John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

John Bior Deng (source for image: Gazette Online)

Recently in my local town of Iowa City, there was an altercation that led to a death.  The man who died was a Sudanese refugee (see Wikipedia article about Lost Boys of Sudan) which just makes his death all the more tragic.  Even when you move to an entirely new place, trauma from your past has a way of catching up with you.

 – – –

Shooting victim was refugee from Sudan by Lee Hermiston

Police said Thursday the man fatally shot by a Johnson County deputy last Friday was a Sudanese refugee. Investigators initially had difficulty finding family members of transient John Bior Deng, 26. But many people offered suggestions, leads and conducted their own research after police made a plea for help. Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said investigators learned after locating surviving family in Omaha that Deng was likely one of the “lost boys of Sudan,” a group of more 27,000 who were orphaned or displaced during the second Sudanese civil war. That war lasted from 1983 to 2002 and killed an estimated 2 million people.

[…] “That goes along with what little we did know about John Deng,” he said. Police found a Texas identification card on Deng. Kelsay said two surviving family members traveled to Iowa City on Wednesday to identify Deng’s body. He said they were not parents or siblings. Police said the family members told them that they last spoke with Deng in June. They were under the belief that Deng at some point had a job and a place to sleep, and they were unaware that he had been homeless, Kelsay said.

“They were distraught for a lot of reasons,” Kelsay said. “I think they genuinely would have helped if they had known.”

Transient by Peter Small

And how could you not be?

See full size imageWhen all around the settled world

lay burned to the ground

by the men on horseback with the guns.

You had to flee all that you knew:

mother, father, hut, playmates, herd of goats,

to join on foot

See full size imagewith the little boys lost

remnants along the salvaged road

carrying rags, hunger and memories

accompanied by snakes and death and soldiers

all the way to Ethiopia and beyond.

 * * *

The death of John Bior Deng was investigated and deemed justified (by rightly or wrongly dismissing the 2 or 3 contradictory eye witness accounts).  The scenario isn’t precisely clear because of these differing eye witness accounts and because of a generally confusing scenario that escalated quickly.  As I see it, the justification of the killing is highly suspect… by which I mean that there are too many unanswered questions to allow for an absolute conclusion.

 – – –

Deng killing was justified, report says by Lee Hermiston

Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler was justified in shooting and killing John Deng, according to an Iowa Attorney General’s report released by the Johnson County Attorney’s office on Friday.

However, at a news conference, at least a half dozen members of the public appeared to be largely dissatisfied with the report’s findings.
Watch KCRG video reporting the incident
Watch KCRG video interviews with friends and family at funeral
Watch KCRG video of Attorney General publicly stating the conclusion of the investigation
Watch KGAN CBS 2 reporting of incident

 * * *

 Survivors of the unspeakable,

See full size imagethe pieces of the dismembered village

scattered to Texas, Minnesota, Iowa

like fallen seeds awaiting some new harvest.

You here among us

continued along your trail

to salvage our remnants —

cans and bottles

each for a nickel.

 * * *

My Initial Analysis:

For some reason, the information about this case has been hard to find online, but the city has made all of it available on 2 disks which can be purchased for 15 dollars per disk.  Why do I have to pay 30 bucks (which isn’t cheap) for the investigation data that my tax money paid for?  Why not release all of the data (911 calls, on-car police video, crime scene photos, the unedited transcripts of eye witness reports including the contradictory ones, etc.) so that the public can decide for themselves?  It would be easy to do.  They could post it on the city website.

Also, all of this was made available to the media and yet I haven’t seen much of it being presented in the media.  Why?  Instead, I’ve mostly had to rely on secondary sources (i.e., newspaper articles).  I’m forced to trust that the authors of these secondary sources have seen and fully analyzed all of the data and objectively reported on it (which, considering the rampant bias in this case, is hard to determine).

So far, I’ve only been able to find the 911 calls and the official report.  If any further data or media is available online, please tell me about it.

To the best of my understanding, the following is the scenario according to all of the eye witness accounts.  My only overt bias is that I included all of the eye witness accounts instead of dismissing the ones that were inconvenient.  As an outside observer, I can’t determine the validity (or not) of any of the details of any of the accounts.  As Fox News says: “We Report, You Decide!”

John Bohnenkamp, a “respectable” older white man employed by the University of Iowa, was leaving a local bar (Hawkeye Hideaway) a little after 7 pm on Friday July 24th (it’s highly probable he was intoxicated and as far as I know he hasn’t denied such being the case) when he noticed John Deng, a homeless black man (oddly, Deng was referred to in the media as a “transient” even though he had lived in town for 2 years having even been employed in the past).  Deng was collecting recyclable bottles and cans, and had accidentally dropped some while crossing the street or the parking lot.  Bohnenkamp, instead of trying to help Deng pick up his recyclables, aggressively approaches Deng while yelling at him (when exactly he became openly confrontational towards Deng is unclear, but one account supposedly claims he was already acting confrontational even while some distance away).

