Blood on the tracks: The short life and mysterious death of Deion Fludd

by @aaronmiguel_ April 21, 2015 5:00AM ET

The teenager's family disputes the NYPD account that Fludd died after he was struck by a subway train

Race & Ethnicity
New York City
Karen Fludd holds a photo of her son Deion, who died after an encounter with the police in the New York City subway system.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — One evening almost two years ago, a young couple walked hand in hand to a subway station in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The girl, Hesha Sanchez, 17, wasn’t carrying her fare card, but she wanted to keep her boyfriend, Deion Fludd, company while he waited for the train. So they squeezed through the turnstile on a single swipe of his card.

Roughly 40 minutes later, Fludd, bloodied and semiconscious, was carried from the station. According to the New York Police Department, officers tried to arrest Fludd for fare evasion after encountering him on the subway platform. He then fled onto the tracks and was hit by a train. But when Fludd awoke the next day, his ankle shackled to his hospital bed, he told a different story: According to his family, the teenager said he’d been injured by police, who’d beaten him after he climbed back onto the subway platform. Nine weeks later, Fludd died from complications from his injuries.

Newly released reports obtained by Al Jazeera America — including one resulting from a New York Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, or IAB, investigation and one from the New York City Transit Authority, or NYCTA — tell a tale of desperation. Police, traveling outside their designated areas of patrol, were committed to making arrests that night in order to avoid additional checkpoint duties. Fludd had already been arrested five times for infractions many teenagers commit without major consequences, including marijuana possession, fare evasion and fighting in school. One more arrest could have sent him to jail — and Fludd happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The police did not respond to requests for comment on Fludd’s version of events. Before he died, neither the IAB nor the New York Police Department spoke with Fludd, nor have they investigated his claims. What happened that night remains contested by Fludd’s family, who are suing the city and asking the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to investigate.

Fludd's family, from left: his cousin Bruce Dickerson; his mother, Karen Fludd; his sister Danielle; his cousin Antonia Fulton; and Chyann, another sister. Karen holds a box that contains her son's cremated remains.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

Deion Fludd was the middle child of five children raised in the Red Hook projects, the largest public-housing development in Brooklyn. His father, Michael Fludd, made enough money installing boilers that his wife, Karen Fludd, was able to stay home with the kids when she wasn’t doing seasonal work at Coney Island’s park services. Deion was a member of a traveling basketball team and aspired to one day play in the NBA. But Karen told her son that he needed to play college ball first.

“I told each of my kids, you’re going to go to college; you’re going to go to school and have a big, wonderful life,” said Karen Fludd.

In elementary school, Deion Fludd took his mother’s words to heart, excelling at math and science and participating in a social club called Boys' Group, which teachers convened once a week primarily for students of color. Its aim, said Julie Cavanagh, the teacher who developed the program, was to engage young black men in school culture and give them a space to discuss personal problems. Cavanagh remembered that many of the students in Fludd’s cohort said they felt singled out in school because they were black. She said similar feelings of alienation, compounded by poverty, partially explain why the graduation rate among black male students in New York is 57 percent, among the lowest in the country.

As Fludd entered his teenage years, his mother said, he became less interested in schoolwork and more focused on friends and basketball. She considered him an average teenager whose hormones sometimes got the best of him — certainly not a criminal.

But in May 2012, at age 16, Fludd picked up his first charge, for possession of marijuana, after being stopped by a cop. It was a few months after his father died from cancer and during a period in which the NYPD made a record number of pot arrests, especially among African-Americans. In the next eight months Fludd was arrested twice more, both times for assault after fighting with other boys in school. More than 5,200 school safety agents and police officers are stationed in city schools, and arrests for minor infractions are not uncommon.

Then in March 2013, Fludd was arrested for not paying his subway fare. A month later, he and his 13-year-old sister, Chyann Fludd, were wrestling over cookies and a jug of milk in their apartment while Karen Fludd was out shopping. After Deion picked up Chyann and body slammed her — “a wrestling move,” Karen said with an eye roll — his sister called the police. They arrived not long after and told Chyann to sign a report that would result in charges against Deion. Chyann said she didn’t want her brother to be arrested, but the officers’ towering presence intimidated her into signing it. (The police did not respond to requests for comment.)

By May 5, Deion Fludd was attending court-mandated anger-management courses and community service — cleaning a public swimming pool — while on probation. A judge had told him that if he messed up again, he would face jail time as an adult. (New York state automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.) So when Fludd realized he was being trailed by four officers on the Rockaway Avenue platform, he had reason to fear arrest.

“Deion looked so scared,” said Sanchez. “He was just trying to not get locked up.”

A memorial for Deion Fludd outside the building where he lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America
The memorial to Fludd is shaped like a "D".
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

Fludd hadn’t seen the four rookie cops who stopped him on the subway platform that night because they were hiding inside a small trash room next to the turnstiles. One of the officers had already arrested a man earlier that evening for fare evasion, and the others said they were hoping to make similar busts that night, according to the IAB report.

