"Sugar Town": The shocking story of a young black man's suspicious death while in police custody

Salon talks to Victor White, whose son's death is the subject of a new documentary, about injustice in small towns

By Melanie McFarland
Published August 6, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)
Victor White III in "Sugar Town" (Investigation Discovery)
Victor White III in "Sugar Town" (Investigation Discovery)

In all likelihood you do not know the full story of Victor White III, not how he lived nor the truth of how he died.

The names of other people in the grim fraternity of which he is a part — Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland among them — are easily called forth from memory. Strangers have marched in their names in cities across the United States. Their stories continue to fuel social justice movements and impact multiple levels of American life, from politics to professional sports and entertainment.

But Victor White III — Little Vic to his friends and family — is known less by his name than the circumstances of his death. That may have something to do with where the 22-year-old lived. Each of the victims named in the previous paragraph hailed from cities and, with the exception of Sandra Bland, died in cities, too.

Little Vic lived in New Iberia, Louisiana, a rural town of 30,000 still fastened to the Jim Crow era. The rich (and mostly white) neighborhoods and the destitute (and mostly black) side of town, known as West End, are divided by train tracks. Some of the poorest people there live in what used to be slave quarters.

This is where Victor White III died on March 3, 2014.

“Sugar Town,” premiering Monday at 8 p.m. on Investigation Discovery, provides viewers with a careful walk through virtually every detail on Victor White III’s case and his family’s ongoing efforts to attain justice. For all the reasons you might imagine, it’s incredibly difficult and frustrating to watch.

For those very same reasons, it should also be considered obligatory viewing.

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“Sugar Town” arrives on the air at the same time that the six-part documentary series “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story ” (produced by Shawn Carter and the team behind “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”) is airing. A new episode of that series also airs Monday at 8 p.m. on BET and at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network, in fact.

Style-wise, each documentary is very different; “Sugar Town” producer and director Shan Nicholson emulates ID’s true crime method of storytelling, for example. But both accounts spring from the same ache of parents wrestling with having lost their children for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having dark skin.

What “Sugar Town” does in its concise, sane two-hours is to interrogate the ugly racist truth behind “law and order” political rhetoric, embodied in New Iberia’s sheriff Louis Ackal. The chief law enforcement officer of New Iberia since 2008, Ackal ran for office on the platform of making the town’s citizens feel safer.

That was only true for the town’s white residents. With the cooperation of the White family, Little Vic’s story exemplifies the unequal treatment of marginalized populations throughout the United States, in big cities and small towns. New Iberia’s main industry is the growth and production of sugar, an industry supported by black labor. Louisiana is the prison capital of the world, with the majority of its incarcerated population housed in for-profit facilities. These two facts are related.

But “Sugar Town” also spells out the role that the size and location of a place plays in the amount of exposure a case of injustice may get. The White family’s protest only received national attention following an NBC News report by Hannah Rappleye that detailed the absurd inconsistencies between law enforcement’s version of Little Vic’s death and the coroner’s report.

According to the sheriff’s department’s account, while Little Vic was handcuffed in the back set of a squad car, cops say that he somehow was able to produce a gun his arresting officers failed to find on him during two pat-downs, and shot himself.

Though the sheriff department’s statement indicated that Little Vic shot himself in the back, the coroner’s report, released six months later, indicated he had sustained a gunshot wound to the right side of his chest – even though his hands were cuffed behind his back, and even though he was left-handed. Thus White’s death earned the moniker “the ‘Houdini suicide.’”

The chain of coverage that followed the NBC report, including an extensive 2017 profile in the New York Times, opened the town’s sheriff’s department to scrutiny on a federal level that eventually resulted in Ackal being indicted by the justice department on multiple allegations of prisoner abuse in the Iberia Parish Jail. Needless to say, if justice were served in that case, there might not have been a need for this documentary.

Salon recently sat down for a conversation with Victor White III’s father, the Reverend Victor White, to talk about “Sugar Town,” the corruption and discrimination that still plagues New Iberia, and what he hopes this documentary will achieve for his family and the many victims of injustice whose cases don't attract national attention. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is it like for you to see so many other stories like this, covered in the news, getting wide coverage, while your son's seemed to languish without receiving much notice? I realize your son’s case received regional coverage, but it didn’t make headlines as quickly as Philando Castile’s shooting or —

Mike Brown, and the Ferguson riots.


That part was even more painful because matter of fact, at the time, Mike Brown happened in August. Well, the national part with his [story] came in around about September. I remember so vividly because I was New Orleans to actually go on to Anderson Cooper, and whatever the breaking news was with the Mike Brown case happened at that time. So, that took care of the national coverage that night. Then the following night, Joan Rivers passed away.

So, it wasn't just the Mike Brown case. That was growing into a riot, but it also was when Joan Rivers passed away. We were getting ready to go and do Wolf Blitzer when Joan Rivers passed, and that was the breaking news. Then, when we go back, and following that there was an ISIS beheading. So, that was the breaking news.

And, we didn't have a video. So, I'm quite sure that played a role in it as well because we didn't have that video and everyone else had videos. So we’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to garner national coverage. That's why we're grateful for Investigation Discovery because now, four years later, “Sugar Town” gives some consolation. It is painful, but yet there's consolation.

Where is the case now at this point?

Actually it was settled [as a] civil suit, but . . . we were told by the Department of Justice that if we could provide them with more evidence, they would actually re-open our case. And that's what we're looking forward to.