It’s unclear the order of events, but Bohnenkamp at some point started beating on Deng and Deng at some point stabbed Bohnenkamp.  Either Bohnenkamp started punching first or Deng stabbed first.  The investigation, according to one article, concluded that Deng stabbed in self-defense after being attacked by Bohnenkamp (although I don’t think the official report used the term “self-defense” in describing Deng’s actions), but other articles seemed to want to paint the picture that Deng stabbed before being physically attacked or at least they were being unfairly hazy on the issue (the official report doesn’t offer many details other than a 911 caller mentioning someone having a knife before the shot).  What is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp started the fight and intentionally escalated it.  To add to the confusion, a crowd formed around the two.

Sometime during all of this, the plainclothes (wearing shorts and a t-shirt) Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler saw the altercation and tried to stop the fight but neither Bonenkamp nor Deng would back off.  Some eye witnesses claim that the deputy announced who he was and announced he had a gun, other eye witnesses claim he didn’t, and still other eye witnesses as far as I can tell made no claim either asserting or denying either of these other claims.  Also, some eye witnesses claimed Deng was still holding the knife and others claimed he wasn’t.

What is known is that both Bohnenkamp and Deng were focused on each other and there is no evidence at this time that either of them noticed or heard the deputy.   At some point, Deputy Stotler tried to step in between them or somehow get them to separate.  The Deputy claimed to see the knife still in Deng’s hand and so this is the justified reason for the Deputy having his gun pointed at Deng (the argument is that his pointing the gun at the poor black guy had nothing to do with racial or class prejudices).  Bohnenkamp had knocked Deng down when he was beating on him (supposedly after the Deputy announced his presence and had his gun drawn). Deputy Stotler told Deng to stay down and the he told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene (“Run! Get out of here”), but either they didn’t hear him or intentionally ignored his commands.  They were solely focused on each other and on continuing the fight.

In particular, it’s possible that Deng didn’t even notice Deputy Stotler (or recognize him as a Deputy) considering his limited comprehension of the English language (some bystanders claimed Deng spoke to the deputy in English, but even if this were true it wouldn’t prove Deng knew the man was a Deputy nor that he understood what the Deputy had said) along with being slightly intoxicated and defending himself against a severely aggressive man who wouldn’t back away.  Also, Deng was a man who had escaped a violent and traumatic past.  He was living alone and homeless in a foreign land.  Here he was being beaten up by a white man while surrounded by a screaming crowd of white people.  His mind surely was in a state of complete fear.  Even if he did notice the deputy with a gun, it was just another white guy threatening him.  He was in a fight for his life, and obviously he was correct.

As Deputy Stotler was warning Deng, the crowd was yelling for the deputy to shoot (one article stated the report said that Bohnenkamp himself had yelled at the Deputy to shoot).  The Deputy claimed he saw Deng tense as if he were going to stab again (which is specifically what certain eye witnesses disagree with) and so shot him somewhere in the mass of his body (abdomen or chest).  Deng died soon after.

If you prefer, I noticed an article on the Iowa City Press Citizen which offers MP3 format of the 911 audio from the shooting of John Deng:

The first audio file is a recording of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office contacting Iowa City Police, advising them that “Fifty-two eight” (Deputy Terry Stotler) is on the scene of a fight on Prentiss Street.

The next audio file is of two witnesses calling in to 911. Shots can be heard partway through the first call.

Two more witnesses call in. Shots can be heard almost immediately on the first call. The second call comes in after the shooting.

The last file is of Deputy Terry Stotler calling in the shooting to Iowa City Police.

The declaration of the killing’s justification was based on Deng wielding a knife which is probably the case but was never proven (I haven’t even seen how they determined it was Deng’s knife other than the Deputy claiming he was holding it at one point).  Besides Deng’s death by gun, the only fact that is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp was the initial and primary cause of the altercation.  However, Deng’s blood was tested for alcohol and yet Bohnenkamp was never tested (even though Bohnenkamp went directly to the hospital where it would’ve been easy to have drawn blood).  Bohnenkamp started a fight which is against the law and so it would’ve been legal to have arrested him.  In fact, not only would’ve it been legal but it would’ve been moral and just to have arrested him.

Is it a mere coincidence that a homeless black foreigner gets killed while the respectable white local guy gets to go home even though his actions led to someone’s death?  If Bohnenkamp or any other respectable looking white guy had been holding a knife, would Deputy Stotler have been so quick to shoot to kill?  Probably not.