In their ethnographic 2013 study “Hunting for ‘Dirtbags,’” political science professors Lori Beth Way and Ryan Patten found that when the police are bored, they’re most likely to look for action — or go “hunting” — in low-income communities. “Police officers’ unassigned time can reach three-quarters of their shift; how officers spend that time is completely discretionary,” the authors wrote. During these periods of unassigned “discretionary proactive policing,” they wrote, officers venture into poor neighborhoods because that’s where they think the most lawbreakers live. This, the sociologists said, feeds “the cycle of depositing the poor into the criminal justice system.”

In recent years the NYPD has expended an increasing amount of time “hunting” for theft-of-service violators — subway fare evaders — in the poorest parts of the city. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of fare-beating arrests increased 69 percent, and roughly 30 percent of those arrests resulted in a jail sentence. African-Americans under 34 were arrested most often. A proposal before the New York City Council would reduce the penalties for fare evasion and make it a civil, rather than criminal, offense. 

Sgt. Samuel Negron, who supervised the four rookie cops, told the IAB that he encouraged his junior officers to make theft-of-service arrests. Officers had to arrest at least one fare evader a month or they would be assigned extra checkpoint duty (stopping drivers to assess their sobriety and car registration). Lawyers have questioned whether the NYPD’s use of checkpoints violates the Fourth Amendment. But in 2013, Negron’s officers conducted checkpoints every day for up to eight hours, he later told IAB investigators. In order to avoid extra checkpoint duty, Negron said his cops were “very aggressive” in searching out opportunities to make arrests.

As Fludd and Sanchez walked down the platform, the four officers poured out of the room and ordered them to stop, according to the IAB report, which cited surveillance footage. One of the officers asked for the teenagers’ identification. The couple tried to explain that Sanchez didn’t intend to join Fludd on the train. But, she said, the police seemed intent on making an arrest.

“The one who took our ID, he just had a face like ‘I don’t care what you’re saying, we’re going to lock you up,’ ” she said later.

An officer handcuffed Sanchez and asked one of his colleagues to handcuff Fludd. He had been nervous before, but now Fludd was desperate: If arrested, he could face up to a year in jail. As the officers moved to arrest him, the teenager bolted. Three cops followed, according to Sanchez and the officers. One managed to grab Fludd’s shoulder, but he shook the officer off, nearly knocking him onto the tracks. When Fludd reached the end of the platform, he jumped onto the tracks and continued sprinting through the northbound-train tunnel. The three officers flashed their lights in the tunnel and shouted after him but soon gave up and walked back to Sanchez and the officer who had handcuffed her, according to the IAB report. Soon after, the officers escorted Sanchez to the local precinct.

One of the officers, Daniel Badillo, then called Negron, according to the IAB report. Negron told him not to worry, but minutes later, the sergeant got a call on his radio asking for backup from Badillo’s location. Once Negron arrived, there was already a commanding officer and firefighters at the scene.

Karen Fludd holds a photo of her family taken at Coney Island in 2006, when Deion (in red) was 10.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

Fludd told his family that after jumping onto the tracks, he ran the half mile from Rockaway to the next stop, Ralph Avenue. He said that once he climbed from the tunnel at Ralph, an officer on the platform struck him on the back of the head with a flashlight. Police then stomped on his back and carried his body inside the tunnel, where, Fludd said, he was placed on the A-train track.

He told his mother that the officers were “tight,” or upset. “And they said, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make sure your ass doesn’t run again,’ ” Karen Fludd said. “He’s trying to push up, and they’re stepping on him.”

On May 8, less than 72 hours after the incident, the IAB closed the investigation of the officers’ conduct in Fludd’s case. For failing to document any of the night’s events in their memo books, the junior officers plus Negron were given warnings. Negron lost five days of vacation. The other officers were also given warnings for leaving their posts without notifying their supervisors beforehand. Fludd, meanwhile, was charged with fare evasion.

IAB officials never spoke with Fludd. Nor did the investigators interview witnesses at Ralph Avenue. Said Victor Brown, Deion Fludd’s defense attorney in the fare-evasion case: “I can only speculate that at the time of their investigation they believed the cops’ story that he ran into the tunnel and got hit by a train and [so the IAB] closed the case.”

But John Eterno, a retired captain with the NYPD and professor at Molloy College, said it was partially the Fludd family’s responsibility to notify police. That would have triggered an “extensive investigation,” he said. “If you don’t tell the police, how are they going to do a proper investigation?”

Karen Fludd said she never came forward while Deion was alive because she had no faith in the cops. “I don’t think they were interested. I think they were more interested in taking care of it quickly,” she said. “That was my interpretation. He’s not important. Why would [the investigation] only be two days?"

