Questions in Death of Black Mayor-Elect in La.

The memorial-service obituary of Mayor Gerald "Wash" Washington i i

The memorial service program for Mayor Gerald Washington (left), is displayed next to a photo of the swearing in-ceremony of the new mayor and city council in December 2006. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
The memorial-service obituary of Mayor Gerald "Wash" Washington

The memorial service program for Mayor Gerald Washington (left), is displayed next to a photo of the swearing in-ceremony of the new mayor and city council in December 2006.

Cheryl Corley, NPR
Westlake is in southwestern Louisiana near the Texas border, about 250 miles from New Orleans. i i

Westlake, La., is near the Texas border, about 250 miles from New Orleans. The town's population is about 4,500. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Westlake is in southwestern Louisiana near the Texas border, about 250 miles from New Orleans.

Westlake, La., is near the Texas border, about 250 miles from New Orleans. The town's population is about 4,500.

Cheryl Corley, NPR
Interim Mayor Daniel Cupit stands in the mayor's office next to pictures of Washington. i i

Interim Mayor Daniel Cupit posted photos of Gerald Washington and his colleagues in the mayor's office. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Interim Mayor Daniel Cupit stands in the mayor's office next to pictures of Washington.

Interim Mayor Daniel Cupit posted photos of Gerald Washington and his colleagues in the mayor's office.

Cheryl Corley, NPR
Flowers and candles left at the school parking lot where Gerald Washington was found. i i

Flowers and candles were left at the school administration parking lot where Gerald Washington's body was found. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Corley, NPR
Flowers and candles left at the school parking lot where Gerald Washington was found.

Flowers and candles were left at the school administration parking lot where Gerald Washington's body was found.

Cheryl Corley, NPR

Gerald Washington was found dead in a parking lot in December, three days before he was to take office as the first black mayor of the mostly white town of Westlake, La. Local authorities ruled his death a suicide, but there are still questions about the mysterious way in which Washington died, and state police have now begun an investigation.

At Westlake City Hall, the flag flies at half staff. Mayor-elect Washington left it that way to commemorate the death of President Gerald Ford on Dec. 30. Later that evening, Washington was found dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. A gun he owned was found near him. The Calcasieu Parish coroner ruled that Washington, 57, had committed suicide. Georski Washington, the mayor-elect's son, says that is difficult to believe.

"He was on his political high horse, so to speak," Geroski Washington says. "This was only a stepping stone. His aspiration was either governor of Louisiana, Senate or Congress."

Washington says his father was a joyful man, who often talked people out of rough patches, and a devout Catholic who didn't believe in suicide. Washington would have celebrated his 58th birthday Jan. 6, the same day his mother turned 93. His son says his father would not have taken his life with his mother's birthday so near.

Hate Mail and Threats

Washington liked to gamble, and rumors suggested that he may have been in deep debt. It's a charge his son denies. He accuses the Calcusieu Parish sheriff and coroner of giving the case short shrift, and says that the way in which his father's truck was handled at the scene of his death illustrates the quick and sloppy nature of the investigation.

"From what we were told by the authorities, the truck had been sprayed with some kind of foam and washed by the fire department," Washington says. "An ex-policeman who is a neighbor of my father's, who lives two houses down, drove my father's truck from the scene of the crime to his home."

The driver and the sheriff's deputy who arrived at the scene first are African-American. Gerald Washington's family calls his death an assassination. They say he had received hate mail and — hours before his death — a threatening text message on his cell phone. They asked the state police to take over the case. A Vietnam veteran and a retired refinery supervisor, Gerald Washington had served three terms on the city council and was about to take over from the city's long-standing mayor, who was stepping down. Geroski Washington says that if race was not a factor in his father's death, than fear of change was.

'He Didn't Have Any Enemies'

Interim Mayor Daniel Cupit says that Washington easily beat his white female opponent in the mayor's race, with 69 percent of the vote. But the history of racial tension and black deaths in the South — especially during the civil rights era — fuels the rumors of what happened here. Mayor Cupit says he's heard the conspiracy talk, but he doesn't believe that race was a factor in Washington's death.

"The reason I say that is he didn't have any enemies," Cupit says. "Wasn't anybody that disliked Washington. I've never met anybody who said anything bad about him." He says that, regardless of whether Washington committed suicide or was murdered, "either way, it's going to be hard to understand."

It takes just minutes to get from Westlake's City Hall to the parking lot where Gerald Washington's body was found. Flowers and candles have been left at the site.

"The questions at hand in this case was the trajectory of the projectile passing through the body, the relative distance of the shot, and whether the wound was consistent with the type of handgun reportedly used," says Dan Morrow of the Baton Rouge coroner's office.

Morrow says the results of his office's exams were consistent with the Calcasieu coroner's autopsy, but the office could not determine whether Washington's death was a suicide, homicide or accident. That finding, says Morrow, will have to come from the Louisiana State Police.

'He Never Sat in the Seat'

At Westlake's Coffee Cup Diner, Gerald Washington's death is still big news. Shirley and Fred Weissenberger, a white couple who were at the diner eating a late lunch, say that most people have made up their minds.

"Everyone I talk to — doesn't seem like they are waiting," Shirley Weissenberger says. "They seem to think it was a suicide. I would be skeptical if it would be me — especially since the bullet wasn't found and everything was hosed off. It looks strange to me."

Her husband, Fred, adds, "If this was going to turn out to be anything other than a plain, flat suicide, they're going to cover it up some way or another."

Sylvia Stanek, who is black, knew Washington and says she couldn't wait for him to become mayor. She doesn't know if the rest of the town was as ready: "I know he got elected, but he never sat in the seat."

While Gerald Washington's family and the city wait for the results of the State Police investigation, the NAACP and other groups have asked the Justice Department to intervene. They say Washington's death as well as a shooting incident involving another black Louisiana mayor are cause for alarm, and may have been meant to intimidate candidates and voters. Westlake, meantime, is scheduled to hold another election for mayor in late March.

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