Deputy Stotler was within his rights to shoot, but he didn’t have to.  Besides trying to intervene in some other manner, he didn’t have to go for a kill shot.  A gun has multiple bullets and shots can be taken very quickly.  He could’ve first shot at a non-fatal location of the body such as the arm or leg, but instead he chose to shoot at the center of Deng’s “mass”.  Couldn’t he have spared a bullet or two in trying to disable Deng before going for the kill shot?  The official explanation is that deputies are trained to shoot to stop which means shoot to kill no matter what the situation  Another question that came up is why don’t deputies carry non-lethal weapons which have proven to be extremely effective in most situations.  The report stated he wears (was wearing?) a fanny pack in which he keeps his gun and badge.  They make fanny packs of a large enough size to carry a non-lethal weapon, but for unstated reasons apparently “civil deputies” aren’t issued non-lethal weapons.  This line of questioning has never been answered.  Apparently, the only choice the deputy had was to ask them to stop fighting or shoot to kill.  Shouldn’t there be some other options?

In some countries (such as the UK), the police don’t carry guns.  I would assume that knife fights happen in these other countries.  How do they intervene with non-lethal force?  Obviously, lethal force isn’t the only answer.

Anyways, this justification is what goes for justice in our society.  Either this investigation was biased or simply bungled, but either way it was far from being satisfactory.  I assume that Deputy Stotler had the best of intentions in mind (and so, in that sense, his actions were justified), but some of his own admissions could be interpreted as demonstrating a bias in how he treated the two men differently.  The official report, of course, ignored any possibility of bias which implies a potential bias in the investigation itself.

Whatever is the case, we’ll never get to hear Deng’s side of the story.

 – – –

Official Investigation Report: Quotes and Comments

The  following is a more detailed response to what is specifically said in the report.  Just as a quick note, I’ll say the investigators do seem to have tried to be fair to an extent and much of the analysis is evenhanded.  I commend them in being somewhat open about the process… but, of course, I have some strong criticisms.

 John Bior Deng death investigation (official report)

As one would expect, these eleven reports are inconsistent in many details.  They are consistent, however, in all important respects.  None of them contradict Depuy Stotler’s account in any significant matter.

None dispute, and most specifically observed, that (1) Deng and Bohnenkamp were fighting, (2) Deng displayed a knife, (3) Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, (4) Deputy Stotler arrived, displayed his handgun and repeatedly identified himself as a deputy sheriff, (5) Stotler ordered the two to desist, (6) The two failed to obey Stotler and kept fighting, (7) Stotler attempted to intervene between the two, (8) Stotler ordered Deng to drop his knife, (9) Deng refused Stotler’s order.

One or more also verify, and none dispute, that (10) the three were within a few feet of one another, and (11) Deng was holding a knife and moving forward when Stotler shot him.

Although the investigators did consider the contradictory witness accounts, they ended up dismissing them entirely.  That aspect of the bias in the report was obvious, but I noticed what appears to be some other biases which are more subtle.  The report is slanted by what data is emphasized and in how it’s presented.

I’ll have to read the report more carefully, but this particular passage seems unclear in its conclusions.  It may be true that “None dispute, and most specifically observed”.  Even assuming this is correct, how many specifically observed and how similar or dissimilar were those observations (details are more important than generalized declarations).  Furthermore, weren’t the dismissed witness accounts disputing some of these observations?

Even more importantly, the last paragraph states “One or more also verify” which seems to imply that it was a minority of the witnesses who claimed that the three were close to each other and that Deng was holding a knife while move forward (towards Bohnenkamp?).

Beyond all of that, there is a further problem in the report with how Bohnenkamp is treated.  I’m glad they gave more info about his actions.  My criticism is that they mostly treat him like a central witness rather than as the instigator of a fight that led to the death of the person he attacked.  There are those who demand that Bohnenkamp be investigated, but there are also those who question why Deputy Stotler told him to flee a crime scene after the Deputy witnessed him beating up Deng. 

Continued from official report:

The fact that Deng was displaying a knife at the time he was shot is also evidenced by the audiotape of a 911 call made by one of the witnesses during the incident.  On this tape, the caller’s mention of a knife is heard seconds before the gunshot.

This supposed fact isn’t proven simply because someone mentions a knife.  There was a knife that was present.  That isn’t disputed.  The caller said, “He had a knife” before the shot.  But the caller doesn’t identify who had the knife or where it came from.  From this caller’s statement, nothing can be determined with absolute certainty.  What is stated in the report is just speculation (which is in disagreement with several of the witness accounts).  Even accepting that it’s a probable conjecture, it’s still different from a proven fact.  I keep wondering how they even know it was Deng’s knife (as far as conjectures go, maybe the knife was Bohnenkamp’s and Deng wrestled it from him… just conjecture of course).  I also wonder at what point can everyone agree they first saw Deng holding the knife (among the witnesses, there may be a majority but there isn’t a concensus that Deng was holding it when he was shot).

