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In Ronald Greene’s death, a mother’s defiant quest for truth

December 23, 2021 GMT
Mona Hardin holds the boxed ashes of her son, Ronald Greene, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Hardin is haunted by the body-camera images of her son being punched, stunned and dragged by Louisiana State Police. She holds tightly to her son’s cremated remains and says she won’t be able to put him to rest until she gets justice. After a more than two-year federal probe, still none of the officers involved has been charged. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Mona Hardin holds the boxed ashes of her son, Ronald Greene, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Hardin is haunted by the body-camera images of her son being punched, stunned and dragged by Louisiana State Police. She holds tightly to her son’s cremated remains and says she won’t be able to put him to rest until she gets justice. After a more than two-year federal probe, still none of the officers involved has been charged. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Mona Hardin holds the boxed ashes of her son, Ronald Greene, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Hardin is haunted by the body-camera images of her son being punched, stunned and dragged by Louisiana State Police. She holds tightly to her son’s cremated remains and says she won’t be able to put him to rest until she gets justice. After a more than two-year federal probe, still none of the officers involved has been charged. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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Mona Hardin holds the boxed ashes of her son, Ronald Greene, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Hardin is haunted by the body-camera images of her son being punched, stunned and dragged by Louisiana State Police. She holds tightly to her son’s cremated remains and says she won’t be able to put him to rest until she gets justice. After a more than two-year federal probe, still none of the officers involved has been charged. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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Mona Hardin holds the boxed ashes of her son, Ronald Greene, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Hardin is haunted by the body-camera images of her son being punched, stunned and dragged by Louisiana State Police. She holds tightly to her son’s cremated remains and says she won’t be able to put him to rest until she gets justice. After a more than two-year federal probe, still none of the officers involved has been charged. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Mona Hardin has cherished her son’s cremated remains since the day they arrived at her doorstep in a FedEx box. She pulls them into bed with her when she’s too bereft to get up and talks to her “Ronnie” every day to keep him apprised of her journey for justice.

Ronald Greene’s remains are a raw and constant reminder to his mother of the Black man’s fatal confrontation with the Louisiana State Police more than two years ago.

Over and over, Hardin sees her son’s lifeless body on a funeral home gurney, his face so battered she almost didn’t recognize him. She recalls her doubts about the troopers’ initial account that he died in a car crash at the end of a high-speed chase.

And she relives the horror of finally watching the long-withheld body-camera video of what really happened along a dark, rural road in 2019 — white troopers stunning, punching and dragging her son by his ankle shackles as he pleaded for mercy and wailed, “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!”

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“He died in such a ... horrific, nasty, evil way,” Hardin told The Associated Press in an interview near her Orlando-area home. “And I’m so mad when I think about it. They took joy in killing him.”

The police, she said, acted as if they had something to prove. “That they could just beat a man to death. Kill him, just let him suffer, see him spit up blood. ... And then, cover it up.”

With measured intensity, locked jaw and icy stare, the diminutive 70-year-old is on a mission and she won’t give Greene’s ashes a proper burial until she gets it done: Justice for a death that exposes what she calls “organized crime” by the state police and the “monster of racism that lays deep in Louisiana.”

Hardin recoils at the pattern of police misconduct that’s emerged since her quest began. Indeed, Greene is not the only Black motorist abused in recent years by Louisiana’s premier law enforcement agency. An Associated Press investigation identified at least a dozen cases over the past decade in which troopers or their bosses ignored or concealed evidence of beatings, deflected blame and impeded efforts to root out misconduct. And by the state police’s own count, 67% of troopers’ uses of force in recent years targeted Black people.

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Bringing attention to Greene’s case has become Hardin’s reason for being — a commitment she made to ensure his voice is heard. But it has often been a frustrating journey. More than two years into a federal civil rights investigation into Greene’s death, still none of the officers involved in his arrest has been criminally charged.

