A U.S. Army veteran was found dead in a suburban Philadelphia park last week in an apparent strangulation incident. Now the man’s relatives are saying local law enforcement is prematurely declaring the death a suicide.
Based on their understanding of the police’s position on the man’s death, relatives are demanding the case be considered a criminal probe.
The Whitpain Township Police Department says there is an open investigation into the ex-soldier’s death, and that no one ever told the family the cause of the man’s death.
On Friday, June 17, Donté Perez Jones was found in Wentz Run Park in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, by a person passing by a trail around 7:45 a.m.
The individual, according to Police Chief Kenneth Lawson, reportedly saw “a man leaning against a piece of playground equipment.”
When the person alerted the officers in the precinct, an officer and paramedic responded and found Jones was “unresponsive.”
After recognizing his condition, the Montgomery County Coroner was contacted. Police say they “cordoned off a large area of Wentz Run Park and conducted a grid search of the area.”
However, during this search, the site investigators “found nothing suspicious” regarding Jones’ death.
The family says officers from the department reached out to the man’s mother, LaTina Dean, and told her the father of three’s death was by suicide.
Dean says her last time seeing her son was on June 16, around 11:40 p.m., when he came to visit her. Jones reportedly lived in Delaware County, approximately an hour from where his body was found in Blue Bell.
Unsatisfied with how the WPD was handling her son’s death, Dean took to social media the next day, Saturday, June 18, to spread the message about her son’s demise. Surrounded by family, she pushed for law enforcement to consider his death as a lynching and shared with the public her belief that the department is covering up how Jones died.
While in the playground where he was found, one male family member spoke about the restraints the officers placed on the family when they came to identify him, saying in a video, “They wouldn’t let you identify the body. They wouldn’t allow you to see if there were any types of marks on his body. You weren’t able to check his neck to see if he was hung. You weren’t able to check his wrists for handcuffs [and] you were unable to check his entire body for any type of bruises or to even identify if that was actually your son.”
“But then tell you, take my word for it,” the man ended his remarks in disbelief.
Dean then comments, “there are much more details that point to that this was a murder.”
Voices in the background say, “And a cover-up.”
As she points to the slide, she says, “You just saw a Black male hanging … and then you take him down and then say that was suicide. [That] doesn’t make sense.”
“And then you have an event here at 2 o’clock?” she asks. “Is that what we do? The same day.”
“You didn’t give enough respect to my son to not have the event?” Dean asks.
Family members claimed he was hanged, but his feet were touching the ground, and that his wallet is missing. The mother stated the only personal items found at the scene of his death were his identification card and keys.
One the 4:39 minute clip, she says a female officer told her the department was not going to do an autopsy, the death was “ruled a suicide, it was closed.”
After being told this, Dean says she pushed back and requested that an autopsy be completed in case her son was drugged or knocked him out. She also asked if she could see her son. According to the bereaved mother, she has not been allowed to see him in person, nor a photograph of his corpse.
The family members believe the surveillance cameras were moved from the time when they first came out until the next day.
“This is an educated man that went to Shippensburg [University] for undergrad and grad,” Dean said. “He’s educated, he’s smart, he went into the military, he wanted to go to the military first, but I told him, ‘No, you need to go to school and get an education because that’s one thing they can’t take from you.’ I didn’t know to tell him that they could take his life.”
“How do you not have answers for me? And how do you be so insensitive to me? And this is the country he fought for?” she said.
The mother listed all the ways Jones sacrificed and protected the United States for six years of his life and is baffled at the way he is being treated in death. In the copy of a GoFundMe profile, she said, “Donte honored and served his country in the United States Army, he deserves to be treated with dignity and respect while his family prepares to lay him to rest.”
In addition to helping with his homegoing service, the family is asking for assistance so they can “obtain an independent autopsy and legal counsel.”
She also revealed additional fears about his death, saying, “Why would Donté drive an hour away at 12 a.m. to an unknown township in the middle of the woods and use a back entrance to get to the park where there are no cameras they think he came to commit suicide?… IS IT NOT SUSPICIOUS THAT A BLACK MAN WAS FOUND HUNG IN A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE NEIGHBORHOOD ON JUNETEENTH WEEKEND???”
In a statement released on Tuesday, June 21, the WPD denies the claim the family was told the case is closed and contradicts the claim his death was ruled a suicide. The statement also shoots down the claim Jones would not receive an autopsy.
In addition to announcing the ongoing autopsy, the force offered “its sincerest condolences to the family, children, and friends” of the deceased.
“Mr. Jones was a son, a father, an Army veteran, and a member of his Sharon Hilly community. We are deeply sorry for this loss,” it read in part.
“The investigation into the death of Mr. Jones is ongoing, and the Whitpain Police Department did not report that the investigation is closed. We are taking this matter seriously as we would with any similar situation. The Whitpain Police Department is seeking to talk with anyone who might have information related to the incident.
“The investigation will not be closed until the Montgomery County Coroner’s Officer releases its report with a cause and manner of the death of Mr. Jones.
The family has reached out to government officials, NAACP representatives, and state representatives to help determine what happened to their loved one.