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Family suspects racism played role in death of Black Missouri man initially ruled suicide

Ericka Lotts waited three months for a jury to tell her what she always believed — that her first-born child, Derontae Martin, did not fatally shoot himself at a house party in rural Missouri.

On April 25, her son was found unconscious in an attic closet, dead from a gunshot wound to his left temple. Martin was at the Fredericktown home of a white man who has posted racist memes on social media, which NBC News has viewed.

Lotts, 37, said authorities concluded that Martin, 19, who was Black, died by suicide and repeatedly told her that she was in denial about the nature of her son’s death.

Lotts felt publicly vindicated on July 30 after a jury of six people ruled during a coroner’s inquest hearing that Martin was killed by violence.

“I already knew he was killed violently. It wasn’t a shock to me,” Lotts said Thursday. “I was just happy they let it be known that somebody needs to speak up and let these people pay for what they did.”

Derontae Martin.via KSDK

‘This is what they wanted it to be’

NBC News obtained investigative documents from the police investigation into Martin’s mysterious death from a doctor who performed an independent autopsy. Records show that police investigated allegations of racism and foul play by the homeowner. NBC News is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.

Police and medical personnel who handled the initial death investigation were blinded by tunnel vision, Lotts said.

“This is what they wanted it to be,” she said. “When they walked in that house and they seen Derontae was a Black male, they were sure he had shot himself. That’s all the information they needed.”

A witness told police in June that he had a conversation with the homeowner at a Walmart in May and that the homeowner used a racial slur before admitting to having participated in Martin’s death, according to a report from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

According to what the witness told police, the homeowner approached him and asked whether he wanted to “come out there and kill some n——.” When the witness declined, police said, he asked the homeowner whether the rumors were true that he was responsible for Martin’s death.

“Damn right I did,” the homeowner told him, according to the witness statement. The witness then told police how the homeowner “described ways to get away with murder via wearing gloves, face coverings, etc,” the highway patrol report said.

The homeowner could not be reached for comment during the past week.

Reports said investigators with the highway patrol asked the homeowner about the alleged conversation with the witness. The man told police that he may have used racial slurs, but he rebutted an admission of murder.

He agreed to take a polygraph test, which indicated that his answers were “nondeceptive in nature,” the highway patrol said in its report. The homeowner also testified during the inquest that he had used racial slurs in the past and on social media but that he did not kill Martin.

Police have only ever concluded Martin took his own life. The homeowner has never been arrested or charged in connection with Martin’s death.

The Daily Journal of Park Hills reported that the witness who spoke to the highway patrol testified about his encounter with the homeowner at the Walmart.

The man who accused the homeowner of admitting to killing Martin told NBC News that everything he said on the witness stand was true.

“I wouldn’t let it come out my mouth if it wasn’t true,” the man said. He added: “I don’t know if [he] was telling the truth or not. I just know what he told me.”

Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins did not respond to calls during the past week for comment about how the investigation will proceed. Coroner Collin Follis also did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr. Russell Deidiker, the pathologist who performed an initial autopsy on Martin, rejected Lotts’ allegation that racism influenced investigators. He said Monday by email that Martin’s race did not affect how he conducted the autopsy.

The two police agencies that investigated Martin’s death — the highway patrol and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office — referred questions to Robbins and Follis.

The jury ruled that Martin was killed violently, rather than by natural causes, an accident or suicide.

Robbins told NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis that he likes to call an inquest if there is uncertainty about a death. Inquests occur in counties that do not have medical examiners, KSDK reported.

Lotts’ attorney, Nimrod Chapel Jr., said by text message Monday: “The jury’s decision shows that there are fair minded people that can see that Mr. Martin was the victim of gross violence and that the decision of local law enforcement and the coroner are unsupported on the facts.

“Ms. Lotts and her family are seeking the truth and want the individuals involved in the death of her son Derontae Martin brought to justice.”

Details emerge about the party where Martin died

Police and medical documents shed light on how Martin died during a pre-dawn shooting at an 18th birthday party for the homeowner’s daughter.

