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Cops Say He Killed Himself During a Traffic Stop. His Family Says It’s Murder.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Courtesy Hermena Bumpass
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Courtesy Hermena Bumpass

At 12:26 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2019, J’Mauri Bumpass, 18, texted his sister from a McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina.

Five minutes later, he told her he was on his way to pick her up at his mother’s house. “Get dressed,” he wrote. Eight minutes after that, and less than a mile from his home, a Durham County Sheriff’s Office patrol car flashed its lights and pulled him over.

Deputy Anthony Sharp, 33, and his trainee Robert Osborne, 30, noticed “fictitious tags” on Bumpass’ car, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Bumpass was driving a Chevrolet Impala. But his license plate belonged to a Honda Accord he previously drove and had traded in, according to his family, who say he was waiting on the title for his new car to come in the mail.

What happened next is, depending on who you ask, either another case of law enforcement brazenly shooting an unarmed Black man—or a tragic case of death by suicide during a seemingly routine traffic stop. In the Sheriff’s Office version of events, Bumpass stopped the car and shot himself in the head before Sharp and Osborne even began to approach him. But scant evidence, seemingly inconsistent statements, and a lack of transparency have led his family to conclude something far more sinister.

Deciphering what happened is complicated by the Durham Sheriff’s Office’s refusal to release incident reports or video footage of the incident, as well as a federal lawsuit by Bumpass’ family that makes dramatic allegations about murder, tampered evidence, and a cover-up operation.

In this case, the law enforcement agency under scrutiny is led by a self-styled reformer of color. Still, the family believes the worst, a testament to just how deeply frayed trust is in police around the country.

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“They killed my son,” Hermena Bumpass, the late teenager’s mother, told The Daily Beast, repeating the claim in her lawsuit. “They had to kill my son. My son would not commit suicide.”

In the lawsuit filed by Bumpass’ family and their attorney, Allyn Sharp, against Deputy Sharp (no relation), Osborne, and other members of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, they allege that members of the department shot and killed him, deliberately hid evidence, made false statements, and selectively shared information that made the suicide seem likely.

None of the officers named in the suit responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast. A spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on specific questions, citing the lawsuit, but said that neither Sharp nor Osborne nor any other deputy “fired their weapon nor in any other way caused the death of J’Mauri Bumpass.”

What is clear is that the Sheriff’s Office’s story about what happened that night has evolved over time.

In an initial release on Dec. 15, 2019, the agency said Bumpass’ car hit a power pole during the stop, that EMS arrived, and that he was taken to a nearby emergency room, where he was pronounced dead. Three days later, another release said “preliminary autopsy results” showed Bumpass “died as the result of a ‘close-range gunshot wound, consistent with suicide.’”

His mother suggested the suicide claim came out of nowhere and never added up to her.

Her son was known for his infectious smile, work with community groups, good grades, and love for his siblings, she said. He was working at FedEx while preparing to apply to college and study sports medicine. He had no prior criminal history and no history of depression or mental health issues, according to his family. A Daily Beast review of North Carolina Department of Public Safety records confirmed he did not appear to have a criminal record.

A toxicology report prepared by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh obtained by The Daily Beast also revealed no drugs found in his system or any evidence of previous substance abuse. Bumpass said she’d also never seen her son with a gun before and wasn’t aware of him having access to one.

“My son wouldn’t have killed himself,” Bumpass told The Daily Beast. “No way.”

Cario Hope, Bumpass’ childhood friend and high school classmate, had the same reaction. He said Bumpass was the most positive person he knew, the kind of friend you could always count on for a smile when times were hard.

“It couldn’t be possible to me. I could never see him doing something like that. He was on the right track,” he said. “It didn’t make sense for him to do something like that over something so small.”

