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Family, Activists Claim Racism Behind Controversial Death of Youth

January 7, 1987

ELLENVILLE, N.Y. (AP) _ This picturesque Catskill Mountain region was part of a dream for Maude and Jimmy Bruce, a place where the Georgia couple who once marched with Martin Luther King could find jobs, a fine house and a future for their children.

That dream was shattered on Dec. 13 when a state trooper told Mrs. Bruce that her 20-year-old son was dead.

Authorities say a scuffle developed after two white off-duty Middletown policemen moonlighting as security guards ejected Jimmy Lee Bruce Jr. and his friends from a movie theater in Wallkill for rowdiness. According to witnesses and the Bruces’ lawyer, one of the officers wrapped his arm around Jimmy’s neck and applied a chokehold, which cuts off blood to the brain and causes unconsciousness in seconds.

Less than an hour later, Jimmy was dead. The temporary death certificate lists the cause as asphyxiation due to compression of the neck, pending results of tests for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

Black leaders say the death resulted from a vicious abuse of force by the duty policemen.

″To put it in one word, it’s racism,″ says Bob Powsner, secretary of the Ellenville chapter of the NAACP, a branch headed by Mrs. Bruce. ″To these racist cops, a black man’s life has no value.″

On Sunday, about 200 demonstrators marched on City Hall in Middletown, crying ″Justice now 3/8″ and demanding that the officers be suspended. Another demonstration is scheduled for Jan. 14 in Ellenville.

After Sunday’s protest, Middletown Mayor Daniel Johnson temporarily suspended officers Harold Simpson and Gregory Warycka with pay, saying the situation was escalating and he didn’t want anyone hurt. The officers have not been charged and authorities have not said which of them restrained Jimmy.

The officers’ lawyer, John Bonacic, declined comment.

Hazel Dukes, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group is considering asking the U.S. Justice Department to get involved.

″We are again looking at two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal,″ she said, comparing the case to the recent death of a black man in Howard Beach who was hit by a car while fleeing a mob of whites. ″If those two white cops had gone to arrest two whites ... there would not have been a killing.″

Orange County District Attorney Frank D. Phillips II said people have ascribed ″racial innuendos″ to the incident,

″But based on the investigation so far, it’s not borne out,″ Phillips said in a telephone interview. ″I’m hesitant to attribute a racial overtone to it.″

Phillips said Bruce and his friends, who were attending a showing of Eddie Murphy’s ″The Golden Child,″ apparently presented some threat to the guards, even though the youths were unarmed.

″Two officers had to subdue him (Bruce) while several friends were jumping on and off the two officers,″ he said.

Sgt. John Penney, in charge of physical training at the State Police Academy in Albany, said the academy teaches police to use a carotid chokehold only when they ″have justification to use deadly physical force but don’t want to shoot somebody.″

A chokehold can cause death in as little as 15 seconds, said Dr. Michael Baden, director of a state forensic sciences consultation unit, who performed the autopsy.

″There must have been a better way to handle a kid who’s being noisy than to choke him to death,″ Mrs. Bruce said in an interview.

Jimmy ″was a lovely person,″ she said. ″He loved his family.″

Jimmy, the second of the Bruces’ four children, attended Adirondack Community College for a semester, then decided last May to take time off to earn money for school and a car.

Mrs. Bruce said she and her husband moved North in 1967, seeking a better life for their family. They both work in a local knife factory.

″I always wanted them to go to school, to get educated, to go to college, to make a decent living for themselves,″ Mrs. Bruce said of her children.

″I never figured anything like this would ever happen to Jimmy,″ she said softly.

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