Cocaine and Conspiracy

Were the Deaths in Custody of Two Suspected Drug Users ‘Accidental’ or Police Brutality?

Cocaine makes you hyperactive. If you are taking a lot of it, you are wired; the muscles shiver and quiver. . . . Death from cocaine is uncommon. When it does kill, it kills by causing arrhythmia—the heart stops and starts periodically, or it beats too fast. Either way, blood isn't pumped to the rest of the body. Cocaine kills quickly, within half an hour. Many of the cocaine deaths that I have seen were brought on by swallowing large amounts of it while the police were breaking down the door to the apartment. . . .
Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner, by Dr. Michael M. Baden

One young man was a popular campus athlete a year shy of graduating from college; the other was a construction worker in drug rehab. Both were in the prime of lives that ended with alleged cocaine overdoses while in the custody of the NYPD. Although Maliki Yawmi-Deen Raymond and Dionicio Medrano, both 24, died three and a half years apart, bewildered relatives and friends, including a controversial private investigator, vow that nothing short of federal civil rights probes will still the outrage over the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Conflicting reports about the incidents and the bureaucratic runarounds endured by the Raymond and Medrano families have led to allegations of police brutality and racism. The families accuse authorities of high-level cover-ups, saying that the department lied to the media and misled the public. Two independent autopsies performed by Dr. Mark L. Taff back the medical examiner's rulings that the deaths were caused by drug overdoses. Both families have rejected Taff's findings. The Queens D.A.'s Office says it conducted an investigation in the Medrano case, but its report is bogged down in the archives. In Raymond's case, Barbara Thompson, a spokesperson for Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, declined comment, saying that the records have been sealed. "This often means that there is no reason to prosecute," a law-enforcement source says.

Raymond's death four months ago came as a shock. By all accounts, the star football player at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, lived an exemplary life and had a promising future. In 1995, he graduated from Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark; he was president of the senior class and homecoming prom king. He was a defensive back for the football team and had been the substitute quarterback on the 1994 team that won the city championship.

But cops claimed that Raymond had a secret side. On March 1, shortly before 2 p.m., he allegedly was observed by undercover officers purchasing drugs at 554 West 149th Street in Harlem. Police say Raymond may have swallowed drugs in a cellophane bag in an attempt to thwart arrest. About 45 minutes after he was taken to the 30th Precinct station house and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, Raymond began to complain of stomach pains and suffered several seizures. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, where he later died.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported that Raymond's mother, Marian Ebron, questioned police claims that her son was busted in broad daylight—and in Harlem. "When she tried to retrieve her son's clothing and personal effects from the 30th police precinct [station house], Ebron said she was told by a police officer . . . that Raymond was arrested . . . near the Holland Tunnel, and not at the 149th Street address." According to the paper, she also said that when she identified her son's body at the hospital morgue, he "looked as if he had been beaten because he had bruises on his face, including a gash [on] his chin." Nevertheless, the medical examiner ruled that Raymond had died of a cocaine overdose.

Isaiah Grauer's voice breaks as he talks about his former classmate. "Maliki was my brother," says the 23-year-old graduate student, who is now the news editor for The Expose News Magazine, published by the university. "We entered Kean together and would have graduated together." Grauer says he met Raymond in 1995 while both were enrolled in Exceptional Educational Opportunities, a New Jersey-based summer program for students who do not have money for college. "He was smart—the storyteller of the group. He kept us all laughing," Grauer remembers. "He really cared about people; he went out of his way for people."

Like Raymond's mother, Grauer isn't satisfied with the police version of how his friend died. Raymond, he insists, did not drink, smoke, or use drugs. Grauer recalls that he spoke to Raymond about two weeks before his death. It was at the height of the trial of four white cops accused of pumping 19 bullets into Amadou Diallo as the unarmed West African immigrant stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building. According to Grauer, Raymond was part of a team of students assigned to work on a paper about police brutality for a communications class. "His role was to find out how it could be stopped," says Grauer. "At the time the incident took place, he may have gone to New York to work on the project."

Grauer's unshakable opinion is that Raymond was somehow killed by police—an allegation, he adds, that should not be dismissed in the wake of reports by state and federal agencies that the NYPD practices racial profiling. "A lot of black bodies have been dropped into the cold ground," Grauer contends. "I wonder if I'll be next."

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