, and his girlfriend, Sylvia Smith, were still in high school when Junior was born on June 13, 1981, at Broward General Medical Center. Upon graduation, the parents married, and the father spent three years in the Army, so the boy lived most of his preschool years with his mother. During summers, he and his younger sister, Kalissa, now 20, and brother, Joseph, 13, stayed with Dorothy Pompa, their grandmother (and Toni's mom), who lives in a cozy northwest Fort Lauderdale home where the grandchildren's pictures cover the walls.
Junior grew to all of five-foot-three and shied away from sports other than pickup football and basketball. His father, an accomplished wrestler in high school, tried to push his son to that sport, to no avail. Junior's bag was roller-skating. Before he would head to the Gold Coast Roller Rink in south Fort Lauderdale, he'd spray-paint his skates to match his outfit, typically a Polo shirt, his sister says.
His parents divorced when he was still in elementary school. He lived with his father until, at age 16, he tired of the strict regimen and went to live with his mom for a few months. In that time, he cut enough 11th-grade classes to get expelled from Boyd H. Anderson High School. His father was incensed. Toni took him in, and he mostly stayed out of trouble. He was protective of his little sister, forbidding Kalissa from talking with anyone but his friends, she recalls.
He tried to seem tough; before he could get gold on his teeth, he would wear removable caps that he would ditch before visiting his grandma's home. Fun was playing spades at the park or NCAA Basketball on PlayStation 2. He was constantly laughing, even if no one else could figure out why. "He couldn't stop playing," his sister says.
It was driving that ignited his legal problems. He was pulled over at the wheel of a friend's rental car before he had a license, and matters didn't improve.
In 2001, he pleaded no contest to driving with a suspended license and received six months' probation, to go along with another three years and six months he received after pleading no contest to snatching a purse in Lauderhill Mall. He would laugh it off when his family questioned him, but standing in a lineup, going through court, "that scared him shitless," Toni Pompa says.
The day after Valentine's Day 2001, he began dating Shenique Burke. "He was just sweet," Burke says, explaining the attraction. They both would bum rides to hang out at Wolk Park in Lauderhill. When he bought his car, they'd go to the drive-in. She became pregnant the following summer, and half a year later, they moved in together in a Lauderhill apartment.
He worked two shifts a day cooking at two Denny's restaurants, typically from 7 a.m. until midnight. He did one thing best, says friend Kevin Moore, nephew of Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Carlton Moore: "Provide for his family." He was at work the night of April 7, 2002, when Burke called him and told him she was going into labor. It took him 20 minutes to reach Broward General, only to find he was one minute late for the birth. "He missed it," Burke says. "He was so upset. But he was the first to hold Dashon."
Junior adored his boy, Shenique says. Dashon matured his dad, who faithfully bathed, fed, and changed the baby. Junior began working toward a GED and applied to a Fort Lauderdale culinary school. His only serious lapse after Dashon's birth was a parole violation (for driving without a license), for which he spent a couple of months in jail, starting in December 2002. "He used to say, 'I'll die before I go back,'" Toni Pompa says.
A couple of weeks before he died, he celebrated the baby's first birthday with a cake from Costco, and for that event, Junior was soaring. But the night before he died, friend Vaughn Benniefield remembers, he seemed subdued when the two shared beers after work. "He was like, 'Yeah, man, ain't nothing going right for me,'" Benniefield says. "He felt like every time he tried to pick himself up, something came along and knocked him down."
When he was scared, he didn't turn to his family, and until his last, he was on shaky terms with his father. But look at a map and it's pretty clear that Junior was running to his grandma's house the night he died. Two-thirds of a mile is all he lacked.
At 1:49 a.m., Sterling sat damp with sweat and water when Clarke called fire rescue to examine the young man.
Paramedics Webster and Bucher pulled up at 1:52 a.m., three minutes after Clarke's call. Sterling, lying on the pavement and still cuffed, told them he was thirsty, tired, and aching. Webster took the young man by the shirt and waved some ammonia inhalants under his nose. When Sterling perked up, an officer administered more ammonia tablets. Webster asked him whether he had health problems -- asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, AIDS -- and Sterling, groggy, said he didn't.
The paramedics later told investigators they were satisfied this wasn't an emergency but offered to take Sterling to the hospital anyway. There was some discussion with police, who told them not to bother. The firefighters departed after less than six minutes. They told their dispatcher there was "no medical need."