This is where audio from the scene would be helpful, but I don’t know if the cameras on the police cars also pick up audio.  I’d like to hear what the police said and asked of the witnesses.  For instance, how do we know one or more other officers didn’t ask some leading questions or make statements that would bias what the witnesses wrote down?

The problem is that the facts are limited and the accounts are contradictory which forces speculation.  On the Iowa City Press Citizen website, commenters who were defending the shooting kept complaining about the speculative questions of critics of the shooting.  However, even the investigators have no choice other than to speculate because without speculation they couldn’t absolutely conclude it was justified.  One way or another, the investigators are going to twist the facts and slant the accounts in order to make a case for justification.  They’re the authorities and so of course they’re going to try to defend the actions of the deputy.

Here is some evidence that the results of the investigation were possibly a foregone conclusion:

KGAN CBS 2 article

After the shooting, Deputy Stotler was put on paid administrative leave while DCI and Iowa City Police investigated the situation. Johnson County Sheriffs Department says he returned to work several weeks ago though, before the investigation report was finished and submitted to the Iowa Attorney Generals Office.

“We understood the situation. We didn’t have all the facts but we felt it was appropriate to bring Deputy Stotler back to work,” says Sheriff Pulkrabek.

CBS 2 asked Sheriff Pulkrabek twice why Deputy Stotler was able to return to work before the report was finished. Both times he simply said the decision was up to him and he believed Deputy Stotler did everything right the night the homeless man was shot.

This is what I’d expect.  If you’re in a position of authority, you’ll tend to believe the opinion of someone else who is in a position of authority.  It’s human nature to defend those you feel identified with.  The question is whether it’s morally just considering that the investigation was ongoing.

There is a further interesting comment from the article:

“Law enforcement is trained to stop the threat. Stop the threat is to shoot at the center mass that’s how we train, says Pulkrabek. He continued saying, when aiming for the torso there is always a chance the shot will kill. However, aiming anywhere else or firing warning shots is too dangerous to any bystanders.

This is a rational for a general statement, but I would prefer to know the factors of Deputy Stotler’s decision in this specific situation.  So, aiming anywhere besides Deng’s mass would potentially be dangerous to bystanders.  That is reasonable considering the purpose of shooting Deng was to protect the other people nearby (Bohnenkamp in particular).  However, I haven’t seen it stated that any bystanders were behind Deng from where Deputy Stotler was standing.  If such were the case, then it’s a point that should be clarified.

The following is a key section of the official report:

Bohnenkamp struck Deng on the side of the head with his fist, knocking Deng to the ground.  Deputy Stotler stepped between Bohnenkamp and Deng, pointed his handgun at Deng and again ordered Bohnenkamp to leave.  Bohnenkamp did not leave.

Deputy Stotler admits that he told the assailant to flee the scene of the crime directly after Bohnenkamp had punched Deng so hard as to knock him to the ground.  Why would a Deputy tell an assailant to flee the scene of the crime?  Furthermore, why does he point the gun at Deng when it’s Bohnenkamp who is acting directly aggressive in that moment?

I did appreciate that they gave Deng’s background as I think it’s important that he isn’t dehumanized simply for being homeless.

John Deng’s license indicates a birthday of January 1, 1983, but in all likelihood, he did not know his actual birth date.  He is one of a group of South Sudanese Dinka tribesman known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” who suffered extraordinary mortality and hardship in their odyssey to America, which they began as child orphan victims of tribal and religious genocide during the 1980s.  He entered the United States in 2001 under refugee status, initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to compatriots in Omaha, Deng had reduced contact with them in recent years.  He had numerous alcohol-related contacts with Iowa City law enforcement beginning in June, 2007.  At the time of his death he was residing in a transient camp near the old Iowa City animal shelter at Kirkwood and Clinton Streets.

  The next paragraph in the report bothers me:

A person is justified in use of deadly force to defend against the use of deadly force against himself or another.  A knife, when used as a weapon to stab another person, creating a sustantial risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or protracted impairment of bodily member or organ, is deadly force.

Yes, this is true.  Then again, beating someone so hard that you knock them to the pavement is also deadly force as defined here.

Maybe Deng was going to stab Bohnenkamp again, but maybe Bohnenkamp was going to beat on Deng some more.  Did Deputy Stotler happen to notice whether Bohnenkamp’s fist was clenching?  I doubt it.

Anyways, why did Deputy Stotler shoot at Deng to protect Bohnenkamp who started the fight and wanted to continue it?  If Bohnenkamp wasn’t worried about being stabbed, then why was Deputy Stotler?  Going by the witness accounts, it seems Bohnenkamp had the advantage as he was beating up Deng despite the knife.

