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Mother of Black Teen Who Was Hanged Says Buttigieg Wouldn't Help

Stephanie Jones—seen here with son Jiha'd Vasquez and Pastor Frank Mullen—says she asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg for help after Jiha'd was found hanged.


(Image: Photo courtesy Stephanie Jones.)

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the amount that Stephanie Jones was billed by Hanley and Sons Funeral Homes, Inc. The correct amount was $2566.80, rather than the $6190 amount we originally reported. We regret the error and have updated the story accordingly.

Anderson, Agostino & Keller, the law firm for Hanley and Sons, tells us that Jones was informed of her options to request an autopsy for her son and to use a different funeral home. The firm also says that Hanley and Sons did not rush, pressure, or coerce Jones into selecting or paying for cremation or other services. Jones told us she stands by her statements about how she felt at the time.

Responding to our report that Jon Hanley did not respond to a phone message subsequent to a brief encounter in person with reporter Jeff Harrell, the firm says Hanley was not contacted by Harrell.

The article has been revised to reflect these statements and other information provided by Anderson, Agostino & Keller.

Most of the reporting for this story was done in 2011, when Jeff Harrell was a reporter in South Bend. What he learned then is being published here for the first time, along with new reporting to update it.

While Pete Buttigieg tried to win over black voters in South Carolina last week, Stephanie Jones, a black woman in South Bend, sat at her dining room table in front of her son’s remains and tearfully wondered why nobody, including the mayor, ever agreed to investigate the death of her 16-year-old son.

She believes he was murdered. And she’s not alone.

Stephanie Jones’ son was found hanging from an electrical tower on April 14, 2011. A coroner decided on the scene that it was suicide and that death was almost instantaneous. That coroner, however, had no medical training and police apparently conducted no forensic examination of the scene or of the body. The body was cremated without an autopsy.

Jones says that after Buttigieg became mayor, she asked him personally to help get justice for her son. She says he told her to call his office, but that her calls were never returned. (Asked on Monday for comment, Buttigieg’s campaign said it would need time to respond. This story will be updated in the event of a response.)

For the new mayor, officially questioning the coroner’s actions regarding the hanging death of a black teenager carried potential political risks.

When Jones asked for Buttigieg’s help, it was just five months after the mayor had appointed that same coroner, Chuck Hurley, as his new, interim police chief. And that move was already controversial because Hurley was brought in after Buttigieg ousted the city’s first black police chief, which had prompted protests by the black community.

Buttigieg had demoted the black chief, Darryl Boykins, amid an FBI investigation into secret tapes of South Bend police, some of which reportedly revealed the use of racial epithets.

One of the key figures in ousting Boykins was an outside attorney brought in by Buttigieg to assist with the tapes issue. As TYT previously reported, that attorney had minimal experience with federal or criminal law but had worked alongside Hurley under a mayor who later became a key Buttigieg patron.

Jones says she last saw her son on April 12, 2011, as he headed off for a friend’s house. Named by his absentee father after the Arabic word for “holy war,” Jiha’d Vasquez was actually Christian and carried a Bible in his backpack.

Jiha’d was expecting to spend the night at the home of Blake Carpenter, a friend from school. Instead, he left Blake’s house that night, and was next seen two days later, dead.

On the afternoon of April 14, a resident on Queensboro Street – a small curved stretch just outside the South Bend border – looked out his side-porch window into an adjacent public field and saw a body hanging from a crossbar of a tall electrical tower.

The resident called 911 at 1:42 p.m., according to a St. Joseph County Police Department report obtained by The Young Turks.

“I arrived and a young male black was hanging from his neck by a sheet, which was tied about ten feet off the ground,” Cpl. Rickie Morton wrote in the report. “There was a black backpack on the ground about five feet from him and his blue ball cap next to it.”

Excerpt of St. Joseph County Police narrative report on the discovery of Jiha'd Vasquez's body.

