How a sheriff's manhunt ended in tragedy for teenager (Part 1)

Clarence “CJ” Lake 3rd should be having the time of his life getting ready to graduate from Evans High School and begin college.

With a 3.7-grade-point average and a talent for math (his favorite subject), CJ, could have written his own ticket.

But CJ, who played football and ran track, will never live out those dreams because he died when he was only 18.

You may not realize it, but you’ve heard of CJ before when the mainstream news media covered his death in stories with headlines such as “West Orange car burglary subject found dead in lake”

The real story is much more complicated and tragic.

Cadillya Anthony, CJ’s mother, blames Orange County deputies for her son’s death.

“My understanding was that he was chased and whatever happened during that chase led to Clarence … being murdered,” Ms. Anthony said.

In a written response to questions, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman insisted that deputies did nothing wrong. “It is categorically untrue that deputies chased Clarence into the lake. He was being sought for the burglaries and in his fleeing he ran into the water,” the spokesman wrote.

CJ’s mother, relatives and other family friends don’t buy that explanation. They question the tactics and judgment of deputies during the tragic incident.

Orange County Sheriff’s Office Incident Report 17-056419 shows that at 1:59 a.m. on June 23, 2017 two deputies were dispatched to investigate a report of a car burglary at the Hawthorne Groves apartment complex on Good Homes Road, near Old Winter Garden Road.

The deputies spotted three males and called out to them. Two – one a juvenile and the other an 18-year-old – were quickly arrested. The remaining person -- later identified as CJ -- ran east across Good Homes Road.

Within minutes, reinforcements arrived. Now the deputies turned their full attention on CJ who made it to the other side of State Road 408.

The posse, according to the police report, included 10 deputies, three police dogs, and a Sheriff’s Office helicopter.

The deputies were after one 18-year-old suspected of car burglary. He was on foot. No reports of weapons or violence. They were pursuing as a suspect in burglary of a car and criminal mischief.

The manhunters formed a loose ring around nearby Lake Sherwood and the Lowe’s home improvement store at the corner of Good Homes Road and State Road 50. The police helicopter reported that one of its electronic detectors picked up a “heat signature” of a person hiding inside one of the storage sheds on display in the Lowe’s parking lot.

As two deputies with their police dogs converged on the storage sheds they reported CJ fled from cover, ran down an embankment to the woods at the edge of Lake Sherwood and ended up in the warm, copper-colored water.

Part of Lake Sherwood at Lowe's

The chopper tracked CJ in the water with its powerful spotlight. As he swam, the helicopter crew said CJ started to struggle in the water. The report said the helicopter crew dropped rescue devices to CJ, but that he ignored them and kept swimming.

Later in the report, a deputy wrote he “saw the suspect go under water and did not see him resurface.” CJ’s mother said her son was a strong swimmer.

Ms. Anthony does not believe the rescue efforts the deputies detailed in the report. There are no videos from the helicopter showing the efforts to track or rescue CJ. The Sheriff’s Office spokesman wrote that the video recording equipment on the chopper malfunctioned that night.

The report said deputies summoned boats from the Sheriff’s Office and Orange County Fire Rescue to search the lake. Twice before CJ’s body was found, detectives peppered Ms. Anthony, her relatives, and friends, with questions about her son and his whereabouts.

“They treated Clarence like he was a mass murderer like he committed a heinous crime,” Ms. Anthony said.

By the time CJ’s body was recovered from Lake Sherwood, his remains were so decomposed that he had to be cremated.

Five months later, the Orange-Osceola State Attorney dropped charges against the other 18-year-old arrested in the case. In court documents, the prosecutor wrote: “this case is not suitable for prosecution.”


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