A man arrested and charged with theft for allegedly failing to pay a $25 dinner bill Tuesday night died yesterday morning after he was found hanging in a cell at a Prince George's County jail.
Police said Curtis A. Pelt, 21, an unemployed Palmer Park man, killed himself, but the Prince George's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for an immediate investigation of Pelt's death. "I want to see the facts out," said Jose Bass, president of the chapter. "I don't know if he was hung, but the family thought his death might be racially motivated."
Family members and friends said Pelt had not seemed depressed and was joking with his girlfriend just before he was put into a cell in the Hyattsville jail a half hour before his death. "It just doesn't seem like something Curtis would do," said Pelt's sister, Arlene, 23. "Nothing bothered Curtis, nothing at all. He was laid back."
Pelt was discovered by a guard at 1:30 a.m. yesterday, his shoelaces tied to a crossbar on the jail bars, according to corrections department spokesman Jim O'Neill. The guard, Sgt. Eric Hull, had ushered Pelt into the cell about a half hour before and had checked on him about 10 minutes before his death, according to O'Neill.
But Pelt's girlfriend, Delores Cook, 18, who was sitting in front of Hull in a waiting room at the jail, said Hull did not move from his desk. And while the spokesman claims that Hull was the only guard in the jail at the time, Cook claims that there was a second guard near the cells.
The jail, which has about a dozen cells, is used to hold prisoners before they are moved to the County Detention Center in Upper Marlboro. It is part of the Hyattsville police station, where in 1978 two Prince George's County police officers were killed in a widely publicized incident. Terrence G. Johnson, then 15, was charged with murdering the two officer but after an emotional trial was acquitted of the murder charges but convicted of manslaughter and illegal use of a handgun in the death of one of the officers.
A spokesman for the state attorney's office said prosecutors would not investigate Pelt's death unless police find evidence of foul play. Police are still investigating the incident.
The events that led to Pelt's arrest began at 8 p.m. Tuesday when he, Cook, and another friend, Andre Smyers, 22, went to dinner at the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House in New Carrollton. "He just got his income tax check and he was celebrating," Said Arlene Pelt.
But according to Cook the celebration was marred by the attitude of their waiter. "He kept making remarks to Andre and Curtis," said Cook. "You could see he didn't like them being black and me white."
When the waiter brought them their check, Cook said, they let their money on the table instead of taking it to the cashier by the door "because of him [the waiter] being smart and stuff," Cook said.
But the waiter, who refused to give his name, said yesterday that Pelt had spoken rudely to him and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He said that after the three left no money was found on the table.
The waiter and manager then left the restaurant and followed the three to a nearby store on the New Carrollton mall, where the manager and Pelt had a brief scuffle, according to police.
According to the waiter, Pelt displayed a four-inch knife when asked to pay the bill, though Cook denies that. Police then arrived and arrested the three on theft charges. In addition, Pelt was charged with assault and with possession of a concealed weapon, a knife.
When the three arrived at the Hyattsville jail, Sgt. Hull processed Pelt first, asking him his name, address, prior record, Social Security number. Cook and Smyers were sitting in chairs nearby, handcuffed to the chairs. Pelt began chatting with Cook. "He said, 'Hey, Skinny, this is going to be okay, we'll be out of here soon,'" according to Cook. "Then he started throwing kisses."
Around 1 a.m., Hull led Pelt into a holding cell, away from Cook's view. About a half hour later, when Hull led Smyers to a holding cell, Hull discovered Pelt hanging from a cell crossbar by his shoelaces. Hull then cut the laces, called for help, and administered cardiopulmonary respiration to Pelt, spokesman O'Neill said.
"I heard Andre [Smyers] screaming and carrying on," said Cook, who was still sitting in the waiting room. "I didn't know what was going on."
At about the same time, Cook says, she was calling a bail bonsdman so that Pelt and Smyers could be released from jail. They were being held on $1,000 bond, while she was released on personal bond.
Eventually, officials told Cook that Pelt had had an "accident," and had been taken to the hospital. Pelt wad pronounced dead at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale at 2:05 a.m.
Pelt graduated from Parkdale High School and until last year worked as a mover for a furniture store. He lived with his parents in a small, one-story attached house, and was known in his neighborhood as a man who didn't take things too seriously.