Plus, it’s important to note that it isn’t illegal (as far as I know) to defend oneself (with or without a weapon) when being physically attacked.  It wasn’t illegal for Deng to threaten to stab or even to stab someone who was physically attacking him (and you most definitely can kill someone simply by beating on them enough).  In Iowa, it’s legal to carry a pocket knife and the report didn’t make any claims of it being an illegal size.  The only thing that Deng did that was illegal was to not obey the Deputy, but Bohnenkamp wasn’t obeying the Deputy either.

One other detail from the report brings questions to my mind.

When Deng was approximately five feet away from Bohnenkamp, Stotler saw Deng “tensing up, getting ready to stick him again.”  At that point, Deputy Stotler fired one round at Deng.

So, Bohnenkamp was some distance away.  Taking into account Deng being intoxicated and just having been beat to the ground, he wasn’t likely to cover that distance very quickly.  Bohnenkamp had plenty of opportunity to remove himself from danger if he so desired.  Who was Deputy Stotler trying protect and why?

 – – –


(1) I think the alternative witness accounts should be considered more seriously.

(2) Even dismissing the alternative witness accounts, I think Deputy Stotler’s actions should be analyzed more carefully for potential bias.

(3) Even if Deputy Stotler is given the benefit of the doubt, Bohnenkamp’s actions are unforgivable and he should be investigated (along with an investigation of why his blood alcohol level was never tested).

(4) Whatever the judgments made of the individuals involved, it’s sad and the case should be studied to see if there are ways to prevent this in the future.

 – – –

Further comments on Prejudice and Profiling:

I wrote some extensive comments and so I posted it separately.

John Bior Deng: Racism, Classism

 – – –

Newspaper Articles:

Here are some various articles about the Deng case.  I quote extensively from them to present some of the questions, criticism, and alternative views.  My purpose is to show that many people share my concerns and there are good reasons for those concerns.

Shooting justified, AG’s office concludes by Lee Hermiston

Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller, complied the final report, which is based on investigation completed by the Iowa City Police Department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Attorney General’s office. Thomas said there were essentially 16 people encompassed in the investigation – Deng, Bohnenkamp and his wife, nine witnesses interviewed at the scene and three people who were later subpoenaed after comments they made about the shooting were published in an area media outlet.

The statements of those three men, which were contradictory to statements made by the other nine witnesses, are largely discredited in Miller’s report.The men reported Deng did not have a knife and Stotler did not identify himself as a deputy.


Homeless man did not threaten deputy, 2 witnesses say by Adam Belz

 Two men who watched a Johnson County deputy shoot a homeless man to death Friday night tell a story that’s sharply different from the account police have so far provided.

The 26-year-old homeless man was not wielding a knife and did not lunge at the deputy before the deputy fired, said Brock Brones and Mike Tibbetts, both of Iowa City.

“There was no knife, there was no lunging,” Tibbetts said. “I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.”

Brones, 22, and Tibbetts, 40, who both work for a telecommunications company in Iowa City, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to Old Capitol Brew Works to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.

A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso. The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man — whose side was covered in blood — was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

“I don’t give a f—,” the homeless man responded.

The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down. Again, the homeless man said he didn’t care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.

In fact, Brones said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.

“It wasn’t aggressive,” Brones said. “He was just drunk.” 


Our View – Justifying the shooting raises more questions

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers. — Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1911).

[…]But the report raised a number of new questions when it stated that, after Stotler had arrived on the scene and had his gun pointed at Deng, Bohnenkamp allegedly refused to follow Stotler’s command to flee. Instead, the report states, Bohnenkamp allegedly punched Deng in the head so hard that the man fell down. Nor did Bohnenkamp, according to the report, follow Stotler’s repeated orders to flee even after Deng stood up and eventually made what Stotler considered a threatening move.

Because Bohnenkamp has offered no comment on the incident — and because Deng can’t comment — we still don’t know what all was said between the two men. The report states that Bohnenkamp initiated the confrontation when he yelled at Deng for dropping some bottles, but we don’t know why the confrontation seemed to escalate so quickly or why Bohnenkamp didn’t flee when given a chance.

Nor do we know how much (if any) Bohnenkamp had been drinking before the incident. Although Bohnenkamp had just come out of a bar, investigators did not measure the 63-year-old’s blood-alcohol content — despite Bohnenkamp having been taken to the hospital where a blood sample presumably could have been procured easily.


Questions still remain in Deng death by Michael Dale-Stein

Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them.

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was involved for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense
or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.


Deng and race relations by Cliff Missen

This privilege was apparent at Friday’s news conference, particularly in the comfort with which members of the all-white panel were able to justify the actions of the white belligerent in the case. John Bohnenkamp, a white 63-year-old facilities worker at the University of Iowa, had, according to most witnesses, felt obliged to harass and physically assault Deng, a black man, because Deng had spilled bottles he had collected for recycling. Not once during the proceedings did our white leaders question this act.

