Stafford County woman confronts issues of race, autism after son's arrest

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

This much is not debated: 18-year-old Reginald Cornelius Latson was sitting outside a library in Stafford County, waiting for it to open. To someone, he looked suspicious.

The confrontation with police that followed probably would not have attracted much notice if the teen's mother, Lisa Alexander, hadn't launched an Internet campaign linking her son's arrest to two social flash points: autism and racial profiling.

"What she has done has absolutely blown my mind," said Mark Bell, a civil rights consultant in Atlanta who has seen other parents stand up for their kids, but "I have not seen one person with the tenacity that she has."

By tenacity, he means Alexander's campaign for attention to her son's case. The effort has spread to Facebook, Twitter and an online petition that has collected more than 1,500 signatures. Some supporters are parents of autistic children like Latson, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in eighth grade, and others are African Americans drawn to the story of a black teenager who was arrested after an encounter with a police officer in a majority-white county.

Together, Alexander says, the two groups are doing what she couldn't have done alone: They've turned a case into a cause.

"I'm not a helpless person and so I have to do what I have to do to save my son's life," said Alexander, a defense contractor who served in the military for 11 years. "I'm so afraid he's going to be damaged beyond repair."

In the family's home in the exurbs of Northern Virginia, a picture of Latson, whom Alexander calls "Neli," rests on a Bible next to a white candle on the fireplace mantel. A similar display sits on the dresser in his bedroom, where sailboats float atop blue painted walls, a color his mother picked to be calming.

Both candles have burned since May 24, the morning Latson left home and never returned.

An eventful day

It wasn't unusual for him to go on long walks, so his mother didn't immediately worry when he wasn't in his room at 6:30 a.m. But when he wasn't home by 10:30 a.m., she called the Stafford sheriff's office to report her son missing. That's when she discovered they had him in custody.

The sheriff's office says it received a call at 8:37 a.m. reporting a "suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun," sitting on the grass outside Porter Library, across from an elementary school. Officers were dispatched, a search was launched and more than a half-dozen schools were put into lockdown.

What happened next remains unclear.

Authorities gave this account: About 20 minutes into the search, Deputy Thomas Calverley, the resource officer at a nearby high school, saw Latson and noticed that he matched the description of the suspicious man. Asked for identification, the teenager began "to attack and assault the deputy for no apparent reason." Latson struck the deputy several times. The officer unloaded pepper spray on the teen, who wrestled the container away and sprayed the officer. Latson then ran. Other officers found Latson in the nearby woods and the deputy on the ground with a head laceration, cuts and a broken ankle that would require surgery.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company