Nightmare in the South End: The Death of Burrell Ramsey-White

The Boston Globe is re-investigating the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart. Apparently the Marky Mark song wasn’t the last word on the case, and after all these years, there is still new information to uncover.

I have no objection to this except for the way the Globe, and for that matter the entire Boston Media, treats the deaths of people who are not wealthy white women from the suburbs.

So here’s what I know about one such case with a lot of unanswered questions. I’ve been pestering journalists to look into this for years, but since it concerns the death of a Black man with a criminal record who lived in public housing, nobody seems to care. I’ve given up hope that the Globe or HBO or anybody with resources will ever bother to try to get to the bottom of this case. I’m presenting it here because Burrell Ramsey-White was a real person I knew, and while I have no hope he’ll ever get justice, I don’t want the official story of his death, riddled with holes and inconsistencies, to be the one we remember.

In 2012, a Boston Police Officer shot Burrell Ramsey-White dead. I had been Burrell’s ninth-grade English teacher in 1999, so naturally I didn’t take the police account of the shooting at face value. Anyway, that’s the story I would like to tell. But like a lot of white people in the era before ubiquitous cell phone video, I was easily manipulated by the police and their stenographers in the media. “What a terrible shame,” I thought when I learned of Burrell’s death. “I guess he got into some bad stuff after I knew him. That’s what happens when you pull a gun on a cop, I guess.”

About five years later, I started looking into Burrell’s death a little more closely. Now let me be clear—I’m a fiction writer, not a journalist. Any investigation I did on this case happened at a desk. But even with my limited journalistic ability, I’ve found that there are serious questions about this case that have never been answered or even asked in any local publications that I can find.

Here are the only uncontested facts we know: police pulled over a Cadillac that belonged to Jurrell Laronal in the South End after running the plate. The driver, Burrell Ramsey-White, complied with the officers’ request to produce his license. Burrell drove off before the police told him he could go. They chased him in their car, and when he left the car at the Southwest Corridor, officer Matthew Pieroway pursued him on foot. When Burrell reached the back door of Tent City, Pieroway shot him in the chest. Pieroway and Resil did not call for medical assistance, and Burrell died on the back steps of his home.

So what happened? Well, first, let’s look at the BPD propaganda campaign. First they say, via Wesley Lowery at the Globe in the article identifying Burrell as the shooting victim, that Burrell was “in a home on Canterbury Street in Roslindale on August 12 when four people were shot” but that he’s not a suspect. See? The police say. A bad dude. Probably deserved to die.

Then they reveal that Burrell had previously pled guilty to some drug charges as well as “assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.” Now, I have worked with more than one student with an ADW conviction because they kicked someone. The dangerous weapon, in both cases being “a shod foot.” But most people don’t know this. It’s all part of the BPD’s campaign to let us know Burrell deserved to die.

But the BPD made a mistake in their initial propaganda campaign. Unfortunately, it’s one that, as far as I can tell, no one in the media ever bothered to follow up on. They tell us that the car Burrell was driving belonged to Jurrell Laronal and had been pulled over two days earlier in Dorchester with Laronal at the wheel. We’ll come back to this detail. It’s hugely important to the story.

Some time passes, with the usual demands for transparency and justice from Burrell’s family and friends and stonewalling from the police. During this time, then-Governor Deval Patrick presents Matthew Pieroway with The Hanna Memorial award for bravery, which apparently they do if you are a police officer who shoots someone dead.

About a month after Pieroway was decorated by the Governor for killing Burrell, then-Suffolk County DA Dan Conley releases his report on the shooting. And Travis Andersen at the Globe writes an article, the upshot of which is that the traffic stop was justified because it was registered to a person, Jurrell Laronal, who had an active arrest warrant, and the shooting was justified because it happened the way the police said it did. Andersen fails, however, to look into any of the weird inconsistencies in Conley’s very pro-police report.

The first of which concerns Jurrell Laronal. According to Conley’s report, he had active warrants, which is why they pulled the car over, believing he was driving it. Had Andersen done a cursory search of his own paper’s archives, though, he would have found that Laronal was arrested two days before this incident.

Now, I don’t know a ton about police procedure, but I would assume that the police don’t just release you from custody if you have an active warrant. So: did the system really show Laronal’s warrant was still active two days after his arrest? If so, why? If not, why did they really pull the car over?

Of note here is that Laronal wasn’t just arrested two days before police pulled Burrell over; he was beaten severely. The police, via Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub, say he reached for an officer’s gun and disobeyed lawful commands to stop resisting. But given the number of videos we’ve all seen where cops yell “stop resisting!” at the suspect they’re savagely beating, I’m skeptical of this account. I did find some footage on the New England Cable News—all it shows is four or five cops on top of a guy because I guess that’s how many cops it takes to pull an unarmed man from a car.

It is interesting that Laronal had been convicted of participating in a beatdown of prison guards while incarcerated a few years earlier. I do not know if the cops knew this when they pulled him over. No one has ever investigated.

Which brings us back to Burrell, who, given the fact that he was driving Laronal’s car, we can assume knew of Laronal’s arrest and beating. (Was Laronal still in custody at this point, or did the cops release a man with active warrants? I can’t find evidence that anyone has ever asked this question.) The Conley report says that the cops believed Burrell was Laronal, and that the two armed officers who pulled Burrell over were so terrified for their safety that they didn’t bother to look at his license to find his true identity.

But the complaint in the civil suit filed by Burrell’s mother, Carla Sheffield, years later says that one officer, Joel Resil, actually did look at the license and knew the person they had pulled over wasn’t Laronal. But he didn’t tell Officer Matthew Pieroway. Only Resil knows why. I will say in my life, I have been afraid to tell volatile people information they didn’t want to hear, but I don’t know if Resil was afraid of his partner. Nor do I know if Burrell was afraid of Pieroway. All I know is that Burrell hit the gas and fled.

Something that Conley must have known but didn’t include in his report clearing Pieroway of wrongdoing but that did emerge in the civil suit complaint is that Pieroway and Resil were ordered not to pursue Burrell when he fled. But they did it anyway. I can’t find any evidence that anyone in the local media has ever asked Dan Conley why he omitted this information from his report.

Two more very suspicious things mentioned in Conley’s report that Travis Andersen fails to mention. One—though there are witnesses who saw the foot pursuit and heard Pieroway yelling and heard a single gunshot, there is not a single witness other than Pieroway who saw Burrell holding a gun. And even Pieroway’s account is weirdly suspicious—in the time it takes Burrell to turn around, Pieroway notices a bulge in his jacket which becomes a gun in his hand. The gun is examined for prints and DNA, and the result is that there is male DNA on the gun and therefore, according to Conley, Burrell “cannot be excluded” from the potential list of people who held the gun. Of course, if all the info they got is that a man held the gun, Pieroway can’t be excluded either. Nor, for that matter, can I. Or Deval Patrick. Or Dan Conley. Or you, if you’re AMAB and were alive in 2012.

Finally, Conley drops this bombshell at the end of his report: at the time of his death due to a gunshot wound to the chest fired by Officer Matthew Pieroway, Burrell had a bullet not from Pieroway’s gun in his small intestine. Conley does not say whether the medical examiner dated the wound, but my impression is that getting your small intestine perforated by a bullet is a really good way to go septic and die. So the bullet can’t have been in there for very long. Right?

But this fact, which certainly complicates the case, was not seen as significant enough by Travis Andersen at the Boston Globe to include in the article. Because of course the article was about answering questions and putting the case to bed, so acknowledging that the case is full of strange details doesn’t serve the BPD’s agenda of declaring the case closed.

I don’t expect that we’ll ever know about Burrell’s death. Only Officers Pieroway and Resil, his partner, know what was said to Burrell that made him decide his best choice was to flee the scene, and I don’t expect they’ll ever say.

Only Resil knows why he didn’t tell Pieroway that the person they’d pulled over wasn’t Jurell Laronal. Only Pieroway knows if Burrell really had a gun in his hand and if, furthermore, he actually aimed it at Pieroway. Laronal probably knows why Burrell was driving his car. But he, quite understandably, hasn’t talked about it.

There are other questions that probably could be answered by someone employed as a journalist, such as whether Jurrell Laronal was still in police custody when Burrell Ramsey-White was pulled over driving his car and whether he still had active warrants two days after being beaten and arrested by Boston Police. And such as how Burrell wound up with a bullet in his abdomen that wasn’t fired by a police-issue gun.

And such as why Matthew Pieroway served a 5-day suspension for a substantiated IAD complaint in 2019. I don’t know if this was related, but Pieroway was named in a 2019 civil suit as one of the officers who had executed a no-knock warrant on the wrong apartment in 2018 and held the adults and one minor child living in the apartment at gunpoint, face down and in handcuffs for 20 minutes.

I’m angry and frustrated at how willing people are to take the police and DA’s word on what happened, even when they contradict themselves. I’m stunned that the jury in the civil trial found Pieroway and Resil not liable for the death of a man who would be alive today if they’d followed orders. And at how people just don’t seem to care enough to ask even the most obvious questions about this suspicious shooting.

Finally, Burrell’s death is the one I bothered to spend a few hours looking into because I knew him. How many others like him were written off as bad guys who had it coming, even when the official story makes no sense?