On Friday, Feb. 8, Antwan Cole lay mortally wounded near a bus stop in Athens. He had been shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting. A person living across the street heard the gunfire and dialed 911. Paramedics listed the 19-year-old as "Antwan Doe" and transported him to UCLA-Harbor Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 12:24 a.m. Feb. 9. He was listed as an "unknown black male" by the Los Angeles County coroner.
Cole lived with his grandmother. According to a coroner's report, an unspecified "law enforcement agency" notified her of his death within a few hours. But Everlean Cole, 67, said she never got that notification. It wasn't until two days later that she learned from a relative that her grandson was killed. The relative had been told by a neighbor, who called the coroner's office.
Now the family wants officials to improve the way they notify loved ones.
On March 18, family members held a news conference with civil-rights leaders to urge the L.A. Police Commission to address the issue. They say the coroner acted too slowly, that police never contacted them with news of Cole's death, and that agencies need to communicate better.
"Murder, violence, is harsh enough, is painful enough." said activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, speaking at the family's news conference outside Parker Center. "The tragedy is even worse when next of kin, family members don't know what happened. When there's no notification."
Coroner officials acknowledged their handling of the case was slow but also said that Cole was difficult to identify because their investigators had none of his clothing or personal effects. He also had never been arrested. They said situations are rare and that his case does not indicate a wider problem. Sheriff's detectives who are investigating Cole's death said they left the notification to the coroner.
Antwan Cole was attending L.A. Trade Tech College. Family members said that on the Monday after Cole's death, they waited at the college and at a Unocal facility where he worked as a security guard to see if he would show up. When he didn't, Cole's grandmother filed a missing-person's report. Everlean Cole's neighbor, Gwen Williams, 53, later called the coroner, who told her of the killing. Williams in turn informed the family.
Family members said they drove to the coroner's office to identify the body on Monday but were told it already had been identified through fingerprints. They were referred to detectives investigating the case.
According to a time line of events issued by the coroner's office, Antwan's body was transported to the Forensic Science Center for fingerprinting on Sunday. His name was not listed in any of the local criminal databases or in the FBI's database. Many, if not most, homicide victims have criminal records, which contain fingerprints that aid in identifying them. Cole "was about doing the right thing and being a good kid," said his aunt Demetra Willis.
The state Department of Justice did identify Cole later on Sunday, but not through a criminal record. He had been fingerprinted for his security guard identification card, said Craig Harvey, the department's chief investigator and chief of operations. "Had he worked at McDonald's, we would have been back to square one," Harvey said.
Andrea Cole, 21, one of Antwan's sisters, said she could not understand why notification was such a problem. "He had a cellphone, his school badge, his security guard badge," she said. "What's the point of having emergency numbers in a cellphone if they're not going to be used?"
The coroner's office did not receive the cellphone with Antwan Cole's body, Harvey said. He said that if he had known that there had been a problem notifying the grandmother, he would have had the law enforcement agency try to reach Cole's mother. The coroner is legally responsible for notification, he said, but law enforcement agencies often make that first contact with family because it allows them to begin their investigation right away.
Anthony Hernandez, director of the coroner's office, said the office was looking into the case and "back-tracking to try and clarify who specifically made the notification."
The family and friends say blame is not the point.
"We just want unity in all the agencies," said Williams, Everlean Cole's neighbor.
Above, Eddie Jones, president of the L.A. Civil Rights Assn. speaks with Cole's family and friends at the news conference. Below, Demetra Willis and Everlean Cole praying.