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Questions Linger One Year After Anton Black’s Death

Image from the Facebook page of the Justice for Anton Black Coalition.

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Anton Black, an Eastern Shore teenager who died in police custody. This account has been put together from interviews, video footage, police records and other documents — many of them obtained through public information requests.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at approximately 7 p.m., a man and woman were driving home from church when they witnessed a teenager dragging a younger boy down a rural country road next to the Choptank River Bridge in Greensboro, Md. 

While the woman was concerned for the well-being of the boy, her fiance dismissed their actions as horseplay — until he saw something in his rearview mirror that changed his mind.

“The big kid just picked him up in a full nelson — and boom — just plopped him down to the ground,” the man, a former high school wrestler, said during his official police interview.

The man said he got out of the car and yelled at the older boy to pick on someone his own size.

The older boy was Anton Black.

“He threatened him and challenged him … if nothing, to get him to stop,” the woman said of her fiance in her own police interview. “But that didn’t work. He just stared straight ahead like a zombie. Not even a peep. You would expect somebody to [say] get out of my face! — especially since this is a black teenager and it’s a white guy yelling at him. He’s gonna say something! But no, not a word.”

The woman asked the younger boy if he wanted her to call the police, and the boy said “yes.” 

As the woman spoke to the 911 dispatcher, the couple continued to follow Black and the boy as they walked southbound on the road that led to Black’s house. The names of the 911 callers are being withheld in this story to protect their privacy.

The couple said Black continued to hold the boy in a headlock while forcibly walking him down the road. 

Soon, then-Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV, a controversial new hire from neighboring Dover, Del., was on his way to check things out. He was no longer able to work as a cop in Dover following a 2016 legal settlement involving an African-American suspect who had been in his custody. 

Webster’s history was no secret to Black — and to most of the rest of the African-American community in Greensboro, a town of about 1,900. Many black residents had fought to prevent the town from hiring him.

Webster had an idea of what was going on because another person had contacted the police department to report the same concerns about Black and the younger boy.

As the officer turned south on Rt. 313, the boys had already made their way down to the local Save-a-Lot grocery store, about a three-minute walk from Black’s home. 

The pair passed an off-duty cop working in his front yard. Centreville Cpl. Dennis Lannon said he also saw the boys, but dismissed their activity as roughhousing, according to his interview with police.

Webster said he could see that Black had the boy in a restrained position “that was transferring to a half nelson.” He said Black was dragging the boy down the road.

Webster stopped his patrol car, shouted “Hey” at the boys to get their attention and started talking to them.

That’s when — as one witness puts it — things got out of control. 

Within minutes, Webster, two off-duty cops, an off-duty firefighter and a civilian on a motorcycle began chasing Black on foot.

One hour and 13 minutes later, the teenager was dead.

A full year later, questions abound about what happened and why. Black’s family is searching for answers. A local group called The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black has sprouted up. Lawsuits are likely to follow.

Few people are truly sure about what happened. The passage of a year has only deepened the confusion and resentments. Anger lingers in the community.

‘You’re never going to believe this’

Two days after the police stop, the man who had made the 911 call heard a news report about the incident on a Baltimore radio station. He went inside the house and said to his fiance, “You’re never going to believe this.”

In her interview, the woman said she thought Black was on drugs because of the dead stare in his eyes. She said a friend told her he might have been into K2, a synthetic form of marijuana sprayed with chemicals.

“I’m interested in the tox,” she said. “I have no doubt they’ll find something.”

While the police report tested a small amount of marijuana that they apparently found in Black’s possession, the autopsy report tested negative for drugs.

The 911 caller said she is certain the younger boy was scared. She tries to ignore comments on Facebook suggesting she should have minded her own business. 

“That boy was terrified, and you will never convince me otherwise,” the woman said. “They’re trying to say the police did something to him. … I see this Justice for Anton. Oh God, are we looking for Al Sharpton now?”

Black’s last breath

Anton Black, a former high school football and track star, took his last breath on his mother’s front porch in a Greensboro trailer park. He was 19. His mother stood by, watching — trusting the police to keep her son safe.

Witnesses on the scene said the teen fell unconscious seconds after police secured leg shackles around his ankles.

A first set of restraints was broken, so a cop had to fetch another.

Minutes earlier, four grown men held the teen down and locked handcuffs around his wrists. It was a collaborative effort.

Black, who was 5-foot-9 and 159 pounds, was in a fight he could never win.

“Let’s prone him out,” Ridgely, Md., Police Chief Gary Manos commanded, as he directed an off-duty cop and the civilian in the controversial practice which involves restraining a person lying face down while applying physical pressure to areas of their torso, including the back, shoulders or neck.