So this is the kind of community we are building: One in which 60-year-old white guys, upon leaving a bar, are deputized to monitor inebriated young black guys and make sure — using physical force if necessary — they clean up their litter?

From all the accounts we have, it appears that the white man was determined to cause a ruckus — despite his wife screaming at him to leave. The white man physically assaulted the black man before being stabbed with a pocket knife. The white man disobeyed an officer’s instructions several times, continuing to attack the black man.

Yet after the shooting the white man was not arrested. He did not have his blood alcohol tested. His role in causing the tragic event was not investigated.

Switching positions

The report states that the white officer displayed his badge, identified himself as a deputy and drew his gun and pointed it at the black man. He ordered the two men to move away from each other. The white man then hauled off and slugged the black man in the head hard enough to send him sprawling onto the ground. The white officer kept his gun pointed at the black man and then coached the white man to run away.

Imagine yourself in Deng’s shoes at this moment. You’re a young, intoxicated Sudanese refugee with middling English skills. You’ve been physically assaulted by an enraged old white man. You’re trying to defend yourself. Another white man shows up in street clothes and points a gun at you. The first white man delivers a powerful punch to your head that sends you flying off of your feet. The white guy with the gun is still pointing it at you and telling the other guy to run away.

Now let’s stop the camera for a moment and switch positions. If the white police officer had identified himself, ordered the combatants to part and then watched a black man slam a white man in the head, I’m fairly confident that the same group of white community leaders would have stood before us on Friday and assured us that the white officer was justified in shooting the black man.

But in real life, the white officer did not point the gun at the white man after witnessing the blow to the black man’s head. He did not try to arrest him. He did not demand that he lie on the ground. He did not do or say anything to assure the black man that he was not in greater danger.

Bohnenkamp, who is probably more responsible for the tragedy than anyone else, is given a pass. It’s the white man’s privilege. The white police, who did not follow up on the case, are given a pass. The white county attorney, who said she sees nothing wrong with the lack of an investigation so far, is given a pass.

Deng, who probably died a frightened man who thought he was defending himself against a raging drunk, is buried.


The ongoing controversy of John Deng by DI Editorial Staff

Before the incident took place, Bohnenkamp and his wife were inside the Hawkeye Hideaway, a tavern on Prentiss Street. At the time they exited the bar, Deng was crossing the street carrying bags of bottles, one of which spilled its contents. Bohnenkamp then confronted Deng, ordering the Sudanese man to pick up the bottles. Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them. 

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was primarily involved — and somewhat responsible — for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.

 – – –

Did authorities conduct a complete investigation? 

No.It seems John Bohnenkamp was partially responsibly for John Deng’s death and should be charged for being involved in the altercation.

 33% (18)

No. They should have checked Bohnenkamp’s blood-alcohol concentration.

 20% (11)

Yes. They used what resources were available to them.

 13% (7)

Yes. It’s over and done with.

  35% (19)


In whose interest, safety?  by Vershawn Ashanti Young

First, everyone knows that Stotler has been absolved of any misjudgment, mishandling or wrongdoing in his shooting of Deng. But any citizen who can read should be alarmed by his own account of the events.

In the report given to the public, Stotler says he arrived at the scene where John Bohnenkamp had instigated an altercation with Deng. Stotler writes that he immediately told Bohnenkamp to “run, get out of here,” without trying to find out what had taken place beforehand.

Bohnenkamp did not leave the scene but instead became emboldened and hit Deng so hard that Deng fell to the ground. Instead of apprehending Bohnenkamp, Stotler said he again told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene. Bohnenkamp refused.

Deng begins to get up and perhaps stumbles or perhaps makes a move toward Bohnenkamp — no two statements agree on which — and the officer shoots him because Deng refuses to drop a small knife!

I asked the officials at the meeting if Deng had been a pregnant woman, would Stotler had allowed Bohnenkamp to hit her and knock her to the ground and then encourage Bohnenkamp to leave the crime scene.

I was not exactly posing a hypothetical scenario as much as I wanted to take attention off Stotler/Deng and ask about proper protocols. What should an officer do when a person clearly assaults someone in the officer’s face? Encourage the offender to run or handcuff him?

It’s a huge problem that Stotler by his very own admission repeatedly encouraged the only assailant he witnessed commit a crime to leave the crime scene. And, it’s an even bigger problem that Stotler shoots the victim of battery because he maybe made a threatening move, maybe made a move in self-defense.

I ask you, reader, if you were involved in an altercation that you didn’t start, and the police arrive and allow the perpetrator to continue not only to berate you but beat you, knocking you to the ground, would you drop your knife?


Citizens for social justice by Vershawn Ashanti Young

In May, in a conversation with Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson, I predicted that a black man would be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances. I also said that the citizens of Iowa City would probably be insufficiently enraged.