Suspicions over what really happened to Bumpass only increased, his mother said, after a slow drip of puzzling details came out about the seemingly simple traffic stop through court orders, meetings between his family and members of the Sheriff’s Office, and an independent investigation by their attorney. The latter probe referenced incident reports, officers’ statements, and radio communications that the Durham County Sheriff’s Office declined to share and which The Daily Beast has not been able to independently verify.

According to the lawsuit, Osborne initially called in the stop of Bumpass as a suspicious car but later said in an alleged incident report referenced in the suit that the stop was for fictitious tags. After Bumpass’ car hit the pole, the suit says, Sharp called for backup, stating there was a “subject on foot.” He allegedly requested K-9 units to help establish a perimeter and specifically asked for Deputy Sheriff Brent Crider to come to the scene, according to alleged radio communications quoted in the lawsuit.

Crider, 35, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sharp and Osborne did not approach the car until backup arrived, the lawsuit says. When they did, the incident report quoted in the lawsuit says Sharp found a man lying torso down in the car with a desert tan Glock in between his legs with the barrel expelling smoke “as if it had just been fired.”

Richard Rivera, a New Jersey police director and former expert witness, said that after learning about the allegations in the lawsuit, he wouldn’t rule anything out. “When we’re talking about policing, anything is possible.”

Still, he said, his experience tells him it is plausible that Bumpass became freaked out before the traffic stop and killed himself, even if the details surrounding his death are “weird.”

But he said the rampant speculation about what happened would easily be cleared up if the Durham County Sheriff’s Office were transparent about everything they know and everything that was documented that night. “They need to be forthcoming. This family deserves some closure,” Rivera said. “The Sheriff’s Office shouldn’t have this stigma hanging over them as well and shouldn’t allow for people to speculate. Just come clean and be transparent.”

If the lawsuit and its claims sometimes stretch credulity, some details about the strange episode are clearer.

A report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh, obtained by The Daily Beast, said that as Sharp and Osborne exited their cars for the traffic stop, “they heard a shot fired and the vehicle sped off, crashing and rolling over.”

The report said Bumpass was found with a gunshot wound to the head and a gun nearby. He was removed “after the scene was deemed safe and the firearm removed from the vehicle” the report said, and taken to the local emergency department, where he was transferred to the ICU in critical condition. He was pronounced dead at 5:50 a.m.

A separate autopsy report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh said the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. It reported a bullet entering the right side of his head and exiting the left side after being shot from a “slightly frontward” direction. The report also noted abrasions on Bumpass’ forehead, his right eye, both his cheeks, and on his knees.

“It is our opinion that the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head,” the report said. “The manner of death is classified as suicide.”

But the family lawsuit alleges other oddities, such as that at least one investigator from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office on the case, 39-year-old Ryan Lounsberry, “expressed concerns” about the changing narratives and the blood spatter evidence in the car. Lounsberry, who no longer works for the agency, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bumpass said video evidence would clear everything up for her, but she said the Sheriff’s Office has never produced any. “If you can show me that my son picked up a gun and shot himself in the head,” Bumpass said, “I’ll walk away and accept that. But nobody could look me in the face and tell me that.”

A spokeswoman for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office said body cameras were not used by the department in 2019. However, Sharp’s patrol car was equipped with a dash camera the day of the traffic stop. The spokeswoman declined to say why footage was never produced.

The family lawsuit alleges the video was never produced because Sharp and members of the Sheriff’s Office deliberately hid it.

According to the lawsuit, one day after Bumpass’ death, a tech employee in the Sheriff’s Office reported the wiring to Sharp’s dash camera uploading system had been damaged and covered with black electrical tape. Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, 61, allegedly told the family later in court that an outside company taped the wiring during a repair in July 2019. But when shown a photo of the state of the wires, the repair company, Piedmont Communications, allegedly told Bumpass’ attorney that it would never leave the wires exposed like that.

Birkhead did not respond to a request for comment. Piedmont Communications also did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the lawsuit, when the family questioned Jimmy Butler, 53, the Sheriff’s Office captain of investigations, about why the electrical tape was never removed to see if the wires were cut, he declined to speak about it.

