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Sugar Town Puts Louisiana Police Misconduct in the Spotlight

Investigation Discovery documentary details the shooting death of a young man in police custody, absurdly framed as a suicide.

Sugar Town. Investigation Discovery. Monday, August 6, 8 p.m.'Sugar Town''Sugar Town,' Investigation Discovery

No network runs more true-crime slice-and-dice than Investigation Discovery. From Beauty Queen Murders to Bad Teachers to the epochal work of sociology Truth Is Stranger Than Florida, ID is pretty much round-the-clock police procedural, with cops hunting killers and rapists and guys who tear those tags off of mattresses.

Sugar Town is a complete reversal of form: This time, the police are the bad guys and their investigation is the crime. And the result is a show more horrifying than anything about the Boston Strangler or Aileen Wuornos. Low-key but packing a powerful punch, Sugar Town ought to convince even the most indifferent citizens that maybe this #BlackLivesMatter stuff is worth worrying about.

The life that didn't matter—at least to the police—in this case belonged to Victor White III, a 22-year-old kid who lived in New Iberia, a small town in southern Louisiana. One night in March 2014, Little Vic, as his family called him, had walked to a convenience store with a friend for cigarillos.

On their way home, they were stopped by cops who thought they might be the two guys who were involved in a fight at the store that had just been called in. They weren't, but a search of their pockets revealed that Little Vic had small bags of marijuana and cocaine.

His friend was sent packing, but a snugly handcuffed Little Vic was driven to the police department for booking. He didn't make it. Police said he refused to get out of the patrol car, then whipped out a pistol that somehow hadn't been discovered during the drug search, shouted "I can't go back to jail!" and shot himself in the right side of his chest. The bullet went up and out through his left armpit and Little Vic was dead before the cop could even pull him out of the car.

His parents—called at their home a hundred miles away and told their son was dead—were instantly suspicious. Neither the cops nor the hospital would tell them exactly what had happened. (They found out the next from a television newscast.) They were kept from seeing the body for an incomprehensibly long time.

As the police investigation continued the next few days, their suspicions hardened into a certainty that the cops had killed Little Vic. There was a long gash on his forehead that doesn't appear in photos and home movies taken earlier in the day, as if he'd been beaten.

And the shot that killed him seemed more and more improbable. How did the left-handed Little Vic twist his hands around to fire a shot through his right side? In fact, how did he twist his hands at all? They were bound behind his back with handcuffs that fastened together with a hinge rather than a chain, making it virtually impossible to maneuver them.

Then there was the matter of the gun, which the cop who arrested Little Vic hadn't found while he was searching Little Vic for drugs. "It had to be in his butt crack," the arresting cop explained. Little Vic's father referred to his son's death as the #houdinihandcuffkilling in his tweets.

Though Sugar Town is a sort of reverse-procedural, tracking the police investigation backward, it's even more a chronicle of a heartbroken family's dogged determination not to let their son's case die along with his body. Victor White was both media-savvy and profoundly aware that the Iberia Parish sheriff's office was a shadowy, sinister place. Victor had spent several years as the office's liaison to the black community and left when a new sheriff was elected on a tough-on-crime platform that infused the town's atmosphere with a piercing tension.

That sheriff, Louis Ackal, had more than the #houdinihandcuffkilling to worry about. A separate federal investigation, triggered by a jail security-camera video of his deputies unleashing a police dog on two inmates lying defenselessly on the floor, was uncovering a pattern of terrifying brutality in the sheriff's office.

At least eight prisoners had died in Ackal's custody, and deputies told the feds they were regularly sent out on "nigger-knocking" missions—pretty much just what they sound like—on the other side of the tracks. At the jail, the chapel—about the only place in the building not under security-camera surveillance—had been turned into full-blown torture chamber where inmates stood in line to be beaten senseless.

Eventually, Ackal would face both criminal and civil trials for his behavior. I won't tell you how they turn out, though if you've been following the various Black Lives Matter cases the last couple of years, it's not exactly a hard guess.

Yet even if you know how it's going to turn out, Sugar Town is an irresistible story, a tale of sordid arrogance told magnificently through surveillance videos and taped depositions. Watching Ackal scream at the White family's attorney that she has no right to question him—"I'm the sheriff and you're in my office! And I'm tired of Victor White and his filthy mouth!"—is a heart-stopping experience. The word "Nazi" gets thrown around entirely too much these days, but this man is a true totem of totalitarianism.

His furious barbarity stands in stark contrast to the quiet, grief-stricken dignity of the White family. There is little rhetoric from the family's side of Sugar Town, just a certainty—possibly naïve—that such evil cannot stand. "We may never receive justice," says Little Vic's sister quietly. "But I bet you another family will."