I was right about the first prediction. According to local media reports, John Bior Deng, a 26-year-old black man, was killed Friday by Terry Stotler, a plainclothes civil deputy for the Johnson County Sheriff’s department. And the circumstances are unclear: There are conflicting reports from the officer and some eyewitnesses. The officer says the man was threatening another civilian with a knife. Two people who said they witnessed the event told another local media outlet that there was no weapon and that the officer shot him “in cold blood.”

I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction. Concerned citizens of Iowa City should expect a full disclosure of the details about the actions that lead to Deng’s death, about the investigation and about what, if any, actions the police department, city and state will take.

Each citizen’s concern should stem from both personal and community interest. We respect our police, depend on their sound judgment for our personal safety and well-being, as well as promoting a safe environment in our city.

We also expect that the police will protect all people — middle-class ones and homeless ones alike — and are well-trained to handle complicated circumstances that seek to sustain people’s lives. We should expect police to protect their own lives as well as any and all those involved in any activities they’re investigating.

This case, as reported, has big and serious questions. One is: Why is that 26-year-old homeless man dead? We don’t know all the facts yet. But we should certainly want to, especially given the contradictory reports.

One of my own concerns is about the way Deng is being represented as a trouble-maker — a criminal, a nuisance to our town — as if that somehow justifies his killing and alleviates others involved from responsibility. Homeless or not, unpleasant or not, drunk or not, this man, like everyone else in the city, had rights. Were those rights protected, respected?

Because the summer breeds more trouble than winter, just as night is scarier than day, and because of the unfair way I perceive some media and some city residents represent black men, I raised the prediction with Charis-Carlson. There is a tendency, I think, to associate what some say is an increasing crime problem with blacks — blacks that many say are ruining Iowa City.

Perhaps some of this true. I’m uncertain about that. But what I know for sure is that no group of people should be vilified as a group. No group of people should be made to feel as if they can’t live in a town or that they somehow have less rights or concern than other citizens.

This kind of belief, when it’s shared and spoken, leads to ambivalence regarding the lives of the group. We don’t care as much about them. But we should. When we don’t, it contributes to a disregard for them. And that disregard is represented in how we much concern we show in cases like the dead homeless man’s.

 * * *

And we seemed so green and settled here,

could you find a life, a wife?

But kind strangers do not suffice

when inside howls a whirlwind

as loud as burning houses.

And our own quiet houses

which you pass by on your daily sojourn

are none of them as settled as they seem.

 * * *

John Bior Deng – Friend, Family, Human Being:

I was glad to see a few articles that describe who John Deng was as a person.

Two views of John Dengby Diane Finnerty

Iowa City resident John Bior Deng, 26, died of injuries from a single gunshot wound on July 24. Deng was well-loved by his Iowa City friends and was described as a kind, generous man who would always say “God bless you” as he passed you on the street.

Deng was originally from the Sudan and came to the U.S. as a refugee who overcame many horrendous struggles, including having survived brutal experiences in his home country where his people were ravished by a civil war between 1983 and 2002.

Deng was only 26 when all of the struggles of his life brought him to Prentiss Street the evening on July 24, where he was killed by a white police officer after getting in a fight with a white man who yelled at him for breaking bottles on the street. Friends who knew Deng say that the account of him “throwing bottles” onto the street would be unlikely, given that the bottles were Deng’s income.

Friends are very glad that the man whom Deng stabbed, John Bohnenkamp, is still alive, and they are very confused at what might have happened to enrage the person they otherwise knew as gentle and kind to stab another person. It is yet to be determined what the other Iowa City resident said to Deng and how it was said, but some eyewitness accounts tell a different story than, as yet to date, has been reported in the newspaper.

The Iowa City Sudanese community mourns the loss of their young brother, as well as the loss of their community’s nascent sense of safety in their new homeland far from the brutal violence they experienced in Sudan. 

 * * *

We heard later you found some peace

with the players of the drums whose hands,

beat with the time of the heart,

with the voices of a father, a mother and cousins.

“I so happy,” you said.

 * * *

He wasn’t just some homeless transient passing through.  He had lived in Iowa City for a few years and even had been employed for part of that time.  He was just a guy with a troubled past that finally caught up with him.  He was an alcoholic which is a common way to deal with trauma.

Even so, he was just a person like the rest of us… just trying to get by in life.  But his life wasn’t simply a thing of misery.  He had friends and family.  And he apparently had some very happy moments here in Iowa City.  I liked the description of him involved in the drum circle.  I’ve spent much time in the ped mall and I’m very familiar with that drum circle.  As I live and work downtown, I’m sure I had seen Deng around in the past.

Some note different side of John Deng by Abe Tekippe

Canganelli, who said she was not defending any of Deng’s alleged actions, acknowledged that while “there were a lot of issues he was dealing with,” the person Shelter House staff was familiar with was “quite personable,” “quiet,” and “even-tempered.”