Soon, body camera footage of the incident shows, Black was face down on a wooden ramp with Manos lying across his back.

“Roll over. Roll over, Chief,” one of the cops said seconds later.

“Hold on,” Manos said. “Let me get him.”

Twenty-two seconds passed and another cop said, “Roll to your hip, Chief. Roll to your hip.”

“Hold on,” Manos again said.

Thirty-two seconds later, he added, “He’s cuffed.”

Black, recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, continued to resist, but his movements were short-lived.

The team of men, now five in count, moved to add restraints to his legs.

Black stopped resisting, according to one officer, as two minutes passed.

“Make sure he’s breathing,” someone said, sounding concerned.

About a minute later, when the leg restraints were secured, Manos ordered the team to move Black to his side “so he can breathe.”

At that point, Caroline County Deputy Sheriff Sgt. Richard Baker, who had been holding Black’s feet, said he saw Black take one deep breath before his eyes rolled back into his head. No pulse could be detected at that point, Baker, an EMT, said.

The state medical examiner said Black’s death can best be described as an accident.

“This 19-year-old black male, Anton Milbert L. Black, died of sudden cardiac death” due to an underlying heart condition, Chief Medical Examiner David R. Fowler ruled. “A significant contributing condition was bipolar disorder. …[I]t is likely that the stress of his struggle contributed to his death. However, no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death.”

31 in-custody deaths

Black would become one of 31 people to die in Maryland in an officer-involved incident in 2018, according to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Since his death, three police officers involved in the deadly pursuit have been cleared by their higher ups of any wrongdoing, both criminally and administratively. Webster, the cop from Greensboro, has since lost his job, though it wasn’t due to his actions that night.

The case has been closed by the Maryland State Police, but many questions surrounding the investigation remain unanswered.

Black’s close-knit family — his parents, siblings and cousins — say they are not finished asking them.

Their legal team — a former legislator and heavyweight attorney Timothy Maloney of Joseph, Greenwald and Laake, LLC; Caroline County attorney Rene Swafford, and a former Washington, D.C., police officer turned private investigator plan to launch a lawsuit.

The P.I., Trevor Hewick, likens the night Black died to a “lynch mob” scene.

Black was African-American. The police officers and civilian who restrained him are white.

“They lynched him,” the teen’s father, Antone Black Sr., said in January when police released the body camera video worn by Webster. “They didn’t use a rope and a tree, they used a gun and a badge.”

Gary Wyatt, the owner of the trailer park where Black stayed with his mother said while he does not think the police set out to “do it,” he believes the situation got out of control.

“Way out of control,” Wyatt said in an interview. “The boy done wrong, but he didn’t deserve to die. Webster was trying to be Mr. Bad Ass. The whole goddamn bunch should be fired.”

The Black family’s legal team has filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice to hear the case in federal court. If that effort fails, a civil suit will likely be brought.

The legal team has publicly accused police of altering the body camera footage worn by the first responding officer on the scene. They also suspect the tampering couldn’t have taken place without the knowledge of Caroline County’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Joseph Riley (R). Riley vehemently denies the charges.

The investigation itself raises many questions. For one, state police investigators interviewed some of the witnesses on the scene, but not all. A former internal affairs police captain finds the investigative process troubling.

The investigation appears to have ended when the body camera was turned off — which may have led to a key evidentiary item in the case becoming unprotected. Chain of custody records for the body worn camera footage do not exist prior to the investigators witnessing the video upload, according to the state police. 

The apparent gaps in the investigative process beg the question: Who is overseeing the investigators?

Body camera video

A 38-minute video will forever define the night Anton Black died, but was the police-worn body camera footage altered?

Black’s legal team thinks so. The group has publicly accused Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos of altering the video with the aid of former Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo, who resigned in January, four months after Black’s death.

The team also believes Riley, the Caroline County state’s attorney, had a hand it, because they say he showed one of the altered versions to the legal team in his office on Sept. 25.

“It is an undisputed fact that there are at least three different versions of Officer Webster’s [body worn camera] footage,” Swafford said in August. “The Baltimore Sun has one version, Caroline County NAACP President, Berl Lovelace viewed a different version, and the Black family’s legal team was shown yet another version.”

Hewick said the version the legal team saw was altered to omit “critical evidence” related to Black’s in-custody death. Riley denies having any knowledge of the video being altered.  

A closer look at the night and days since the video was uploaded from Webster’s camera to a computer at the Greensboro Police Department suggests that so-called chain-of-custody policies may not have been followed the night of Sept. 15.