Photo Credit: 'Sugar Town,' Investigation Discovery

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He writes about television for the Miami Herald.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I remember that case but don't recall how it turned out. There are so many of these abuse cases the rise to celebrity then fall into disinterest when the next one catches fire that it's hard to keep abreast.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I too am curious. I remember the wholly impossible shoot-yourself-while-handcuffed story and just shook my damned head. No expectation that anything would ever come of it, because it happens so often that none stay on the front pages long enough to work up any targeted outrage, just the general sort that makes me hate cops and the coercive government which enables them.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Indianapolis had an almost identical case in '86, I think. Kid was 16, shot himself in the head on his non-dominant side while handcuffed behind his back. Cops got fired, though. It was determined that at the very least, they were incompetent at searching the "suspect". I think that one of the cops committed suicide a couple of years later.

    I'm sure he was depressed because of girl troubles.

    /sarc

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Most recent report I can find is from 2014-04-08 and he is apparently still sheriff. He was acquitted in Nov 2016.

    An Ackal critic who had the audacity to initiate a recall effort against the sheriff found himself ARRESTED for manslaughter after a single-vehicle accident in which he was not even involved. (Those bogus charges, brought by a cooperative district attorney, were very quietly dropped after LouisianaVoice's story of the heavy-handed techniques.)
  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Sorry, 2018-04-08.

  • Juice||

    Does the film include this?

    Video: Louisiana man dies after officers put him in choke hold; experts disagree on excessive force or not

    A criminal justice expert says Avoyelles Parish law officers who wrestled a Marksville man off a tractor while serving an arrest warrant last year used too much force, needlessly escalating a confrontation that ended with the man's death. A second expert said he doesn't agree the officers used excessive force, but said they may have acted negligently by failing to administer aid once Armando Frank was unconscious.

    Teach the controversy.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    That sheriff, Louis Ackal, had more than the #houdinihandcuffkilling to worry about. A separate federal investigation, triggered by a jail security-camera video of his deputies unleashing a police dog on two inmates lying defenselessly on the floor, was uncovering a pattern of terrifying brutality in the sheriff's office.

    At least eight prisoners had died in Ackal's custody, and deputies told the feds they were regularly sent out on "nigger-knocking" missions—pretty much just what they sound like—on the other side of the tracks. At the jail, the chapel—about the only place in the building not under security-camera surveillance—had been turned into full-blown torture chamber where inmates stood in line to be beaten senseless.
    ...
    Watching Ackal scream at the White family's attorney that she has no right to question him—"I'm the sheriff and you're in my office! And I'm tired of Victor White and his filthy mouth!"—is a heart-stopping experience.

    Christ, what an asshole. If they made a movie with an "evil small town sheriff" character based on this guy it would probably be considered too over the top to be believable.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Eventually, Ackal would face both criminal and civil trials for his behavior. I won't tell you how they turn out, though if you've been following the various Black Lives Matter cases the last couple of years, it's not exactly a hard guess.

    Had to look it up. It's just as as I figured.

  • SIV||

    A shitload of his underlings were convicted on civil rights charges(at least 10). They (and deputies with charges pending) were the ones testifying against the sheriff. I'm sure he's a son of a bitch but he wasn't "not charged": or no-billed by a grand jury. He was aggressively prosecuted and found not guilty.

    New Iberia, a small town in southern Louisiana.

    30,000+ people in a parish of almost 75,000 is not a "small town". This is a perfect example of how "out of touch" most journalists are. There was some recent opioid moral panic shit where top journos were referring to the 2nd largest city in West ]Virginia as a "small town".

  • trig||

    Right, I grew up in a town of 500. Personally I'd consider anything under the 3-5k range a small town. I'd forgive journalists for doubling or even tripling that but not 30k.

  • Enemy of the State||

    "...a 22-year-old kid ..."

    Point of order; a 22 year old is an adult, not a kid regardless of what the cops did to him...

  • Ben_||

    Too bad they made it about one race only and picked an "us vs. them" theme. I'd support them, but I'm not included in their "us vs. them" category of "us".

    Next time, go with "right vs. wrong" and don't be assholes — protesting by blocking highways and fucking with football games. We don't need to trade one set of wrongs perpetrated by police for another set of wrongs perpetrated by assholes.

  • Exsqueezeyou||

    "...protesting by blocking highways and fucking with football games"

    I do not blame them but understand your point that it may not be winning friends. However, the town is essentially conspiring against them by extension with their inaction and support of LE. I do agree with you that it is foolish to narrow it to race.

    Louisiana and The Big Easy to die are corrupt.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....-film.html

  • AZ Gunowner||

    I have a LOT of sympathy for BLM, but ….

    trouble is, they don't think ANY shooting by cops is justified,

    which is pretty much why have such disdain for the "law and order" faction of the conservative/Republican side,

    they don't think ANY shooting cop is NOT justified.

    Not doubt some of them could manage to blame this victim too.

    The real problem is that, as Deckard's boss told him in BladeRunner, "if you're not cop, you're little people".

    And if you're one of the "little people" they don't care what color you are.

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