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

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; C01

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.

Latson, through his mother, offers a different version: He got bored waiting for the library to open, so he left. When the deputy confronted him, Latson submitted to a search. He had no weapon. The deputy addressed him with racial slurs, and the teenager accused the deputy of harassing him. When Latson turned to walk away, the deputy grabbed him from behind and started choking him. Latson was kicked, Tasered and pepper-sprayed before running away.

Latson is charged with malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer, assault and battery, and disarming an officer. A sheriff's office spokesman said Calverley remains on medical leave; the spokesman declined further comment because the investigation is ongoing.

"When this case goes to court, it will become abundantly clear that not only did the deputy who was assaulted act in a completely professional and appropriate manner," said Sheriff Charles E. Jett, "but all the law enforcement personnel involved in this incident acted in a professional and appropriate manner."

Alexander, who has filed a complaint against the sheriff's office with the U.S. Department of Justice, said she was not allowed to see her son until a few days after his arrest. After 11 days in jail, Latson was transferred to a psychiatric hospital to determine if he was fit to stand trial. He didn't understand why he was there or why he was with people threatening suicide and talking to themselves, Alexander said, but she thinks the hospital was better than the alternative. On Wednesday, she broke down after learning that her son was being returned to jail.

"This is not right," she said. "I do not believe my son can mentally handle being in prison."

A different kind of life

Raising Neli has not been easy, Alexander said. He has changed schools several times, finding it difficult to thrive either in a large public school or in a special-needs school where many students faced more severe challenges. His mother said he tends to see the world literally; for example, he can't read between the lines enough to understand what "clean the kitchen" means. He has to be told to wash the dishes, wipe the counters, sweep the floors.

His eighth-grade wrestling coach, David Emison, said Latson was a gifted athlete, but it was clear he was different. Bus trips to matches could get chaotic, but Latson would sit in the front, put on his wrestling headgear and stare out the window quietly. Emison recalled how, like many autistic children, Latson was sensitive to physical contact. "Don't touch me," he told the coach's wife once when she patted him on the shoulder to congratulate him after a match.

Emison thinks that neither Latson nor the officer knew what they were getting into. "I don't believe it was his intent to inflict injury," he said of Latson. "It was to stop this guy from putting his hands on him."

Alexander acknowledges that no one can know exactly what happened between her son and the officer. But at the core of her fight, and the reason strangers are listening, are two issues she said authorities should consider: Her son has Asperger's, which makes it difficult for him to read social situations, and the incident started because of someone's assumptions upon seeing a black man sitting outside a library. In a news release after the incident, authorities said no weapon was found, and further investigation revealed that the original caller had never seen a gun.

"If you see a black man sitting outside a library and then you initially assume that he has a gun, that's a problem," Bell said. If Latson had been white, he said, "there would not have been a call."

On Alexander's Web site -- http://avoiceforneli.com -- strangers have left comments arguing, for example, that Latson is "a victim of SWB, sitting while black."

Meanwhile, Gina Vokoun, who lives in Arizona, has posted Latson's story on national e-mail groups for parents of autistic children. She became an advocate for autistic young adults after her son, 18 and diagnosed with Asperger's, was arrested after a friend placed a fake bomb in his backpack. Police tend not to recognize symptoms of autism, she said, and confrontations leading to jail can reverse progress young people have made.

"It's like having a child in a shell, and moms do their very best to chip away at that shell to make the crack bigger so they can pull their child out," she said. "When something like this happens, that shell becomes so thick that you've wasted years on recovery."

Vokoun said parents struggle between protecting their autistic children and giving them autonomy. "You want him to be able to go out to parties, do the things other 18-year-olds do," she said. "Yet you can't trust he'll make the right decision when he's there."

The law says Latson is an adult now, but in his bedroom, a teddy bear perches on a shelf, football trophies from middle school line his nightstand, and Christmas cards from his grandmother sit next to the candle that his mother keeps burning -- and will until he comes home.

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