2021 death of young Black man at rural Missouri home was self-inflicted, FBI tells AP

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FILE - Ericka Lotts stands next to a poster of her son, Derontae Martin, from his high school football playing days, Sept. 17, 2021, at her home in Ferguson, Mo. Martin died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside a rural Missouri home, not at the hands of the white homeowner who had a history of racist social media postings, an FBI official told The Associated Press on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Jim Salter, File)

ST. LOUIS – A federal investigation has concluded that a young Black man died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside a rural Missouri home, not at the hands of the white homeowner who had a history of racist social media postings, an FBI official told The Associated Press Wednesday.

Derontae Martin, 19, was at a prom party on April 25, 2021, when he died in an attic closet. The death was initially ruled a suicide. Relatives of Martin and others questioned that finding, and a jury at a coroner's inquest later ruled that Martin died by “violence," prompting the FBI investigation.

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Chris Crocker, acting special agent in charge of the FBI's St. Louis division, said an extensive investigation concluded "that this was a self-inflicted gunshot wound, not a homicide or a hate crime.” Relatives were informed of the finding in December, Crocker said.

Martin's mother, Ericka Lotts, said in a text that she remains convinced that her son was the victim of a homicide.


EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, the national suicide and crisis lifeline in the U.S. is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org


Martin was originally from the St. Louis area, but his family moved to Park Hills, a town of 8,500 residents about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis, when he was a child. Though that area of Missouri is about 95% white, Martin was popular and happy, Ericka Lotts has said.

Martin was a star defensive tackle and earned a scholarship to a small out-of-state college. He graduated from high school in 2020 but needed to bring up his entrance exam score before he could go to college. Ericka Lotts had relocated back to the St. Louis area, and Martin was living with her.

On the night of April 24, 2021, Martin was back in the Park Hills area. He attended the prom party of a young woman, a friend of a friend, at a home near Fredericktown, 27 miles (43 kilometers) south of Park Hills.

The home was owned by a man who in Facebook postings mocked foreign accents and defended the Confederate flag. He posted a meme showing a hand flipping the finger. It read: “Here’s my apology for being white.” Because the man is not charged with a crime, The Associated Press is not naming him.

Deputies and EMTs were called to the home at 3:01 a.m. on April 25, 2021. They found Martin in the attic, dead. Madison County Sheriff Katie McCutcheon said an initial autopsy indicated Martin died of a self-inflicted gunshot. The Missouri State Highway Patrol was asked to investigate, and it concurred.

About 100 racial injustice activists marched in Fredericktown shortly after Martin's death. Gray said at the time that counter-protesters tossed two nooses at protesters and yelled racial slurs. That area of Missouri was home to Frank Ancona, a Missouri Ku Klux Klan leader shot to death by his wife in 2017.

A coroner’s inquest jury was convened in July 2021. The AP obtained audio of the testimony through an open records request. Zachary Graham testified that he saw Martin shoot himself.

Others said Martin had been acting paranoid and aloof. Martin had methamphetamine in his system — enough to cause paranoia and irrational thinking — according to a toxicology report cited by Dr. Russell Deidiker, who performed the autopsy.

But Phillip Lawler testified that the homeowner told him weeks after the shooting that he killed Martin. “He just told me he didn’t like Black people” and used a racial slur, Lawler testified.

The homeowner, at the inquest, denied ever saying anything like that. He testified that he was at the party and on the main floor of the home with others when the shot was heard, sending people scattering. Some of the young people, in testimony, backed up his account.

Crocker, in a phone interview with the AP, said evidence showed that Martin had meth levels in his body "consistent with levels that often lead to extreme paranoia and sometimes even death.” He told others at the party he was worried that a gang member was after him, the investigation found. Someone gave him a gun for protection.

Martin shot himself “in the presence of a friend of his who was trying to talk him out of doing it," Crocker said.

Family members had said evidence didn’t match suicide, but Crocker said the wound was consistent with being self-inflicted.

FBI officials met with Martin's family in December to inform them of the findings. “We made sure to give them a whole understanding of the steps we took to reach this conclusion," Crocker said.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division provided two attorneys to help with the investigation, Crocker said. An FBI agent who specializes in hate crimes was assigned to the investigation.

“We really took extraordinary steps in this case to make sure we reached the right conclusion,” Crocker said.

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