ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
Local authorities ruled his death a suicide, but there are still questions about the mysterious way Gerald Washington died. Gerald Washington would've been the first black mayor of the mostly white town of Westlake, Louisiana. He was found dead in a parking lot three days before taking office.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: At Westlake City Hall, the flag flies at half staff. Mayor-elect Gerald Washington left it that way to commemorate the death of President Gerald Ford. That was on December 30. Later that evening, Washington would be dead himself from a gunshot wound to the chest. A gun he owned was found near him. The Calcasieu Parish coroner would rule that 57-year-old Washington, on his way to making local history, had committed suicide. Georski Washington(ph), the mayor's son, says that's difficult to believe.
Mr. GEORSKI WASHINGTON: He was on his political high horse, so to speak. This was only a stepping stone. His aspirations were either governor of Louisiana, the Senate or Congress.
CORLEY: 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. On January 6th, Washington would have celebrated his 58th birthday, the same day his mother turned 93.
Mr. WASHINGTON: There's no way he would have given her this present by taking his life.
CORLEY: Washington liked to gamble, and there were rumors that he may have been deep in debt. It's a charge his son denies. He accuses the Calcusieu Parish sheriff and coroner of giving the case short shrift, and says how his father's truck was handled at the scene shows the investigation was quick and sloppy.
Mr. WASHINGTON: From what we were told by the authorities, the truck had been sprayed with some kind of foam and washed by the fire department. An ex-policeman who is a neighbor of my father's, lives two houses down, drove my father's truck from the scene of the crime to his home.
CORLEY: The driver and the sheriff's deputy first at the scene are African-Americans. Gerald Washington's family calls his death an assassination. They say he had received some 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 vet 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 if race was not a factor in his father's death, then fear of change was.
In his office, the interim mayor, Daniel Cupit, points to a small photo of Washington and other city council members.
Mr. DANIEL CUPIT (Interim Mayor, Westlake, Louisiana): That was our swearing-in ceremony just weeks ago.
CORLEY: Cupit says 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 buy the race angle.
Mr. CUPIT: The reason I say that is he didn't have any enemies. There wasn't anybody that disliked Washington. I mean, I've never met anybody who said anything bad about him. And that's the shock of was it suicide, was it - did somebody take his life - either way, it's going to be hard to understand, you know?
CORLEY: It takes just minutes to get from Westlake City Hall to the parking lot where Gerald Washington's body was found. That's where I'm standing now, behind a school district building, the former gym where Washington played basketball while in high school. Flowers and candles have been left behind here in the parking lot.
Mr. DAN MORROW (Baton Rouge Coroner's Office): The questions at hand in this case were the trajectory of the projectile passing through the body, the relative distance of the shot, and whether or not the wound was consistent with the type of handgun reportedly used.
CORLEY: Dan Morrow with the Baton Rouge Coroner's Office 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.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
CORLEY: At Westlake's Coffee Cup Diner, Gerald Washington's death is still big news. Shirley and Fred Weissenberger, a white couple who live nearby, were eating a late lunch. Shirley said most people have made up their minds.
Ms. SHIRLEY WEISSENBERGER: Everyone I talk to doesn't seem like they are waiting. They seem to think it was a suicide. I would be skeptical if it would be me, you know, especially since the bullet wasn't found and everything was hosed off. It looks strange to me.
Mr. FRED WEISSENBERGER: 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.
CORLEY: 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.
Ms. SYLVIA STANEK: I know he got elected, but he never sat in the seat.
CORLEY: 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 and a shooting incident involving another black Louisiana mayor are alarming and may have been meant to intimidate candidates and voters. Westlake, meantime, is scheduled to hold another election for mayor in late March.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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