By rule, a prisoner unable to walk couldn't be booked, so police decided to drive their suspect to Broward General. But a minute or so after the paramedics left, as Clarke tried to help Sterling back to the car, he went limp. They laid him on the pavement between two cars. Clarke uncuffed him. The officer tried rubbing Sterling's sternum. Then he held the young man's hand a foot above his face and let go. The hand plopped down. Clarke summoned the paramedics on a code three, the highest-priority response.
Clarke felt the pulse in Sterling's wrist waning. His chest only twitched with each breath.
Webster and Bucher returned at 2:05 a.m.
The police stood back to allow the paramedics space to work. Webster, who reached Sterling first, seemed alarmed when he felt for the young man's pulse. Three more firefighters pulled up a minute later.
Soon, the firefighters decided there was no point. Coffin roped off the area around the body with crime scene tape. That was at 2:12 a.m., barely an hour after Clarke pulled Sterling over.
The investigations began when Dr. Michael Bell of the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office took possession of the body at 4:35 a.m. Bell's autopsy, begun six hours later, turned up little more than scrapes and bumps, nothing internal. His body retained no trace of the pepper spray. The toxicology came up clean: There was no alcohol in Sterling's system and no drugs in his stomach, just a last meal of noodles.
"They killed him, they autopsied him, and then the following afternoon they called me, because when they got the results of the autopsy, there was no drugs and there was no alcohol and he's dead," Dorothy Pompa recalls. "So they called me to find out whether he had a medical condition. And that's how they told me that he died."
The press latched onto the spray's role: Headlines in both the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald would mention the "pepper-spray case." Indeed, the coroner's report five weeks after Sterling's death listed the spray as a contributing factor to his death. Another factor: a blood test revealed that he carried sickle cell, a disease afflicting an eighth of African-American men. Sickle cell carriers have suffered crises at high altitudes on mountains, in unpressurized airplanes, during anesthesia, or amid strenuous exercise. The pepper spray was like a match. The sickle cell made him dry tinder.
The disease was news to the family. Junior had lived nearly 22 years oblivious to that fact. It wasn't until cops beat him and sprayed his face with chemicals that Junior's blood stopped working.
To illustrate what happened inside Sterling, Broward County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, switches on a large microscope in his office, then shuffles to a shelf to find a slide with a slice of lung. His office walls are lined with diplomas. The bookcases hold such tomes as Suicide and Scandinavia and Paraquat Poisoning. The doctor, who has bright-blue eyes and a few silken, white hairs smattered around his pate, slips the slide under his microscope. As he leans and squints, a small monitor nearby displays pink bubbles.
"Those things are the air chambers," he says in a heavy Romanian accent. He points to a sliver of red dots in a pink filament of lung wall. "See the blood vessel in the wall there, and the blood cells? Each one of the dots is a nucleus. They are round. If there is a variation in the partial pressure of oxygen in the blood [in a sickle cell patient], the red blood cells turn from being nicely round... into the shape of a... sickle."
Normal, round red blood cells carry oxygen to the body's tissues, lining up single file in the lung's capillaries to allow oxygen to bond with hemoglobin, which the cell carries. People with sickle cell have a less stable type of hemoglobin. Sickle cell anemia is one manifestation, but the milder and more common form is sickle cell trait, for which no one keeps statistics on fatalities.
The police describe Sterling complaining that he needed air and that his legs felt sore. Those discomforts are consistent with what physicians say might happen to a sickle cell carrier who has suffered enough oxygen deprivation to trigger a sickle cell crisis. That reaction ignited, Perper says, because Sterling sprinted, suffered emotional distress, grappled with police, and breathed in pepper spray. The autopsy showed too that mild dehydration might have contributed.
"Sometimes we are stoned to death by a variety of conditions, and each condition throws its own stone, you know," Perper says, his wrinkled hands resting palm to palm before his chest, trembling slightly. "Some stones are bigger, and some stones are smaller. But in conjunction, even if one cannot kill, the conglomerate can."
Perper won't discuss quality of medical treatment, but questions are obvious. Should someone have started CPR? Once Sterling's red blood cells began sickling, could oxygen have saved his life? Or was he doomed in the five minutes between the paramedics' first departure and their second arrival?