They expose critical details, such as that a 31-year-old man said he gave Martin a .38-caliber semi-automatic pistol. The same man told police that a 19-year-old man was allegedly with Martin when the gun was fired. Several partygoers said Martin was acting erratically and paranoid, police reports said.

“Methamphetamine intoxication” may have contributed to his death, according to Martin’s initial autopsy report from Deidiker. The report also said Martin died from a gunshot wound to his left temple that showed “evidence of near contact range of fire.”

Martin’s mother said her son did not do heavy drugs but had been prescribed pain medication following surgery on his right wrist shortly before the shooting.

The morning of Martin’s death, police were called to the home at about 3 a.m. for a report that a man had shot himself in the head. The homeowner directed a Madison County sheriff’s deputy to the attic, according to a police report.

“I discovered a silver in color semi-automatic pistol directly below his left hand with the muzzle pointed in the direction of his hand in a pool of Martin’s blood. … The pistol was no longer loaded with bullets at the time I secured it,” the sheriff’s office report said. Police said Martin’s right hand was in a cast, according to reports.

The man who said he gave Martin the gun — with one bullet in the chamber and a magazine missing — told police that a male teen was in the room with Martin pleading with him not to shoot himself, according to police reports. The teen then “ran out of the room after the shot was heard” and was seen crying and heard yelling “‘NO NO NO’ loudly,” according to the sheriff’s office report.

The man who said he gave Martin the gun told police in an interview in June that he gave it to him for security after Martin said he felt unsafe. A coroner’s report from Follis said the homeowner and the man who gave Martin the gun “appeared heavily intoxicated” when he arrived.

NBC News was unable to reach the man who told police that he gave Martin the gun and the man who was reported to have been in the attic with Martin when the gun was fired.

Investigators reported observing an apparent suicide scene.

“It appeared the injury sustained by Martin was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The closet in which the incident occurred was very small. Martin had a cast on his right hand and was shot in the left temple,” the highway patrol said in a report.

“The way Martin’s body was laying appeared consistent with a direct fall to the floor,” the report said. “It did not appear his body had been drug or moved after he was shot, according to the pool of blood in the pictures.”

A witness told investigators that Martin “seemed off, bothered, paranoid.” A female witness wrote in a voluntary statement that Martin was not himself, police reported.

“He kept looking all over the place, moving really fast saying ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this right now,'” the witness told police.

Police said an additional witness told them that Martin asked her, “Why did you set me up?”

A man also told highway patrol investigators that he had heard that Martin was set up, because there was a rumor on social media that Martin was an informant who helped send a man to jail over a shooting months earlier. Police could not substantiate the man’s claim, a highway patrol report said.

Forensic pathologist says death should be investigated as homicide

Dr. Jane Turner, a forensic pathologist in St. Louis who conducted a second autopsy commissioned by Martin’s family, said last week that she determined that Martin was not shot at close or intermediate range.

She said she reached the conclusion without the aid of supplemental evidence, such as autopsy photos and investigative photos. She also said she examined Martin’s body after he had been embalmed against his mother’s wishes, which may have been why his body showed no evidence of soot from gunpowder during a second autopsy May 11.

“It does need to be investigated as a homicide. Whether they’ll be able to find evidence of that is another matter,” Turner said.

Lotts, who works as a medical assistant at a nursing home, said the months since her son died have been hell. She said she does not have faith that investigators will get it right, even a second time around.

Martin, who stood about 6-foot-3 and weighed about 250 pounds, graduated from high school last year and scored a scholarship to play football at a small school out of state. He was working to improve his SAT score so he could become eligible to play in college, Lotts said. Martin also worked at a Walmart and a restaurant during the past year.

“He wanted to play football because he didn’t want to be broke,” she said. “He felt like that was his way out.”

Lotts, who has five children, said she misses her eldest’s presence, which was as big as his stature. She fondly recalls how he once made himself a sandwich stacked with four chicken patties and how he scarfed an entire bag of 44 pizza rolls and quipped, “It was only enough for me.”

She cried throughout a conversation about her son’s life and death.

“I just miss everything about him,” Lotts said. “His smile. His laughter.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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