A man picked up a phone associated with Butler but hung up and did not respond to further requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

According to the Sheriff’s Office’s general orders obtained by The Daily Beast, officers are required at the beginning of a shift to make sure their dash camera and microphones work. Before making a traffic stop, they’re also required to make sure the in-car system is recording audio and video. Either way, audio and video recording automatically begins when an officer’s lights are activated, the general orders state.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office declined to answer specific questions about the wiring of the camera in Sharp’s car.

Rivera, who is currently the police director of the Penns Grove Police Department in New Jersey, said he has had his own issues with department servers and video evidence in the past. But he also said those issues always have to be documented internally and explained.

“As police, we have to document everything. We have to justify our actions. We have to keep reports,” he said. “Yet we have access to this information and material and we don’t want to share it. It’s nonsensical.”

Bumpass and her attorney initially pushed for an independent investigation into the incident by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. But in a Feb. 4, 2020, letter obtained by The Daily Beast, the agency declined to review the “suicide investigation” because “the incident has been investigated by a competent law enforcement agency.” The agency also cited the amount of time that had passed since the initial incident occurred, which at that point was 51 days.

Bumpass said she’d been disappointed in the lack of clear answers and information, particularly from Sheriff Birkhead. Birkhead, who is Black, overwhelmingly won his 2018 election to office. His campaign website pledged “leadership that is transparent, accessible and accountable.” He also pledged to “share timely and accurate information” with the public.

But Bumpass said the lack of details surrounding the death of her son has led her and her family and his friends to conclude that either Sharp or Osborne killed her son. “Nobody could come up to a conclusion where they could feel comfortable saying J’Mauri committed suicide,” she said.

Even so, she conceded she was still unsure of a possible motive for the alleged murder. An independent investigation by her attorney, Allyn Sharp, charted out a possible one in the lawsuit—but although Bumpass thinks it's plausible, she isn't entirely certain about it. (Sharp did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

The lawsuit cites records that Deputy Sharp had previously arrested two distant cousins of J’Mauri on drug charges in Aug. 4, 2016, and March 29, 2017, and alleges Sharp made comments saying he knew the Bumpasses were running a “drug ring” and vowed to take them down. The two men at the center of the previous arrests, Timothy Bumpass Jr., 28, and Timothy Bumpass Sr., 50, did not respond to requests for comment.

Federal court records show that Bumpass Sr. had previously been incarcerated for drug-related charges in the past and was arrested for a violation of probation on March 29, 2017, by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. But the records do not specify the names of the officers involved in the arrest. According to federal court records, Bumpass Sr. was sentenced to five years in prison for the probation violation in November 2018.

North Carolina Department of Public Safety records show Bumpass Jr. was arrested on drug possession and trafficking charges in Durham County on Aug. 4, 2016. According to local news reports, Bumpass Jr. was arrested again by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 4, 2017, for leaving the scene of an accident and attempting to elude police. The reports do not specify the names of the officers involved in the arrest.

Bumpass said the men were cousins on the side of her son’s father, whom she divorced years before the incident, and that despite their being relatives, neither she nor her son had ever met them.

Fraught as the saga is, and as unsure as she may be of why police would have taken her son’s life, her goal now is a simple one.

“I want justice,” she said. “I want these officers to be convicted. I want the truth to come out.”

Hope said he just wants to know how his friend died. “I want to know what really happened, because I don’t believe what they’re telling us,” he told The Daily Beast.

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After watching recent reports of Black men like Ronald Greene being killed by police who later reportedly attempted to alter the facts of what happened in official narratives, Bumpass said she hasn’t stopped thinking about her son’s death and wants it to be recognized. “Nobody knows about Durham, North Carolina, going through the same thing they just went through with George Floyd,” she said.

But mostly, she added, she wants the idea that her son killed himself over a simple traffic stop to be stricken from the record of his life.

“I want that off of my son’s name.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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