"You can go downhill very quickly," says Dr. Kenneth Bridges, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Between the time when the police were monitoring a weak pulse and the time the paramedics arrived, you really at that point want to administer CPR."
Of course, no one at the time knew Sterling was in a sickle cell crisis. Moreover, a comparison of the transcripts of police and firefighter testimony reveals that no one on hand to treat Sterling even knew of the spray, because no one officer was with the young man throughout his capture and arrest.
Not only did paramedics not know the critical details of his last hour, they didn't know about his last few seconds.
"OK, did anybody tell ya that they had a pulse 30 seconds before you arrived?" Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Justinak asked firefighter Webster during the investigation. "No conversation at all?"
"As far as, as far as who, police officers?" Webster replied. "No, no police officers talked to us except when we called him a seven [the code for dead]."
Concedes Tom Mangifesta, president of the Fort Lauderdale Fraternal Order of Police: "If it was my son, I would be very irate. I would want heads to roll for something like that."
At least two people drove with Sterling the night he died, and to them, the condition of his car alone illustrates that for all the details contained in the nearly 700-page internal affairs report, somebody is hiding something. The result of that investigation was that the force used to capture him -- and that which helped kill him -- was justified under the police description of events. But what if he didn't need to be beaten, sprayed, or even stopped in the first place?
The cops say he was speeding. But over pizza around the glass-topped kitchen table in Raymond Sr.'s Tamarac townhome, Kevin Moore does everything but call that assertion impossible. The two had spent part of the day trying to replace the undersized spare tire and busted rim on Junior's car. Junior had been driving like a grandma, his friend says.
Then there's the state of the car when it was towed. Junior's friend, 18-year-old Ashley Williams, had ridden with him the day he died. She says that the speakers were just fine when he picked her up before dinner. In fact, she remembers, they were positively blaring "Dilemma" by Kelly Rowland and Nelly. But when the family took possession of the Buick, those speakers had been savaged, apparently with a broken CD jewel case scattered around them, and the dashboard inside had been ripped open.
The police had no explanation, but the damage suggests to the family that police wanted the busted-up car to be a warning. "So what they were saying is, when he got out and ran and they had to pursue him on foot, they were saying when you get out of jail, you'll come back to a destroyed car," Toni Pompa surmises. "Because they didn't know at that time he was going to die."
Next, there's Officer Clarke's claim that Junior went for the gun. "You're going to tell me that you're on the ground, somebody's holding one hand, and you're going to reach back for a gun?" Raymond Sr. says. "What are you going to do, give it to him so he can shoot you?" Junior didn't even know how to use a gun, according to his aunt.
Sure, he might have run from the police -- no one questions that. Junior was scared of cops. But fighting? The man was 150 pounds, no taller than his girlfriend, and had muscles built on roller skating and video games.
No one disputes the charge of fighting more forcefully than his grandmother. "He was never someone who would be abusive to somebody," Dorothy Pompa says of her grandson's nature. "When Dr. Perper says, 'Oh, he put up a pretty good fight,' I hope that one of these days when he says that, he swallows his tongue. And just dies."
Even the state of Junior's body, his family says, points to a cover-up. He had knots and black pockmarks on his face, presumably from the struggle with the police, but further, his knees were bent out of shape, and some kink in one arm kept his hand from resting on the other in his casket. "He was in agony when he died," his grandmother says.
He also had an unsettling pale discoloration on his cheek and neck. "It looked like termites ate his skin," Vaughn Benniefield says.
Junior's apparent mistreatment offers a glimpse into what long-time Fort Lauderdale African-American activist Leola McCoy describes as a pattern of profiling. "You run, you die," she says. "You run, they're going to kill you. 'You run from us, boy? We'll teach you a lesson.' So they gave him a beat-down, which exacerbated his condition, which they had no knowledge of, or the pepper spray, which should be outlawed. All they saw was a black boy who ran from them."
Raymond Sr.'s lawyers hired Fort Lauderdale's Worldwide Investigations to pursue the case, and an investigator there, Lindy Wren, took a sworn statement from David Shepherd, a homeless man who said he witnessed Sterling's chase. He described the young man slipping through the fence near the meat market, pausing, and continuing toward the church. Near the church, police tackled him. "They tackled him and they were down on him?" Wren asked Shepherd, according to a transcript.
"Yeah," he replied.
"And what happened next, Mr. Shepherd?"
"Well... you know... they... you could see him at that time that... they were spray... they were pepper-spraying him."
