On a balmy Sunday last August in Raleigh, North Carolina a grim scene unfolded. A woman walking her dog noticed a pair of boots on the basketball court at Fred Fletcher Park. Above them was a nightmarish sight reminiscent of a scene from the Jim Crow south, a young man hanging from a tree by his belt. He dangled only about a foot off the ground. His shirt and shoes lay strewn in some bushes, and his pants were at his ankles.
His name was Thomas Shantez Austin, 26, and from all appearances, he’d killed himself miles from home in a neighborhood where he knew nobody, in a skinny tree where the branches point upward.
All authorities, from Raleigh police to the state medical examiner, called it suicide. But this so called suicide raises more questions than answers.
For a year, Thomas Austin Sr. wrestled with the twin demons of grief and uncertainty, not knowing for sure how his boy ended up dead hanging from a tree in a Glenwood Avenue park.
Worse, he consistently felt like his son's death was being overlooked, and that nobody was willing to dig deep into the case of a kid who’d been mixed up with drugs and gangs, only recently out of prison.
After 11 months, Mr. Austin finally received a copy of his son’s autopsy and toxicology reports. It added few details, got a few more wrong and left him feeling even more defeated.
“They didn’t care about my son, period. They saw he was in prison, thought he was a nobody and that was it.”
Austin knows his son wasn’t an angel. He was by many accounts a kindhearted young man, especially fond of animals.
But he’d been charged with breaking and entering at a week past his 18th birthday. He went to prison for armed robbery at 19, serving five years. He had cocaine in his system on the night he died, according to his test results. But that does not make this young mans life any less valuable.
He’d gotten out of prison and found a job at a sports bar, splitting time between different family members’ houses. Still, the medical examiner’s report described him as homeless, there by solidifying the perception that he is transient.
“He had people that loved him,” his father said. “He was not homeless and scraggly, out in the street.”
He’d had some mental health problems, twice entering Holly Hill Hospital, once for taking a handful of pills and once for irrational behavior. But neither of these resulted in long stays, and his father insists his son never showed suicidal tendencies. The pills were a careless attempt at getting high while drinking, he said.
The medical examiner’s report makes much of Austin’s mental health, playing up instances that his father called minor. In the most ridiculous example, by his father’s gauge, the report states Austin allowed himself to be bitten by a snake. If anyone had asked, Austin’s dad he would have told them that it was nothing more than a youthful indiscretion, he picked up a small snake to impress a girl, not knowing that it was a copperhead.
But the detail that gnaws at Austin’s father most came in the last few hours of his son’s life.
At 2:30 in the morning, Austin called his him on a borrowed cell phone to say he’d been beaten up, robbed and chased from the McDonald’s on Western Boulevard.
According to Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue, officers responded to the McDonald’s incident that night and found Austin, who showed no apparent injury and declined medical attention.
Tonisha Rowe, a close friend of Austin’s who was working at McDonalds that night, saw the surveillance tape and described a different scene.
“It was two dudes, one kind of big and one kind of little. It showed them beating him up. On the video, you could see him running, and the two dudes split in different directions when they saw the police coming. He was being beat up. It was like they were trying to rob him, hitting him and kicking.”
Austin’s father says the police won’t let him view the tape. I asked to see it and wasn’t allowed, either. Sughrue explained that it’s considered part of an investigative file not subject to public records requests.
The medical examiner’s report showed only a contusion on his tongue. So if he had been badly beaten up, the doctors who looked at his body didn’t find any signs.
“We are all sympathetic to the family,” Sughrue said. “The detectives really did do a lot of work in this case, and there simply was nothing that pointed to anything but suicide in the end.”
But Austin’s father cannot understand why his son would run away from attackers, call him in the middle of the night, walk 3 miles into an unfamiliar neighborhood and hang himself on a skinny tree with its branches close together, first removing most of his clothing?
The circumstances don’t sit right with neighbors in Fred Fletcher park, either. No matter what scenario you imagine, it seems far-fetched, ludacris, unbelievable, and too hard to swallow.