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Hardin has watched as a Minneapolis officer was convicted of murdering George Floyd, who died more than a year after her son. And she was in a Georgia courtroom as guilty verdicts were announced in the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery, wondering how much longer she must wait for her own day in court.

And while federal prosecutors appear poised to seek charges, they have left Hardin in the dark for months about their shifting timetable as their probe has expanded to look into whether state brass obstructed justice to protect troopers who abused Greene.

Along the way, Hardin says her repeated trips to Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge have been met with what she perceived as empty promises from officials, institutional wagon-circling and indifference.

Hardin has had to endure her son’s assailants staying on the job, unpunished for months, the then-head of the state police defending Greene’s deadly arrest as “awful but lawful” before abruptly retiring, and the body camera video staying hidden from the public for more than two years before the AP obtained and published it this spring.

All of it has deepened her family’s pain, she said, while making a mockery of the criminal justice system.

“I’ve been wandering around in a cloud of confusion just wondering: What does it take for the state of Louisiana to recognize the murder of a man?” Hardin told Louisiana state lawmakers in a hearing this month. “What does it take to get answers?”

‘TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT’

Ronald Greene died a man in transition. He recently had moved back to Louisiana after a troubled stint in Florida, was pursuing a new career driving trucks and dreaming of opening a rehabilitation center to help people fight addiction, a demon he knew all too well.

Friends and family remember him as energetic, generous and charming, with a wide grin that women found irresistible. The 49-year-old loved to dance, volunteered as a member of the Freemasons brotherhood and overcame life-threatening challenges such as mouth cancer.

When people would ask how he was doing, Greene would often respond with boundless optimism and a familiar retort: “We’re winning.”

But as often as Greene repeated those words, they weren’t always true.

He bounced back again and again from a decades-long battle with drugs and stints in jail for mostly minor crimes. He maintained an affable attitude those close to him recognized even during his violent death, calling out “I’m your brother!” as troopers stunned and beat him.

“He was resilient,” said Terrance Key, a childhood friend. “Even when he was down, he was smiling.”

Greene was born into an Army family at Fort Meade, Maryland, and lived in Colorado and California before moving to Bastrop, Louisiana, at 12, after Hardin divorced his father.

He was a good student, friends and family recalled, excelling at baseball and football and playing tuba in the school band. But he and his younger brother also struggled to adjust to Louisiana and the changed position in life that came with their mother’s job at Walmart.

“We went from having things to not having things,” Hardin said. “The people, the neighborhoods, it was a total, total difference from where we were in California.”

The first troubling incident came a couple years later when he and his brother were arrested for stealing from a vending machine. Hardin, despite her pleas for mercy, said a judge sent her boys to a juvenile detention facility in New Orleans.

Greene completed a GED while locked up and went on to attend Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he studied architectural drafting but never graduated, his family said. They believe he was first exposed to drugs there.

After leaving college, Greene settled in Florida, where Hardin had moved, got married and opened a barber shop in Orlando. But he continued to struggle with cocaine, was divorced in 2007 and the shop eventually closed.

“He would always get clean, like for a long time, then it would somehow come back in the picture,” Greene’s sister, Alana Wilson, said of his drug use.

During these years, Greene repeatedly landed in jail for drug and other nonviolent crimes that his family believes were largely to support his addiction. He served one year on a two-year prison sentence for grand theft and burglary of an unoccupied building. But court records also suggest he attracted extra attention from the police.

Twice Greene was pulled over on a bicycle. In 2005, Florida state police gave him a ticket for riding without lights after sunset. In 2010, he allegedly ran a stop sign. A report from sheriff’s deputies says Greene gave a false name, threw his bike, hitting one of them in the knee and ran. A deputy caught up with Greene and tackled him, getting hit by Greene’s elbow in the process. According to the report, Greene stopped resisting after two “knee strikes” and later explained to officers that he had been on a “three-day crack binge.”

