Shaffer: Hanging death a mystery in Fletcher Park

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 18, 2013 

Thomas Austin and his son, Thomas, shown when the boy was about 12. Thomas Shantez Austin was found hanged in a public park Aug. 4.

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    Thomas Shantez Austin was buried Tuesday, and his father faces heavy funeral expenses. To help, search for his name on the website gracefulgoodbye.com

— The call reached Thomas Austin early on a Sunday, bringing news a father dreads most.

Police found his son dead that morning, hanging from a tree by his own belt.

He wore no shirt or shoes, and his feet hovered only about a foot above the ground.

Raleigh police ruled it a suicide.

Along with the immediate and soul-crushing grief came questions nobody could answer.

The biggest:

What was his 26-year-old son – Thomas Shantez Austin – doing in Fred Fletcher Park? He didn’t know a soul there. He didn’t live anywhere nearby. He had no business in the neighborhood near where Glenwood and Wade avenues meet. If he’d truly been intent on killing himself, he could hardly have chosen a stranger place than this haven for tennis and dog walking.

The question haunted Austin even more, knowing that his son had called in the middle of the night on Aug. 4 to say he’d been beaten up and robbed off Western Boulevard – only a few hours before he would be discovered dead.

Austin left Cary that morning, where he lives in the Red Roof Inn, to look at the spot.

“What he’s doing there, I don’t know,” said Austin, 58. “He went out there looking for trouble and he found trouble. Evidently, he found a lot of it.”

Trouble followed Austin’s son for much of his short life.

He’d gotten mixed up with gangs in high school.

He got charged with breaking and entering one week past his 18th birthday.

He graduated to armed robbery and went to prison before he turned 19, serving five years.

He’d managed to earn his GED and find a job in a sports bar’s kitchen. But just this year, he’d been picked up for shoplifting and for being intoxicated and disruptive.

Austin had his own problems while much of this was going on.

He’d been a maintenance supervisor for 33 years, but he developed arthritis in his back from carrying heavy loads. His blood pressure started rising, and he had fainting spells. His doctor recommended going on disability, which he now receives, but not enough cover rent in his Cary home. Austin moved to a friend’s garage, then a Motel 6, then to the Red Roof Inn.

“I’m a good father,” Austin said. “I’m not perfect. But I’m a good father. I feel like I failed him.”

Still, to Austin, suicide doesn’t add up.

The police told him they found no signs of a struggle, either on his son’s body or around the tree. The preliminary results of the autopsy backed that up.

But when his son called that night, he said his attackers threatened to kill him. He was on Hillsborough Street at 2:30 a.m., running away. Austin asked around the neighborhood off Western, and he learned that the McDonald’s caught the beating on a surveillance tape.

Police know about all of this. They tracked down the phone that Austin’s son used to make the call that night and learned it had been borrowed. When they talked to the phone’s owner, he said Austin’s son hadn’t been injured. Another officer responded to a fight at the McDonald’s that night, which turned out to be a disturbance. The victim in that fight – whether it’s Austin’s son is unclear – declined medical attention, saying he hadn’t been hurt.

Since his death, other family members have brought up incidents that might point to his son’s wanting to die. Austin dismisses them.

His son took a handful of pills recently and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. But Austin insists his son had been drinking at a party and took the pills to get high.

His son was hospitalized for snakebite after picking up a water moccasin. But Austin says his son was trying to impress a girl at the time, acting dumb.

Most of all, he was working at a steady job, earning a paycheck, calling his father twice a day to say he loved him.

If he were suicidal that night, why not step out in front of a bus?

Why would he kill himself slowly and painfully in a park he would have had to walk for miles to reach, passing a thousand other trees in the process?

“I wish I knew, and I don’t know,” Austin said. “I do know that I miss my son.”

Neighbors feel heartbreak and confusion over the death in their park. They’ve posted fliers around the park asking for help to pay Austin’s funeral expenses – which required a loan of roughly $6,000 at 18 percent interest – raising $1,500 so far. But more than that, they hope the investigation will continue.

They feel the same nagging questions Austin does. The branches are very close together in the tree where his son was hanged, they say, making it appear impossible that anybody could climb it and jump out.

“There are a lot of us who are very concerned that this not be swept under the rug because he had a record and there may be gangs involved,” said Keith Miller, whose condominium faces the park.

Police say the case is assigned to a detective and that toxicology results are pending.

Meanwhile, Austin buried his son Tuesday.

He stood and told the crowd that Thomas Shantez Austin was a good man, faults aside. He had a good heart. He made people laugh. He didn’t deserve this end.

“He’s gone,” Austin said. “But he ain’t gone in my heart. He’s still here.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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