Crime-scene investigators snapped photos of Jiha’d and the surrounding scene. Despite Morton’s description of Jiha’d hanging “about ten feet” in the air, one full-body photo – which has not been released but was seen by this reporter – shows Jiha’d hanging with his feet flat on the ground and his knees bent. The report doesn’t explain the apparent discrepancy between the photo and Morton’s description.

Hurley certified it as a suicide, listing the time of death as 1:50 p.m., eight minutes after the 911 call. The official cause of death was: "Asphyxiation by hanging."

Under the category “Approximate interval – Onset of Death,” Hurley noted on the death certificate that Jiha’d died within "seconds.”

Excerpt of Jiha'd Vasquez certificate of death certified by then-coroner Chuck Hurley.

The same form indicates that no autopsy took place.

Unlike Hurley’s declaration that death occurred within “seconds” at 1:50 p.m., the county sheriff’s report says the incident occurred between 7 p.m. the previous night and 8 a.m. that morning. The sheriff’s report, filed April 15, the following day, gives no explanation for that time range and lists it as “case closed,” saying there was no further investigation.

Excerpt of case report filed by St. Joseph County Police.

The bed sheet that police found around Jiha’d’s neck was placed with him in the body bag. There’s no indication in the police report that the sheet was examined for evidence. Jiha’d’s friend Blake recalled in 2011 that Jiha’d had brought the sheet to his house when he showed up to sleep over.

“He thought he would spend the night,” Blake said, adding that Jiha’d had brought his own sheet to the house before, “whenever other kids were going to spend the night.” That night, Blake had two other friends staying over.

Jones recognized the sheet as one from her home. “It was a gray and white sheet pattern, like checkerboard style,” she said.

The sheet, she noted, had been cut. Jones says only “20 percent” of the original sheet was tucked in the body bag with her son. Jiha’d’s Detroit Tigers ball cap, his Bible, and a plastic bracelet were still in his backpack. “Where,” she wonders to this day, “was the other 80 percent of that sheet at?”

The rest of the sheet wasn’t the only item missing when Jones took inventory of her son’s belongings. “His school ID was missing,” she recalls, adding that her son’s wallet “with $20 cash” and a ring were also missing. “Most of that sheet was missing. He had an iPod with Tupac Shakur and stuff on it, that was missing.”

The police report did not account for the missing items.

By 2:15 p.m. on the 14th, sheriff’s deputies were knocking at the door of Jones’s apartment in the Irish Hills section of South Bend to tell her that her son was dead. Jones says she was “numb” with shock and didn’t hear the officers say that Jiha’d’s body was already cut down and on its way to Hanley & Sons Funeral Home.

“I asked to see my son,” Jones recalls. “They said I couldn’t see him until after 4:00.” Jiha’d’s body went straight to the funeral home without an autopsy.

"There was nothing to indicate anything other than what it was… It was a suicide," Hurley said during a phone interview in August 2011 as to why no autopsy was performed. Hurley did not respond to a phone message last week.

"We went out and looked at the scene," St. Joseph County Sheriff Mike Grzegorek said during a separate phone interview in August 2011. "There were no signs of any struggle or foul play. Everything we found indicated that this was a self-inflicted injury.” Grzegorek last week declined a request for additional comment.

Indiana’s autopsy guidelines say that “the family or next of kin always have the right to order an autopsy.” But Jones says police never told her she could request an autopsy for her son.

“I just lost it,” Jones says. “I said, ‘He’s my baby boy. He was my everything. He was going to be something in life.’

“I said, ‘OK, now what?’ Officer Morton went on to tell me that the coroner had said that he had ruled out foul play. And he wasn’t doing an autopsy because Jiha’d was found outside. And then I asked them where my child was… I wanted to go to the site, but they wouldn’t let me. They said he’s not over at the site no more, he was at Memorial Hospital. And I said, ‘Take me to Memorial Hospital.’ And then they changed it, and told me that he was not at Memorial Hospital, that he had already been transferred to Hanley’s Funeral Home.”