By 2016, Greene had gone through incarceration, rehab programs, chemotherapy and surgery to reconstruct his teeth and palate after mouth cancer. He’d been released early from prison and wanted to make a change.

“My transition has been a tough one but I have made great accomplishments,” Greene wrote to a judge the next year, seeking to have his driver’s license restored.

Not long after that, Greene drove his cherished sports car back to Louisiana and reconnected with a teenage sweetheart, Joycelen Wade, who said he hadn’t fully kicked his addiction but was doing better, landing a job in construction, later renting his own apartment and making plans to get a commercial trucking license.

“The purpose of his life changed,” Key said. “Ron was just trying to figure it out.”

Friends said he lifted weights regularly, attended church and was trying to help others who were struggling.

Once when Greene gave $100 to a homeless man, Wade protested that it was more than he could afford. She recalled him replying, “I’ve been there.”

‘DOESN’T ADD UP’

Not long before midnight on May 10, 2019, Greene was driving near the University of Louisiana at Monroe when a trooper attempted to pull him over for a traffic violation. Greene, who an autopsy would show had cocaine in his system, sped away, leading troopers on a chase that topped speeds of 115 mph along rural highways south of the Arkansas border. It ended with troopers converging on Greene’s SUV, beating him, jolting him with stun guns and leaving him handcuffed and prone for several minutes.

One trooper, Kory York, could be seen on body-camera video putting his foot on Greene’s back to force him to stay down and then briefly dragging him facedown by his ankle shackles. Another, Chris Hollingsworth, struck Greene in the head several times with a flashlight, and was later captured on his squad car video boasting he “beat the ever-living f--- out of him.”

Hundreds of miles away, in central Florida, Hardin said she “felt in my soul something was wrong with Ronnie.”

Those fears were confirmed when her daughter called her early that morning in a panic, saying Greene had been in a crash and “didn’t make it.” Wilson said a state trooper told her by telephone that her brother “was in a car accident, hit a tree, went through the windshield and died on impact.”

“My legs went out from under me,” Hardin said.

Within hours, Hardin was exploring funeral arrangements even as she processed the troubling — and shifting — information from authorities. Loved ones arriving at the hospital in West Monroe became even more suspicious after seeing the deep bruises on Greene’s face and cuts on his head.

“It didn’t look like what they said,” Wade said.

Even the emergency room physician doubted the account of Greene’s death from the moment he arrived dead at the hospital, bruised and bloodied with two stun-gun prongs still protruding from his backside. “Does not add up,” Dr. Omokhuale Omokhodion wrote.

The crash claim became even less plausible to Greene’s family when they saw his vehicle, which had only minor damage. The airbags had not even deployed.

“Everything started to make sense,” Wilson said. “This man didn’t die from a car accident.”

‘I HAD TO SEE MY SON TAKE HIS LAST BREATH’

Hardin’s anguish would only deepen in the months that followed as she searched the internet, trying to connect the dots in the absence of information and an avalanche of excuses.

Hardin’s first ray of hope came when a civil rights law firm in Philadelphia agreed to take her case and filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit just before the first anniversary of Greene’s death.

She returned to Louisiana in October 2020 for a private family viewing of the body-camera video in Baton Rouge arranged by Gov. John Bel Edwards. Hardin said she was “in a trance” as she watched the footage of her son’s beating for the first time.

“I had to see my son take his last breath,” she said. “I felt it.”

Whatever happens with the Greene case, Hardin says she will be denied full justice. Hollingsworth, the trooper who struck Greene in the head with a flashlight, died in a single-vehicle crash last year hours after he learned he would be fired for his role in the arrest. He was still buried with full state police honors.

Hardin still has not fully grieved the loss of her son and draws strength from a sorority of other mothers from similar cases, including Arbery’s, who can relate to the days when her sadness prevents her from getting out of bed or even running errands.

“In the end, you just end up being part of a big nightmare,” she said. “But that was my commitment. I won’t fail him.”

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Bleiberg reported from Monroe, La. Video journalist Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.