On March 2nd, 2014 Victor White III, known to his family and friends as Little Vic, was arrested in New Iberia, LA. Police officers had been called to a small convenience store to break up a fight. Even though White was not involved in the disturbance, officers patted him down — which violated his fourth amendment right against illegal search and seizure — and found a small amount of marijuana and cocaine. They handcuffed him behind his back, put him in a cruiser, and drove to the police station.
Within a matter of hours, Victor White III would be dead from a single gunshot wound. Iberia Parish law enforcement claimed he’d killed himself, somehow maneuvering a gun the police had apparently missed in the two times they’d searched him, and shooting himself in the chest with his hands still cuffed behind his back. Investigators said they found gunshot residue on White’s right hand. The officer’s hands were never tested. White was left handed.
This story is the subject of a new documentary, Sugar Town, on the Discovery ID channel that chronicles not just White’s mysterious death, but also the legacy of racial injustice and abuse by law enforcement in a Louisiana community. In Iberia Parish, the Sheriff holds the highest elected office and Sheriff Louis Ackal ruled with an iron fist. Under his leadership, Iberia Parish had an arrest and incarceration rate significantly higher than any other parish in Louisiana and indeed, in the rest of the country. The overwhelming majority of those placed into the prison system were Black men.
Iberia is a parish built around the production and harvest of sugar cane and the sugar industry remains the major source of income. Sugar has shaped both the commercial aspect of the Parish and its racial divide. New Iberia, within the Parish of Iberia, is a city literally divided by a railroad track. On the east side of the tracks is a relatively well-off white population. On the west side is the black population, many of whom still live in slave and sharecropper housing that was erected over a hundred years ago.
Reverend Victor White, Jr, Little Vic’s father, felt uncomfortable in New Iberia, LA from the moment he arrived in 2007. White, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, had been hired to work in the Parish as a community mediator.
“I’ve worked in the court system,” White told Refinery29. “But when I moved to New Iberia, it was like a totally different place in time. It was like they were about 40 years behind.”
After five years in New Iberia, Reverend White and his family decided they’d had enough of the overwhelming racism, segregation, and abuses of the law enforcement system. They moved back to Alexandria, LA about two hours away. But White’s youngest son, Little Vic stayed behind in New Iberia to be with his young daughter. The White family supported his decision to be a responsible parent but felt a lingering sense of unease about Little Vic’s safety. White warned his son to lay low around Sheriff Ackal’s police force. It would turn out his suspicions and distrust were well founded.
Sugar Town begins with Little Vic’s death and explores it in great detail. The White family hired civil rights attorney Carol Powell Lexing to bring attention to their son’s case — which they believed to be a murder. Lexing, known for her work on cases including the Jena Six, immediately recognized that justice had not been served in Little Vic’s death. But what she found, and what the documentary also explores, went deeper than just one story.
“Our case exposed all the corruption of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office,” Lexing told Refinery29. “It opened up the door that exposed the level of corruption there. In that sense, on a legal side, justice was served by helping other people with their situations and giving them a voice.”
In September of 2014, even with the case under national scrutiny, Louisiana State Police closed their investigation Little Vic’s death, ruling it, improbably, a suicide. But in the meantime, the community had become galvanized. As Victor White III’s death gained more national attention, people who had lived in fear, began to come forward with allegations about police activity in New Iberia and specifically Sheriff Ackals’ role in the creation of a police force that ruled by terror and regularly violated basic human rights. In 2016 Ackal was indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy and civil rights violations.
While Reverend White says there hasn’t been justice for Little Vic, he is grateful that his son’s death has brought attention to the misuse of power and the systemic racism in New Iberia — and what that has to say about injustice and racism across the country.
“I am Little Vic’s legacy,” says Reverend White. “That's my motivation. God is on a new mission, through himself, that my mission, my call now, is to go and speak to others, let others know you don't have to lay down. We're in Small Town, USA but we don't have to be afraid.”
Sugar Town doesn’t tell a story that wraps up neatly. Despite video evidence of inmates being attacked by police dogs, and the many cases that resulted in convictions against the sheriff’s deputies, Ackal himself was cleared of criminal charges. He remains the sheriff of New Iberia.
The documentary is an infuriating, terrifying, and necessary look into how one man’s death in police custody speaks to a much larger pattern of inequality in the United States.