The state police investigation started the same night Black died, but the first interviews with Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos and Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV did not take place until 11:45 p.m., over three hours after Black was pronounced dead. The whereabouts of the involved officers are largely unaccounted for during this time, including Webster — the keeper of the camera.

According to state police, a senior member of the Caroline County Sheriff’s Department instructed Sgt. Richard Baker to escort Webster and Manos to the Greensboro Police Department station at some point in the evening, but they cannot confirm what time the escort occurred.

Nor could state police officials confirm who, if anyone, stayed with Webster and Manos until investigators arrived.

“These events occurred prior to the arrival of any Maryland State Police Homicide Unit investigators,” said Maj. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. “The times were not documented in the reports submitted by the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office deputies.”

Baker arrived on the scene at 8:29 p.m., according to Caroline County EMS service call records. The Caroline County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request seeking the time of the escort.

“This action was not directed by MSP personnel and Manos and Webster were at the Greensboro Police Department when Homicide Unit investigators arrived in Greensboro,” Shipley said. “These times were not documented in [the] report or on the dispatch logs.”

Former Greensboro police chief Mike Petyo was notified of the incident at 7:40 p.m., but he didn’t arrive at the scene until 11:01 p.m., according to police dispatch logs.

Shipley said investigators witnessed Webster upload the body worn camera footage to a computer at the police department, but state police have no records of when the transfer took place. The state police can only confirm the upload occurred before 11:45 p.m., which is when the state police first interviewed the cops on the scene.

“The Homicide Unit conducted a criminal investigation with the purpose of determining information and evidence related to whether or not a crime had been committed,” Shipley said of the in-custody death.  “The Greensboro Police Department had a copy of the tape made for public release that was said to have blurred the face of the juvenile involved and edited out any audio references to the juvenile’s name. …Other than the intended redactions, no discrepancies were observed. No other body camera footage exists that we are aware of.” 

Shipley, however, said copies of the original video can be obtained any time, as long as the original video is on the police agency’s computer system. 

Wyatt, the owner of the trailer park, said he believes the original body camera video was altered. The state police, however, never interviewed him for the investigation.

“That ain’t the real video,” Wyatt said. “I saw and heard 95 percent of what happened.”

Wyatt lives a door or two down from Black’s mother. He said the men who held Black down to handcuff and shackle him met privately at the top of his property the same night, sometime after Black was taken in an ambulance to the hospital around 7:55 p.m

He said he could see the group huddled together that night at the northern tip of his property, which fronts Greensboro Road. They talked in the dark of night for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, Wyatt said.

Sometime in the evening, he also overheard a police officer say it was all right if they got sued because “our insurance will pay for it.”

Wyatt wouldn’t reveal any other details. He said he may be a key witness for the Black legal team if the case goes to trial.

“I’m their ace in the hole,” Wyatt asserted.

The investigation

The amount of time between Black’s first contact with police and the time he was pronounced dead was one hour and 13 minutes, but it took the state medical examiner four months to determine the cause of death — and that was only after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) stepped into the picture.

“I’m very frustrated that we haven’t gotten answers yet,” Hogan said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun in January. “I’ve been pushing both the state police and the medical examiner to finish their investigation as quickly as they possibly can. …The family, the police department, the community, everyone deserves to get answers.”

Black’s family, which had once pledged to work alongside local officials and let the investigative process play out, was fed up. They were not satisfied with the answers they were getting from state and local officials.

The state’s chief medical examiner, David Fowler, ruled Black’s death an accident as a result of an underlying heart condition.

The next day, Riley announced he would not bring the matter before a grand jury.

“There is currently not enough evidence to establish probable cause to seek an indictment,” Riley said of the involved officers in a January statement. “There is no intention to place this matter before [a grand jury] at this time.”

Riley vowed to keep an open mind and evaluate new evidence, when and if it was presented.

Accusations of altered body camera footage and concerns about excessive use-of-force involving a suspect with a mental health diagnosis did not persuade the state’s attorney to reopen his investigation. 

Like the state police, Riley believed his investigative jurisdiction was limited to determining criminal liability on the part of the officers as it related to Black’s death.

The interviews

The Maryland State Police interviewed over two dozen witnesses for the officer-involved death investigation, but was that enough?

Most of the interviewees were either law enforcement agents or people who saw or interacted with Black prior to the initial police stop. Many people were passed over for interviews — including the vast majority of emergency services personnel on site and the owner of the trailer park, Gary Wyatt. 

“[L]imited checks were conducted the evening of September 15, 2018 due to individuals yelling profanities at investigators during scene processing,” Maryland State Police Sgt. Howard Kennard, the lead investigator, wrote in his official report.

A former internal affairs police captain for Prince George’s County Police said the interviewing protocol for the Black case seems atypical.

