New mayor's death sparks controversy

Published: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

WESTLAKE, La. — In the hours before his death on the evening of Dec. 30, the first black mayor of this overwhelmingly white town started learning his new job.

About noon, he set City Hall's alarm system for the first time. He got instructions on how to raise and lower the U.S. flag. He had already ordered a new mayoral letterhead with his name on it and a button-down shirt embroidered "Gerald Washington, Mayor."

A few hours later he indulged in a hobby, placing a $4 bet at a nearby horse racing track.

But by 10 p.m. Gerald "Wash" Washington was dead in the deserted parking lot of a former high school, a bullet wound in his chest. His gun was found by the body.

The coroner and the sheriff have pronounced Washington's death a suicide — a finding that has embroiled this oil-refinery town in conspiracy theories, with Washington's kin and friends insisting he had no reason to end his life.

Some have accused police of covering up a murder — perhaps a racially motivated one.

"This is the South, so of course everybody's going to say it was some white guy shooting a black guy," said Dr. Terry Welke, the Calcasieu Parish coroner who ruled that Washington killed himself.

Welke said soot from the pistol was deep in the wound, indicating the gun was touching Washington's chest when the trigger was pulled. That, he said, suggested suicide. He also said that while most gunfire suicides involve a bullet to the head, it is not unusual for people to kill themselves with a shot to the chest.

But the coroner and the sheriff have offered no reason for why Washington would have killed himself. No suicide note was found. And there is no evidence he bade farewell to anyone, put his financial affairs in order, or gave any other indication he was about to kill himself, authorities said.

Washington's son, Geroski, accused the sheriff's office of doing a sloppy job, and asked the state police to take over the investigation.

"We were dissatisfied with the time frame of the investigation and the way it was opened and closed. We're thinking it's a cover-up because of the quick and fast work they did and didn't do," he told the American Press, the local newspaper.

State police entered the case earlier this week and took the body to Baton Rouge for another autopsy. The state police said it is interviewing friends of Washington's family, but it would not otherwise comment on the investigation.

Gerald Washington, 57, was a Vietnam veteran, a retired refinery supervisor who spent 12 years as a city councilman. He stood about 6-feet-5 and enjoyed rumbling around town on his Harley Davidson, dressed in leather pants and chaps. Colleagues described him as magnetic, outgoing and always friendly.

"He had a smile that would just light up this room," said the outgoing mayor, Dudley Dixon. "He had a just dominating personality."

Washington's popularity was obvious: He defeated a white opponent in last fall's election with 69 percent of the vote in this town, which is 80 percent white. Westlake, population 4,500, is near Lake Charles, about 200 miles west of New Orleans.

On the day of his death, Washington met Dixon about noon at City Hall, where he learned about the alarm system. The men lowered the flag to half-staff, to commemorate the death of former President Ford.

A passing motorist called 911 just before 10 p.m., after spotting Washington's body in the parking lot of the school administration building that used to be Mossville High, where Washington went to school and played basketball. Washington lay on his back, in a T-shirt and baseball cap, the coroner's office said.

Near the body was a pearl-handled revolver. On Washington's body investigators found a betting slip from Delta Downs from 4:44 p.m.

The coroner said the reaction of Washington's family to the suicide finding — disbelief — is not unusual.

"Almost every case of suicide is like that," he said. "Suicides give us more grief than anything else."

That explanation hasn't dampened rumors in town, particularly among blacks, that it should be a murder case.

"Someone lured him to Mossville," said Pat Hartman, 61, a lifelong resident of Mossville, the neighboring town where she and Washington went to school. "Why would he want to go to Mossville, to kill himself at his alma mater?"

"That boy didn't kill himself. Somebody killed him."

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