A few weeks after her son’s death, Karen Fludd filed a claim of notice that she would be suing the city. In March 2014, her lawyers filed the suit. They also filed public-records requests for surveillance-camera footage from both the Rockaway Avenue and Ralph Avenue stations. This past February, after submitting a motion to compel the agency to release the footage, the lawyers received videotape from Rockaway Avenue, which the IAB also drew on in preparing its report. But because of the camera angle, the footage showed virtually none of the encounter between Fludd and the police. The family was not provided footage from Ralph Avenue.

Shelly Werbel, a private attorney working on the Deion family’s case, said the Ralph surveillance footage may no longer exist. The NYCTA only keeps footage for a few weeks, in case police officers ask for it, she said.

Werbel and other lawyers point to additional findings in the IAB report that they say support Fludd’s claim that he was beaten. According to the report, an unidentified person made the first call for medical help from Ralph Avenue, not Rockaway. “Who made these calls?” Werbel said. “Everything the police are saying is that it was Rockaway.”

Questions also linger around which officers were present at Rockaway. The IAB interviewed six police officers who said they were at the scene: the four who initially stopped Sanchez and Fludd and two others, partners Randy Paulsaint and Christopher Spicer. But Sanchez said she only saw the original four officers. Karen Fludd’s attorneys believe Paulsaint and Spicer may have been the officers involved in Deion Fludd’s alleged beating, possibly meeting him at Ralph Avenue as he climbed on the subway platform.

The IAB also interviewed Richard Mascal. An A-train operator, Mascal told IAB investigators that his train hit Fludd after the teenager started to cross the tracks from right to left. That suggests Fludd was struck on his left side, yet his medical reports show bruising only on his right shoulder, hip, calf and knee. A NYCTA car-inspection document, meanwhile, notes that the train car that allegedly struck Deion Fludd had “no damage or signs of contact with the customer” and adds, “ther [sic] are no signs of the customer making contact” with the train. However, Robert Halstead, a forensic railroad-accident specialist, said it’s plausible for a subway train to have no signs of contact if it strikes a person at low speed. “It depends on how tall the person is, their position, how they’re hit, how fast the train is going,” he said.

Deion's mother, Karen, places his remains on the table in the family apartment.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

After Fludd arrived at the hospital in an ambulance, a doctor noted that his only visible injuries were a laceration along his elbow and a bloody wound on the back of his head. An examination revealed that Fludd had an “acute depressed open skull fracture” and two spinal fractures and bruising across his upper back and buttocks, as well as his right shoulder, hip, calf and knee.

Karen Fludd didn’t hear from police until the next day. She and Sanchez received conflicting reports about what had happened. First, said Karen Fludd, she was told that her son had been struck by a train. Then she was told that he was in court. While Karen Fludd was preparing to go to the courthouse, officers showed up at her apartment and told her her son was in the hospital, she said. To visit him, she was told, she had to first obtain permission from the precinct. An officer from the 73rd Precinct said that this is standard procedure under such circumstances.

When Deion Fludd awoke the next day, a doctor officially declared him quadriplegic. Hospital records indicate that his right ankle was still cuffed to his bed up until his release in early July. Karen Fludd said that at least once her son told his account of the night on the train tracks in the presence of the officer who guarded him until his fare evasion case was dismissed at the end of May.

On July 12, two days after Deion Fludd was released to a rehabilitation center after showing progress in physical therapy, he died. A medical examiner identified the cause of death as complications from blunt-trauma injuries. On Sept. 26, an investigator with the IAB called Karen Fludd to follow up on Deion’s condition. That was the first time Karen Fludd told the NYPD that her son had died. She believes Queens Nassau Rehabilitation and Nursing Center was negligent in her son’s case and she plans to file charges against the organization. The facility declined to comment.

In the meantime, Karen Fludd is suing the city, the NYPD, the NYCTA and two of the officers who stopped Deion Fludd, plus their lieutenant. She is also urging Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to open a criminal investigation into the case. The leader of the legal team handling her lawsuit, Paul Fino, wrote a letter to Thompson on Dec. 15 urging action. As of press time, Thompson’s office had not responded. (Thompson’s office also did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

In December, Karen Fludd was among tens of thousands of people who gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park for one of the city’s largest demonstrations ever against police violence. As the crowd began moving into the street, Karen stood silently alongside members of her family. On the back of her sweater she had pinned a piece of paper with a photo of Deion, shirtless and flexing his biceps.

“I’m hopeful the police will be brought to justice,” she said. “I want them to go to jail.”

A month later, inside her apartment, Karen said she considers her son a victim of a system that targets young black men.

“What I want is for kids like my son to be able to walk down the street and be secure knowing they’re not going to be stopped if they’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “Just because we’re of poor means and don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean we’re not people. We have lives. Deion has a story.”