You're talking about bringing Little Vic’s case to the Department of Justice. Do you think that there is a difference in the way the case might be handed now that ID is granting your family’s struggles a little more exposure than it's been getting, as opposed to, say, in 2016?  

Not so much with the Department of Justice, because actually Mr. [Jeff] Sessions has told us that he wouldn't reopen it as long as they're there. So, we got that message real clear. That they wouldn't take a look at it as long as he's the Attorney General.

Did he say why?

No, he didn't even give us an explanation.

They said they were going to have an independent investigation. They did not conduct an independent investigation. They didn't do the autopsy on my son. What they did was look at the paperwork that was sent to them by Louis Ackal, which was the New Iberia's Police Department and the state trooper's, Louisiana State Trooper's investigation’s version. So like I told them, “That wasn't an independent investigation. What y'all did was review what was already there, which was the cover-up. So y'all just agreed with the cover-up.”

When ID joined the investigation and became part of the story, did things change locally, in terms of your interaction with the sheriff’s department in New Iberia?

Not so much has changed, but it heightened their awareness that we were there. They kind of monitored us a little more. But I wasn't living in New Iberia, we’d just go down there to do the [film] shooting. We went to certain places where we lived at the time when we were in New Iberia, where my children grew up. Several times Louis Ackal would send messages through other deputies. I wasn't afraid, and I'm still not afraid of them.

They would send messages to where you're now living? As in, a place two and a half hours away?

Yes ma’am, they would send message to me, such as we are instigators, outsiders, that we won't be permitted in New Iberia, if we do come there and stir up stuff, we can look to be arrested. You know, those types of things.

My other son was still living in New Iberia, but that has changed, because he was being harassed as well.

Can you talk about any of the things that happened?

Sure. When he’d go places, the officer would see him, they would pull him over and say he didn't put his flasher on at a safe distance and stuff, those types of things. You know, "why you stopping?" But again, that's where his wife's family is from. It’s very difficult to get uprooted and try to move away.

I don't think a lot of people realize that, as the documentary says, Jim Crow is still very much alive in places like New Iberia. People may be getting an inkling of that but I don't think people have an idea of the extent to which it's still alive.

I don't think the nation, as a whole understands that.

I live in Alexandria, and I grew up in Alexandria, which is two hours away from New Iberia. When I went to New Iberia, they were 40 years behind.

No bus system, not one bus system. When I went in there, they're still living in slave quarters. So they got a brand new school, but then across the street are one room huts with a bathroom added on, with one pipe sticking out. It was just amazing to me.

They were so afraid to talk, to even speak about the sheriff, in that situation, because they feared retaliation.

And I’ve seen it, I've seen it first-hand. Louis Ackal, when he became sheriff, he let them go n****r knocking, they would come in that community. They didn't have sidewalks in certain areas of the town where there should have been sidewalks, and they would just hit them with batons. Patrol cars would come down through the neighborhood and hit individuals, hit them, knock them off the road and keep on going. But then the community itself wouldn't rally around each other and say, we've had enough. They were so afraid, and they're still afraid, even today because he's still in office. He was acquitted, so that added to what he was telling the community that "I am beyond — I am the law," that's how he would say it. “I'm above the law because I am the law.”

Do you feel like this case and what you've been doing all this time has helped at all to galvanize the community in New Iberia, not just in terms of getting justice, not just for your son, but for the community at large to change what's going on?

Outside of New Iberia, I would say yes. But like I said, New Iberia is still afraid and even that stuff will continue. My son wasn't the last one, but mine was the most notable because we pushed it. . .The most difficult, most painful part is that individuals whose kids have been brutalized are still afraid to come forward.

And even after my son's death, they wouldn't stand with me, because [Ackal] sent, he did, he sent a clear message: “If I get re-elected, I know who you are and if that's what you go out and do, then your children or whoever, you're gonna come in contact with me again and you know what's gonna happen.” And that's the message that he sent to them while he was running for re-election, at the same time feeding them all red beans and rice and chicken. We couldn't get them to come to a protest or rally, but he could put red beans and rice and get over 500 people. And send them that same message.

And would they come out and vote for him?

Yes ma'am, they come out for him, the red beans and rice, yes ma'am, they sit right up on the tent. Brought them right to the West End where he shut down the parks, he refused to take some of those taxes and place it in the parks. Shut down the swimming pool. All this happened on his watch. And then he’d go up under there, got over 500 people sitting under a tent . . . and they listened to him saying, “This is how it's gonna be.” And it couldn't be taped, he wouldn't let [ID] film it.

There is no moving on from this, with what happened to your son. But what are you hoping to do next after “Sugar Town” comes out?

Hopefully after this comes out, we're going to see if we can get the nation as a whole to rally with us and around us, to galvanize enough individuals so we can go back in New Iberia.

Now we're gonna petition the federal government to see if we can get federal oversight. We’re gonna go there and see if we can get an independent council, or if we can get a citizen’s review board, and go back to true community policing. Where putting people that look like me in our neighborhoods, that understand me, come out of my neighborhood and go back to truly walking a beat so, therefore, you can get to know the people in which you supposedly protecting and serving.

And at the same time, the other part of the thing that I want to come from this, is to let those individuals that nationwide, that it's the same corruption, even more so in Small Town U.S.A.—

In Large Town U.S.A., too.

Yes ma'am, it's happening in Large Town U.S.A. but you getting more exposure than Small Town U.S.A. We don't get the same exposure. So we're hoping that they don't forget about us, that [we’re] not gonna go unnoticed any longer.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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