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'Somebody was not a friend to him' | Missouri family believes Black 19-year-old's suicide was a murder

Private autopsy conflicts with initial statement from police characterizing fatal wound to 19-year-old as self-inflicted

FREDERICKTOWN, Mo. — A self-inflicted gunshot wound leaves behind several key indicators.

An imprint of the muzzle of the gun if it’s held directly against the skin.

Held slightly further away, soot from the muzzle flash of a gun will land on the skin.

Held slightly further than that and stippling, or the deposition of gunpowder to the skin where the powder abrades or scrapes the surface of the skin, leaves little punctures or red marks.

Derontae Martin had none of those things.

But the Madison County Sheriff’s Department announced the results of a preliminary investigation on its Facebook page four days after his death stating the 19-year-old died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a Fredericktown home April 25.

His mother, Erica Lotts, who had recently moved to Ferguson from Park Hills, has never believed his death was a suicide. She hired Dr. Jane Turner, a former pathologist for the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office, to conduct a second autopsy.

“There are no findings on my examination of a contact gunshot wound or a near contact gunshot wound or a near gunshot wound or close or even intermediate,” Turner said. “This entrance wound is what would be called in forensic pathology a distant entrance wound.

“The end of the gun would have been 2 or 3 feet or more away.”

Martin’s family and friends say the Madison County Sheriff’s Department along with the coroner’s office has not been returning their calls seeking more information.

They also believe James Wade, the man who owns the house where it happened, knows more than he is letting on. They're also concerned about his social media posts, which they find racially offensive.

In an exclusive interview, Wade tells the I-Team he had nothing to do with it, is not a racist and wishes the police would clear his name so he could talk to Martin’s family himself to clear the air.

Friday night lights

Derontae Martin has always been a big boy.

That’s what got the attention of an assistant football coach from Park Hills Central High School who was working at the alternative high school Martin was attending as a freshman because of his spotty attendance records, according to head coach, Kory Schweiss.

Watch the I-Team story and continue reading below:

"So he got his attendance right and he came over to our school the following year and then got in, started working out with the football team his sophomore year and then he ended up playing football, his junior and senior year,” Schweiss said.

His cousin, Isaiah Welch, played on the team, too.

He said it changed their lives.

“When we were kids, we used to live in the same trailer park together and he lived right in front of me, so our windows were facing each other,” he said. “And when our parents fell asleep, we'd go to the windows and open up the curtains and look at each other and sneak out the house and do whatever we wanted to do because we were bad kids…

“Football definitely changed us, the coaches and stuff like that, just helping us through this life because we didn't have it easy growing up.”

Credit: KSDK

On the field, Derontae came alive.

“He could do a lot of things big boys like him couldn’t really do,” Welch said of his cousin, who was 6’3” and 250 pounds. “He was fast and he could catch the ball real good.”

About a month before his death, Derontae stopped by to see his old coach to pick up the patches his team won with him on the roster.

“He was happy, big smile on his face,” Schweiss recalled. “I asked him how everything was going and he said, ‘Great,’ and he was having a good time.”

But life was changing for Derontae.

Most of his closest friends from the football team had moved on to college to play football, or got jobs.

Derontae’s SAT scores weren’t good enough for him to get into college right after graduation, so his mother said he was working to improve them so he could play college football, too. He worked at a local restaurant in Park Hills, but lost the job after the pandemic hit.

Then, his mother got a new home in Ferguson. After years of sharing rooms with any number of his six siblings, Derontae was finally going to have his own room there. She said she used some of her stimulus check to buy him all new clothes. Many of them still hang in his closet with the tags still attached.

“He was so excited, showing it off to his friends on video calls even though there wasn’t even any furniture in there yet,” Erica Watson recalled.

He had also started spending time with the friends he made in the alternative high school – friends his mother said she didn’t know all that well.

One of them picked him up from her house April 23.

He told his mother his friend was going to give him a ride to his grandmother’s house in Park Hills.

“He never came to my house,” Kimberly Robinson said.

“And that’s the last time I heard from him,” his mother added.

A birthday party

James Wade has owned his two-story home in Fredericktown, Missouri for about 20 years. It's a town of about 4,000 people and about 90 miles south of St. Louis.

The brick structure was built sometime in the 1800s and was once a schoolhouse, he said.

A Confederate flag hangs from his front porch, and another adorns a wall inside his garage. 

He said he doesn't consider the flag to be racially offensive.

“I was born in the south, and I'm not ashamed to show the Confederate flag or anything,” he said. “I mean, everybody has their own right, I guess.”

In 2017 and 2018, he posted pictures on his Facebook page including one of a Black man with a chain around his neck and the words, “My great great great grandfather's tractor.” And another with a picture of a black dog and the words, “I had a black dog once. I named him Foodstamps.”

"They're already on Facebook, I just shared them, it's not like I made them up or put them there, right?" he said. "I'm not a racist."

His daughter had an 18th birthday party at his house April 24, Wade said.

He said his daughter didn’t know Derontae well, but he showed up there with some other friends.

Wade said he got home from fishing about 30 minutes before he heard a gunshot. He was on the first floor and Derontae was in the attic.

The I-Team obtained a recording of Wade’s call to 911.

It came in at 3:01 a.m.

“I need the cops to (his address). Apparently a guy just shot himself,” Wade told the dispatcher.

A girl can be heard crying in the background.

“I hate this,” she said.

Wade told the I-Team he gave our contact information to his daughter and the other teens who were at his house that night. So far, no one has called.

The I-Team also sent messages to some of the teens and young adults who were there through social media, but they have not been returned.

Four days after Derontae’s death, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department posted a press release on its Facebook page, which read, in part:

“Preliminary evidence revealed the male subject died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.”

Sheriff Katy McCutcheon would not go on camera, but sent a statement: “The investigation is still ongoing. To protect the integrity of the case I cannot release any other information other than the statement that was posted on Madison County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page.”

Wade says he wishes there was more information coming out of the sheriff’s department.

“I'm just not involved in it, and I wish the cops would hurry up and make that clear to people,” he said. “It's kind of real frustrating.”

A second autopsy

Martin’s family is frustrated with the lack of answers from officials in Fredericktown, too.

Derontae’s mother, Erica Lotts, said she has left multiple messages for the sheriff as well as the coroner that have gone unreturned.

That’s why she hired Turner to conduct a second autopsy.

She found Derontae had been shot in the left temple.

He was right-handed, but his right hand and wrist was in a cast. He broke it weeks before his death and had to have surgery to repair the damage.

A few days after his death, one of the teens who picked Derontae up from his mother’s house brought his cellphone to her.

“All of his contacts were gone, his text messages was gone,” she said, before trailing off and wiping tears.

Her mother, Derontae’s grandmother, finished her thought for her.

“The true meaning of a friend, he was that to me,” his grandmother said. “Somebody was not a friend to him.”