"OK," Wren said.
"Cuz most of the time when... if you run... running from them... they will pepper... pepper-spray you, cuz I figure that most of the time, they angry."
Sterling's death has almost eliminated pepper spray as a police tool in Fort Lauderdale. As of November, any officer who sprays a person must summon paramedics and ride to the hospital to confirm treatment. Internal affairs records show that after using the spray 124 times in 2001 and 145 times in 2002, Fort Lauderdale police used it only 103 times last year -- with only four of those instances after October.
"Nasty shit," FOP leader Mangifesta says of the spray. But the new policy is "way overboard. If someone is showing adverse reactions such as Mr. Sterling, you get the paramedics there, emergency response, lights and sirens."
In the squat, windowless building where Ian Kemp works is an office, a bathroom, and a smaller office, and that's all. The 39-year-old head of the Fort Lauderdale firefighters' union has sharp features, an angular haircut, and ropey, trim arms befitting his profession. While describing the animosity between the firefighters and their administration, his cell phone -- which rings at least once every ten minutes -- chirps. "I gotta get this one," he says, then launches into a discussion with someone about furlough pay for his 350 or so members, three-fourths of whom are paramedics.
Around the main room are fire-themed knickknacks, such as a plastic fire engine atop a cabinet. There's also a pile of shirts printed to protest the actions of Chief Otis Latin. They're emblazoned with an emblem of a fire helmet captioned with the words "United We Stand Ft. Lauderdale Firefighters... Our Chief Stands Back 500 Feet." On the front are the names of the four paramedics who lost their jobs after Sterling died.
The T-shirts were de rigeur on September 12, when firefighters wearing them lined the hallway and clapped rhythmically in protest outside Latin's office as he dismissed Webster, Bucher, Schrubb, and Hicks. A week later, the union members gave Latin a unanimous vote of no-confidence and asked him to resign.
Kemp says that vote culminated two years of crummy relations between the firefighters and their bosses. The four dismissals were the last straw. Further, Kemp says, Latin has cut back training in recent months because of budget crunches. He explains. "Before, we used to have four people -- one battalion chief and three lieutenants -- assigned to training," he says. "Now we only have two lieutenants. And where in fact we used to do a little bit of hands-on, we do none. It's ridiculous."
The four paramedics were sacked, their termination letters said, for "deficiencies in performance/conduct" that violated EMS protocol. But transcripts of their statements to investigators suggest ambiguity. When Bob Edgar, division chief in charge of EMS services, pushes Webster to admit he erred by not trying to revive Sterling, the accused firefighter points to protocol that allows him to judge whether a patient should be treated. In this case, Webster says, Sterling had no pulse, no breath, blue lips, and fixed and dilated pupils. Bucher, Hicks, and Schrubb also contend they did nothing wrong. "I have no doubt in my mind and no doubt that this was the correct call, and I mean that," says Schrubb, who teaches paramedic classes at Nova Southeastern University.
The firefighters await a hearing with a grievance resolution committee. They were fired "because it was a public, media-driven story," Kemp says. "And four firefighters' jobs, the city felt, the fire chief felt, were worth trying to make the city look better."
They and the police won't face criminal charges. On December 18, a grand jury decided that "while the death of Raymond Sterling, Jr. was extremely unfortunate," the negligence wasn't illegal. To bring the civil rights case -- the only way to find out "the real truth" in his son's death, he says -- the elder Raymond Sterling hired Willie Gary, a hellacious lawyer whose Stuart, Florida, firm has won jury awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The lawyer on the case, Tanisha Gary, declines to reveal details of the suit. "We looked at the facts of the case and the circumstances surrounding the case, and we knew it was something we wanted to be involved in," the associate says, also declining to estimate what damages the suit will seek. "We have received other calls (involving pepper spray cases), but they have not been of this magnitude."
"When you hear about a lawsuit for pain and suffering, you take that shit for granted until you see it," Toni Pompa says. She's adamant that Sterling's baby be provided for.
"What do you say to his son?" she asks. "How do you tell his son it's OK to trust the police?"
Right now, you can't tell Dashon too much of anything. He's a smiley, bubbly toddler partial to playing with car keys and slapping the food he eats. To this day, though, he talks in his sleep. When he does, he says the same thing he says when he sees a picture of his father. He says "Da-Da."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.