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.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling