BY COLIN KRIEGER
A Columbus family is in mourning and rumors are swirling as a Columbus man has died after being discovered laying unconscious Saturday morning behind the Trotter Convention Center. Cantrell Clay, 32, of Columbus, was declared dead by Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant Monday afternoon after nearly 36 hours in critical care at the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. Authorities’ initial findings show that Clay likely fell down a friend’s stairway early Saturday morning, resulting in a head injury that led to his death. Friends and family of the deceased have publicly questioned the investigation, and are unsure whether Clay’s injuries were accidental – or the result of foul play.
Clay was a popular personality in and around Columbus, well-known for his time in the food service industry at restaurants such as Barnhill’s and Ryan’s. Clay could be seen walking the streets of the Friendly City day and night, and was a regular at late-night parties and clubs in the Golden Triangle. Friends have flooded social media with positive comments about him since his passing, but Clay also had a reputation for drinking heavily. It seems likely that alcohol played a role in his death.
Clay had reportedly been out drinking with friends on Friday night, allegedly at a party at the V.I.P. apartment complex near Lee Park. According to a close friend of the family, Clay got “a little out of hand” at the party and asked his friends to drive him home. Once in the car, he reportedly changed his mind and requested he be dropped off at a friend’s apartment behind the Trotter Convention Center, right down the road from the party.
The friends then drove Clay to the area of the home, dropping him off on Second Avenue North, just behind the Trotter overhead walkway next to The Elbow Room bar. A witness at the Elbow Room reportedly told police that he saw Clay get dropped off and walk back into the rear parking area shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday. This was the last time Clay was seen conscious.
Clay then reportedly walked towards the friend’s apartment at 423 Main St., tucked in the southeast corner of the parking area behind the Trotter. Sometime between getting dropped off and reaching the friend’s front door, Clay either called or texted the friend to let him know he was either on the way or outside. The data left behind on the phone from this contact is the primary evidence authorities used in determining when Clay ultimately met his demise. The unidentified friend told Columbus Police that he did not see Clay’s message until early the next morning. The friend told police he discovered Clay when he left his apartment in the morning, finding him laying on the concrete pad between his apartment’s stairway and his neighbor’s. Clay was barely breathing, and not moving. Authorities suspect Clay fell down the front deck of his friend’s apartment while waiting for entry. The stairs were between seven and nine feet off the ground, with a total of 11 steep wooden steps spanning the staircase. There also is the possibility that Clay was sitting on the adjacent handrail of the deck, which would have been a fall of over 11 feet onto hard concrete. The injuries to Clay’s body were reportedly localized to his head, which would be consistent with that kind of fall according to authorities. There are no surveillance cameras in the immediate area where Clay was found.
The friend called Clay’s family to tell them what was going on, and informed them that he was going to call 911. The family told him not to call for help, and that they would come and pick up their son. The family reportedly told police that they didn’t want Clay getting in any more trouble with police, as he was on probation for what sources said was a prior DUI offense. [It appears this is where Clay’s reputation for drinking may have played a role in his demise. He has, according to multiple sources and on more than one occasion, either passed out drunk or been discovered passed out. The family, or friends of the family, have brought him home and just laid him on the couch to “sleep it off” many times before. – CK]
Clay’s stepfather came and got him and brought him back to the family home in Northside Columbus. The family looked after Clay for nearly 12 hours, cleaning him up and washing his face, until determining that he must be more than hungover around 7 p.m. that evening. The family called E-911 and paramedics were called to the home. Clay was transported to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in critical condition, then later transferred to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo for further examination. Family members reported on Facebook that doctors at at BMH-GT told Cantrell’s mother Barbara that he “looked like he had been beaten.”
Word of the incident spread throughout the community like wildfire on Sunday, with rumors ranging from a body being found in a dumpster by the Trotter to several tales of a savage beating. Although Clay hung on to life until midday Monday, it was apparent from reports that he was likely brain-dead upon his initial arrival at Baptist Saturday night. Clay’s family had not made funeral arrangements as of press time Wednesday, but his mother Barbara did agree to speak with The Packet briefly on Tuesday.
“He was a good person, a smart person,” Barbara said of her son. “He didn’t bother nobody.”
The distressed mother said her late son was a great young man, and that he enjoyed life and enjoyed people. She said Cantrell had a large group of friends, and that he was always good to people.
“He’s my baby, my son. He treated people good, I’m gonna miss him dearly,” she said.
When asked about the incident, and the possibility that someone could have attacked her son and left him there, she said, “I don’t worry about those rumors – it doesn’t change anything. He’s gone.”
Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant told The Packet Wednesday that the trauma to Clay’s body was isolated. Sources said that this localized trauma (assumed to be to the head) appears consistent with the premise of a fall, and would contradict the suggestion that he was savagely beaten- as there were no other signs of a struggle, such as bruises, cuts, or contusions.
Friends and family of Cantrell Clay started a Facebook page called “R.I.P. Cantrell Clay” and have several events scheduled for this weekend to help raise money for his family in their time of need. Members of the social media page have praised Cantrell for his gentleness and kindness, but have also asked that anyone with any information about the incident come forward. Several posts make reference to rumors that Clay might have been beaten by a group of white attackers or may have been beaten by enemies of his that had attacked him in the past.
Columbus Police Captain Fred Shelton said Wednesday that the police are investigating every possible scenario in the incident. Police Investigator Tabertha Hardin has been assigned to the case, and Shelton said he hopes to have more information soon. Sources told The Packet that the family of the deceased is not completely satisfied with the determination that Cantrell died from a fall, and they have strong suspicions that foul play may have been involved.
[The second was the fact that local media outlets did not have much information on the incident until late Monday or early Tuesday. Contrary to postings on Facebook, there was no scanner traffic indicating a person or a body was found Saturday morning at the Trotter. Even the call to Clay’s parents house sounded like a routine medical call. It wasn’t until late Saturday night or early Sunday morning that police were fully aware foul play could have been involved. Even as of press time today, the initial consensus from local authorities still seems to be no crime had taken place, so no press releases should be expected from the police regarding the incident. The absence of information did, however, through no fault on the media outlets’ behalf, allow the rumor mill to run rampant. The Packet staff has been aware of Cantrell’s situation since Sunday afternoon, but we had been in touch with both authorities and some of his friends, and both had said it was likely an accident.
[The third factor might be the single biggest driving force behind most of the misinformation. Cantrell Clay was gay. A victim’s sexuality normally would not be worth mentioning, except that being a gay male in the black community in Columbus is not just difficult, it is occasionally just plain frightening. There have been several occasions where police have been called to assaults where young men who appeared to their assailants to be homosexuals had bottles thrown at them, were teased, or even beaten.There have been at least five such incidents that The Packet staff could recall in the last three years. I personally responded to a call where Cantrell had been hit by a passerby near Sim Scott Park on Northside last year. At that scene, Cantrell recalled another incident several weeks earlier when a passing car threw a bottle at him near the intersection of 13th and Main Street. Because Cantrell was gay, many friends assumed that he had been beaten and left for dead by bigots. That notion would normally be reasonable, except for the situation that night.
[Cantrell Clay was seen by at least three people walking towards the apartment (the Elbow Room witness and his friends in the car.) The timeline and location of where he was found are both consistent with an accident, as are his injuries, according to an autopsy performed by Coroner Greg Merchant. The most likely scenario is that he fell from the handrail and hit his head. I understand the frustration, confusion and suspicions of the skeptics. In some ways, it would normally be a more likely scenario that someone did beat Cantrell badly. In this particular situation, it truly does not appear so.
[Clay did, as his friends have said repeatedly since his passing, seem to be a gentle soul and a nice young man on the occasions I had to speak with him. If there is more to this story, I do hope it comes out soon, so his family can be at peace. – CK] 0