A young Black man was shot to death during a prom party inside the rural Missouri home of a man with a history of bigoted rhetoric.
19-year-old Derontae Martin’s suspicious death has his mother, grandmother, and activist questioning the official account, which claimed Martin took his own life.
Derontae Martin, a former standout football athlete, was playful and outgoing to his community. Martin was popular and happy and earned a scholarship to a small out-of-state college for his defensive tackle skills. After graduating from Central High School, he spent the past year working at a local Walmart and a restaurant as he prepared to improve his entrance exam score.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Martin’s grandmother Kimberly Lotts told the Associated Press. “He wasn’t a kid that caused trouble, ran around or beat up folks, or robbed or stole. He wasn’t that kind of a kid. He was a very loving, fun-filled kid. He was a loyal, faithful friend to those that he cared about.”
Martins family lived in Parks Hill, a town of about 8,500 residents, 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. Though that area of Missouri is about 95% white, Martin still made the best of his circumstances, his relatives said.
Martin’s mother, Ericka Lotts recalled how her son donned bunny ears during this year’s Easter service to amuse the small children.
A brief news release said deputies and EMTs were called to the rural home at 3:01 a.m. on April 25. They found Martin in the attic, dead. McCutcheon said an initial autopsy indicated Martin died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Her news release did not say who owned the gun or how Martin got it.
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Ericka Lotts questioned how Martin, who was right-handed, could shoot himself with a full cast on his broken right arm. She said she’d heard several different accounts about what really happened and didn’t know what to believe.
“All I do know is that somebody shot him,” Lotts said.
The home where the shooting took place is owned by a man who on Facebook has mocked foreign accents and defended the Confederate flag. He recently posted a meme showing a hand flipping the finger. It reads: “Here’s my apology for being white.” Due to him not being formally charged, his name has not been released.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol was asked to review Madison County’s investigation and concurred with the initial finding of suicide, though additional witnesses are still being sought. Patrol Sgt. Clark Parrott said. Madison County Sheriff Katy McCutcheon declined to comment to the press.
The investigation has been met with broad skepticism among racial injustice activists, about 100 who staged a protest march in Fredericktown last week. The Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis activist leader, said counter-protesters tossed two nooses at protesters and yelled racial slurs.
Gray said that despite the slurs and the threats, activists wouldn’t rest until the mysteries of Martin’s death are solved.
“The whole thing is that it was a suspicious death,” he said. “How and why did Derontae end up in the house at this party, and how did he end up in the attic? At the very least … there is negligence here.”
Last week, Gray and Ericka Lotts met with Madison County Prosecuting Attorney M. Dwight Robbins, who asked the Missouri attorney general’s office to investigate. A spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, declined to say if the office would get involved.