Jones did not know it at the time, but in South Bend, the African-American community historically has been served by Alford’s Mortuary and Clark O’Neal Funeral Home.

“It’s more kind of a tradition,” says South Bend Pastor Mario Sims, a longtime activist and critic of Buttigieg and the SBPD. “Basically, they are willing to work with the black families… [Families] may not have had sufficient insurance, or they’ve had family members who either went to Alford’s or Clark’s. There’s tradition based on those two reasons that they would go to a black funeral home.”

When Jones arrived at Hanley’s shortly after 4 p.m., her son’s body was still in the body bag. “I touched my child,” she said. “He was very, very cold. He looked like he was asleep.”

An employee asked Jones, “Are you all right?” As soon as she replied, “No, I’ll never be all right,” Jones says, she was ushered into an office where Hanley presented her with a “Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected.” There on the spot, she says, Hanley drew up a bill for Jiha’d’s cremation and memorial service. She signed the funeral home bill mere minutes after viewing her son in a body bag, and less than three hours after Jiha’d’s body had been cut down. The total bill was $2566.80.

Peter Agostino, with Hanley’s law firm, Anderson, Agostino & Keller, told TYT the funeral home “did not rush or pressure Ms. Jones into signing the Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected.”

According to the state Certificate of Death, Jiha’d’s body was cremated at Wyatt Crematory, two towns away.

Describing how she felt at the time, Jones said, “I was coerced in getting him cremated.” She said, “When [Hanley] gave me that price list, he told me… that the morgue was over 200 miles from here, in Kalamazoo. I felt pressure because I didn’t have no money, but he was talking and saying he didn’t want me to handle the body. He said it was going to cost $250. Michigan charged $250 to $300 for an autopsy, and I felt pressured because I didn’t have no money.

“I didn’t know anything about the funeral homes here. If I had known, I would’ve gone to Alford’s,” Jones says.

Agostino said that Jones was asked whether she preferred to use a different funeral home. He said that Hanley and Sons “did not coerce Ms. Jones to select or purchase any funeral services. Prices were disclosed for all services discussed so that Ms. Jones could make an informed decision about the funeral arrangements."

Jones says Jiha’d’s body was taken from Hanley’s that night and transported directly to the crematory in Wyatt. The death certificate indicating that Jiha’d was cremated was filed April 15, the day after he was found. Indiana state law requires that bodies be held 48 hours before cremation. Anderson told TYT that, “The death certificate was signed on April 15, 2011; however, the cremation did not occur until April 16, 2011.”

Hanley has strong ties to local police. He is a retired SBPD officer with 32 years of service. When Hanley ran for St. Joseph County coroner in 2016, he was endorsed by the sheriff’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 155, the SBPD FOP Lodge 36, and police departments in the nearby towns of Walkerton and Osceola.

Facebook photos taken during the 2016 campaign show Hanley alongside then-Sheriff Grzegorek.

To this day, Jones has questions about how her son died and how local officials handled it. But she remains steadfast about one thing: Jiha’d Vasquez, the Penn High School teen who carried a Bible in his backpack and spent summer vacations traveling to missionary-run Christian camps, did not tie a noose around his own neck and hang himself.

“He expressed to me that he would never take his own life because he knew it was a sin against God,” Jones says. “He not only told me that, he told a few people that, even my family members.”

His friends remember Jiha’d as a “loving kid” with a “big goofy smile” who loved music, especially Tupac Shakur.

“Jiha’d always said anybody who committed suicide wasn’t going to heaven,” said Blake Carpenter, Vasquez’s friend, in August 2011. “He said he wanted to be up there with Tupac.” Reached by phone recently, Carpenter declined to speak further for this story. “This is still too hard to talk about,” he said.

“He never showed signs of suicide to any of our friends,” said Ila Beckett earlier this month. A former high school classmate of Jiha’d, Beckett said that “I, being a survivor of suicide myself, never thought [Jiha’d] was suicidal, like, at all.”

