published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Cook: Suttle's unending death

It's there in this one-page letter from the Department of Justice. Right there.

Maxine Cousin can hold it in her hands. Place it up to her face. Rip it apart.

This one letter that names the person who killed her dad -- Wadie Suttles -- 30 years ago.

"The information in our file,'' the Department of Justice letter reads, "indicates that in all likelihood the person responsible for Mr. Suttles's death was ... ''

But the rest of the sentence is blacked out.

Redacted, in thick, official, black ink.


For decades, Cousin has been trying to find out what's underneath the black redaction, trying to piece together the full story of how her dad -- a 66-year-old black veteran -- died while in custody at the Chattanooga jail in 1983.

She's filed complaints with the United Nations, written letters to the U.S. attorney general, filed lawsuits. Boxes of files line her living room. Many contain redactions, which are implemented for a variety of reasons by governmental bodies. One file contains a document that -- minus one sentence -- is entirely blacked out.

"I feel like I'm in prison. And have been for 30 years,'' she said. "A life sentence.''


Not long after midnight on a Friday in November 1983, Chattanooga police found Suttles asleep in his car outside the Fifth Street bus station. The officer woke him. Told him to move on. Suttles -- verbally abusive, police reports say -- left his car and started walking down the street.

The officer followed. Words were exchanged. Suttles was arrested for disorderly conduct.

It would be his last night as a free man.

Nearly a week went by. Despite attempts by his family, Suttles refused to sign a bond and remained in jail. While there, Suttles would receive a head injury so severe it would lead to his death days later.

But how?

And who?

One account: An inmate struck Suttles so hard it later killed him.

One account: An officer struck Suttles with his slapjack so hard it later killed him.

One account: Suttles leaped from his top bunk, landing on the floor and hitting his head.

One account: After kneeling and praying -- "Lord have mercy on me" -- Suttles screamed and ran his head into the cell door.

In the early morning of Dec. 2, he was found unconscious in his jail cell. Taken to Erlanger, Suttles survived a few more days, until he was pronounced dead Dec. 6.

"Brain death,'' the medical report states.

Line up every paper Cousin has and it would be a never-ending road. Conflicting reports, contradictory statements, differing autopsy reports, all like a wormhole revolving around one main question: How did Suttles' brain stem become so traumatized?


For years, the Suttles case symbolized the wounds between black and white Chattanooga. Cousin, who worked for years at TVA before earning a master's degree in education, became a leader in the activist Concerned Citizens for Justice and helped in the structuring of a new city government.

Yet the Suttles story is still open, still a wound. Race relations are, as well.

"Why would you come in and investigate a case and then black everything out? What are you trying to protect?" she said.

Were Cousin white or wealthy or well-connected, would justice be so long delayed? Would her life be so redacted and incomplete?

"I want to be recognized as a human being. I want my father recognized as a human being,'' Cousin said.

Jail cells can take many forms.


Subsequent local and federal investigations concluded that her father's death was not at the hands of officers or any jail employees.

"We concluded that this matter should be closed,'' one DOJ letter reads.

Not for Cousin.

Two weeks ago, another brown envelope arrived in her mailbox. It was from the DOJ, postmarked April 15 and cost $1.12 to mail. It contained 228 pages of police reports, testimonies, press clippings and documents.

It contained a 1984 report that explains how her dad died. The letter mentions his severe skull fracture and how police and jail employees were not involved.

But the part of the letter that does identify the reason behind her dad's death?

The rest of that sentence is marked out.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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magenta said...

Has it really been that long ago on the Wadie Suttles tragedy? I still remember it as if it only happened a few short months ago. If I recall correctly, Mr. Suttles was an avid reader who liked to pulled over to the side of the road just to read his books. In this case, he'd fallen asleep in his car or something while reading, or tired after long hours on a job?

I've met his daughter, Ms, Cousins, on more than one occasion. A very strong, resilient, compassionate woman. In Chattanooga, especially, it can sometimes take an entire century for injustices to be exposed. Look how long it took for the tragic lynching of Ed Johnson on the Walnut Street bridge to be acknowledged.

Maybe not in our lifetime, and those responsiblie for the death of Wadie Suttles will likely die of old age, if they haven't died already. However, truth and light always has a way of overpowering darkness and coming full circle.

May 5, 2013 at 10:49 a.m.
jjmez said...

Where one injustice is exposed several, perhaps thousands, went unreported. And this is the problem with Chattanooga. Where other southern towns and cities looked their past in the eye, acknowledged it, some even created museums and other sources to educate people about it, through corraboration with its black leaders (especially black clergy), Chattanooga has always downplayed or covered up its more darker past. Then explained it all away as being not like those other southern towns. But there are people still alive today whose family members suffered greatly, were killed or went missing, never to be heard from again. Because of attempts to ignore and pretend otherwise is why the problems continue to resurface for both victims and those who victimize in modern times. The victims know the truth and the victimizer convince themselves that things here weren't all that bad. Those who say otherwise are lying and just living in the past.

There's no closure for families whose family members suffered injustices and those injustices are ignored. Closure comes not necessarily from punishing the culprits as much as it is gained through a support system and acknowleging that an injustice occured. Something Chattanooga has in denial about and has a hard time facing its own demons. Does anyone know who the black woman was that was allegedly hanged on Market Street Bridge? This may have happened long after the Ed Johnson tragedy. I've heard the story but can't seem to find anything to support it.

May 6, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.
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