“Internal affairs is going to interview everyone, especially in a homicide case,” said Joe Perez, president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association. “We would interview everyone — whether they played an integral role or not. If Homicide is [conducting the investigation], they definitely know better.”

Perez said the problem with some police departments is that they’re not looking for the truth so they don’t dig deep enough.

“Based on my experience, that’s on purpose,” Perez said.“You want to lock people in to anything they heard, anything they saw.” 

A recurring narrative from the state police is that only those “personnel who provided emergency care to Black” were interviewed for the investigation, but it didn’t necessarily work out that way. 

While four individuals, three law enforcement agents and a volunteer fireman, performed CPR on Black, state police only interviewed the officers — Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos, Caroline County Sheriff’s Deputies Richard Baker and Amber Thamert.

Investigators did not interview Greensboro volunteer firefighter Frank Starkey, who performed CPR for “one minute and 13 seconds,” according to a police account. 

“Frank Starkey was not present for any of the initial events and arrived on scene after Anton Black was in cardiac arrest and CPR had been initiated,” state police said.

With the exception of one individual, none of the county paramedics on the scene who participated in emergency care with Black were interviewed. 

The outlier is Shawn Starkey, then a captain with the Greensboro Fire Department and a paid EMT for Dorchester County. Starkey supervised the emergency care the night Black died, but he was also present and involved at the initial police stop.

It is unclear why Shawn Starkey and other paramedics trained in life-saving skills, did not take over CPR once they arrived. 

“That’s unusual,” Perez said.

Shortness of breath complaint

Frank Starkey, it turns out, was also the ambulance driver for Black that night, according to the Caroline County Department of Emergency Services. Black continued to receive CPR en-route to Easton Memorial Hospital, officials said.

It is normal protocol for ambulance crew members to communicate via radio with hospital staff while en-route to the hospital, according to state and county emergency management service officials. Specifically, an EMS technician reviews the condition of the patient to the on-duty physician who then consults with paramedics about the patient until arrival.

“Speaking in general, they have to call for a physician to consult with a physician to decide to continue resuscitation efforts or terminate resuscitation efforts,” said Brian Ebling, director of Caroline County Emergency Services Department. 

There are no records of such a call, however, according to the Caroline County Emergency Services Department.

Luke Whalen, the emergency room physician who attended to Black on Sept. 15, wrote in a discharge report that Black complained of shortness of breath after he was placed in handcuffs. He cited “EMS” as the source of the information.

“19-year-old male presenting as a cardiac arrest in the setting of having been pursued and arrested by police. … Report from EMS is that the patient ran from police after smoking marijuana, was shot with the taser which was ineffective, eventually apprehended and handcuffed by police when he complained of shortness of breath, and had a witnessed arrest. No history from EMS of a particularly difficult struggle.”

The shortness of breath complaint could not be substantiated by investigators, though.

“MD State Police investigators interviewed all persons on the scene and involved that evening and reviewed the body camera footage of the encounter,” state police spokesman Shipley said in an email. “They could find no factual basis for that statement and had no evidence either through statements or the video, of Anton Black ever complaining of shortness of breath.”

Initially the Department of Emergency Services listed only two personnel in the ambulance, Andy Fulton and Kerrie Hubbard. But Maryland Matters would later confirm that a third EMS technician was in the ambulance — Frank Starkey — who drove the ambulance.

“The EMS drivers who transported Anton Black were not interviewed by State Police investigators,” Shipley said of the shortness of breath complaint. “Investigators interviewed those who provided emergency care to Anton Black.”

Shipley said in May, a report submitted by Fulton, the “primary patient caregiver” on the ambulance, did not include any information to confirm the doctor’s note.

“An EMS report mentions irregular respirations in a summary of symptoms, but there is no description of shortness of breath,” Shipley said.

The state police would not provide an original copy of Fulton’s report, or a redacted version.

A spokesperson for the county EMS department said the misidentification of Starkey was caused by personnel designations in the computer system. Starkey, a volunteer, was listed, but not in the same section as paid EMTs and paramedics, the spokeswoman said.

David Plymyer, a former Anne Arundel County prosecutor and county attorney who has written about the Anton Black case, said the investigations so far have raised as many questions as they answer.

According to sources familiar with the Black family’s legal strategy, the Maryland State Police and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services are among the government agencies that may be targeted in a lawsuit.

“This is one of those cases in which the most reliable account of what happened may come from civil litigation brought by Anton’s family, when witnesses are placed under oath and deposed,” Plymyer said. “If that civil litigation settles before trial, we may never have satisfactory answers to all of the questions.”

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].


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Questions Linger One Year After Anton Black’s Death