After Jiha’d died, Jones struggled to have her voice heard, with help from Thomas Bush of the South Bend chapter of the NAACP. The two reached out to institutions from the Justice Department on down, and had several meetings with law enforcement officials, including Grzegorek and Hurley. Those meetings all ended up back at the deputy coroner’s initial conclusion of suicide.

“Hurley called me on two different occasions,” Jones says. “He told me that he knows a suicide when he sees a suicide. He went on to say that my son didn’t suffer, and that was about it.”

Jones and Bush spoke about Jiha’d’s death before the South Bend Common Council, the city’s legislative body, at two consecutive public meetings in the summer of 2012.

According to the minutes from Aug. 27, Buttigieg was also at that meeting. During the meeting, Jones explained why she believed Jiha’d was murdered. She said that her son had been in “an altercation with another student [and] was called a nigger.”

Bush said at the meeting, “According to Ms. Jones, she was coerced into having the body cremated.” The minutes also quote Bush relaying an exchange in which Sheriff Grzegorek said he and his officers “know a suicide when we see one.”

Today, Jones still remembers approaching Buttigieg after the meeting and asking him for help. “I tried to talk to him, and Bush tried to talk to him,” Jones says. “[Buttigieg] did give me his business card and he told me to call him. But when I did, that secretary down there, she would never put my calls through. That was a few times… I just looked at it like, he don’t care about people in the city getting killed, or investigations. There’s more about whatever he can do to please himself.”

At the Sept. 10 meeting, the minutes show, Jones and Bush told their story again. At one meeting, Jones read from a letter written by her daughter, Charlene.

Excerpts from an Oct. 26, 2011, letter by Jiha'd Vasquez's sister, Charlene Jones.

In the letter, Charlene referred to a friend of Jiha’d who had “mentioned specific details about where his body was located before the police discovered the body. The students at Penn High School, Jiha’d’s classmates knew that Jiha’d was dead before my mother was notified. They… believe that Jiha’d was put there to make it look like a suicide, but it is not.”

“I’m just lost,” Jones says now, wiping away tears. “It’s like I don’t have no voice. I’m not supposed to say anything, and it’s like they can just do whatever.

“We never got closure,” Jones says. “I just feel like nobody cares.”

“His urn is right there,” she adds, pointing to a colorful canister by a vase of flowers next to a framed photo of Jiha’d and a placard that reads, “God Bless You.” Jones turns her eyes toward the large framed sketch of Jiha’d on the wall of the dining area in her small South Bend apartment.

“I try not to harass people,” Jones says. “I got my son’s Facebook page still open, but when I see the messages and stuff, it makes me think they know something about my son.”

Jiha’d’s last day at Penn High School had ended with him getting a four-day suspension after fighting with a student who took his iPhone — a phone, his mother says, that Jiha’d bought on Craigslist with money he made "scrapping metal" with Blake in the field on Queensboro Street. During the fight, Blake says, the other student — a white male — threatened retaliation and slurred Jiha’d verbally with the n-word.

As Morton wrote in the police report, “Jiha’d was suspended from school this week for getting into a fight on Mon. with another boy from school over a stolen cell phone and being called a niger [sic]; & Blake helped break the fight up.”

Jones says Jiha’d told her of several instances of being “bullied” at school over his name and his race.

When Jiha’d got home after being suspended, "We talked about the fight," Jones recalls. "Jiha’d had expressed that being a black man, he said he had no freedom walking on the white man’s ground.

"I told him, ‘You don’t have to feel inferior about anything,’" she says. "But Jiha’d kept saying, ‘I’m still a black man with no freedom. Everybody always gets their way. Who has a voice for me?’”

"And I said, ‘I have a voice for you.’”

Jeff Harrell is a writer and musician living in South Bend. He has previously been a reporter for the South Bend Tribune, the Staten Island Advance, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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