Others in the community who had encountered Deng agreed.

“He didn’t have a lot of English under his belt,” said Cliff Missen, the coordinator of Yahoo Drummers, a group that plays on the Pedestrian Mall on Monday nights. “He had a good sense of rhythm, though; I know that much.”

In the weeks prior to his death, Deng had joined the drummers downtown, said Missen, who is also an associate director of the UI School of Library and Information Science.

He said he didn’t even know Deng’s name prior to the shooting, because they spent most of their time drumming, not talking.

“We were looking forward to seeing him on Monday,” Missen said.

Just before Missen went to the Pedestrian Mall on Monday, he found out Deng was the man who had been shot over the weekend, prompting the group of drummers to play a slow, mournful song in his honor.

Though he had only met Deng a few weeks before his death and he admitted he didn’t know him very well, Missen said his memories of the 26-year-old have resonated.

“My last vision of him was standing behind the drums [July 20],” he said. “He just had this grin from ear to ear. He said in his broken English, ‘This is happy, this is so happy.’ It gives us a little comfort that he had those moments of joy.”

 – – –

For various reasons besides his death, thinking about Deng saddens me.  I assume he probably lost family in Sudan and certainly lost his home, and so I was surpised to learn he did have some extended family members also in the US.  However, this saddens me as well.  It seems he wasn’t in close contact with them.  His family didn’t even know he was having troubles.  I suppose Deng felt ashamed.  He was dealing with problems that were just too large.

In Memory of John Deng by Gark

His uncle Peter from Houston, Texas related to the overflowing crowd that while Deng was considered by many to be “homeless”, in the Sudanese community, if you have family, you have a home. He was saddened that Deng did not let others know what his situation was. Others explained that in Sudan, many members of the family would share their plates, their huts, and so on. His cousin from Michigan described their childhood in the Sudan and how all of them had come to the United States for the freedom they could not have in their war torn country. His cousin from Nebraska encouraged anyone who may have witnessed his death to step forward and help them to understand the killing of a young man they and many others knew to be peace loving.

A cook at the Salvation Army described her conversations with Deng as uplifting and that he was very sensitive to offending her, offering “five minute apologies” if he suspected he said anything that might have made her uncomfortable. Another woman explained how he would bring her a chicken sandwich and cherry cola when he’d see her in the Ped Mall. Another told of how he helped to deliver chairs from the UI Surplus with a smile.

Many reflected that the newspaper accounts of the events leading to Deng’s death made him a person they did not recognize and wanted people to know the Deng they remembered. 

 * * *

But we have guns here too, and knives

and angry words and nighttime and confusion.

And the bullet you had fled for so long

found you here in this green, quiet place

(we may never know all the what or why).

 * * *

Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing's Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins' drum circle on occasion. Deng was shot and killed by a Johnson County sheriff's deputy outside an Iowa City bar July 24. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing’s Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins’ drum circle on occasion.  (Source for image: Gazette Online

Lost Boys – Related Issues of Deng’s Past:

John Deng’s death brings up many issues.  There are the basic issues of poverty, homelessness, class, and race.  But there is the issue of immigration and refugees.  In particular, refugees such as the Lost Boys of Sudan pose a problem for this country, but also for the world at large.  It brings up issues of morality and there is no simple resolution.  The people who need the most help are those who for that very reason are the hardest to help.

Deng having survived the Sudanese genocide was no small feat.  He had the opportunity to start a new life, but trauma has a way of haunting a person and one never forgets it (technically known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Many would claim that the problems of refugees from other countries aren’t our problems and we shouldn’t be allowing them into our country.  This is not only cold-hearted, but it’s also a fatalistic view of human nature.  Many Lost Boys have become productive citizens, but many have had continued problems adjusting.

On top of the trauma itself, there is the stress and challenge of adapting to an entirely different culture and way of life.  For example, I think I saw an article report that Deng had missing teeth which would be common for the Lost Boys because the removal of teeth was part of their tribal initiations, but in America missing teeth have a very negative connotation.  These young orphans sometimes lacked education (or lacked the proof of their education) and there difficulties most definitely didn’t end with coming to America.  Basically, they had everything going against them.  They stuck close together because they all shared a history of loss.

The question is how did Deng end up here in Iowa City.  There is a Sudanese population here, but Deng didn’t begin his new life in Iowa (a KCRG article — Family of Homeless Iowa City Man Shot by Deputy Grieve and Ask for Answers— did mention he had some family in Iowa and one family member (Tiir): “Deng’s death isn’t the first family death they’ve had involving law enforcement. He said another cousin died in a Des Moines jail, but didn’t elaborate.”).  According to the official report, he was “initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.”  This fact is eery in that, as reported in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, another Lost Boy recently stabbed someone in Fort Worth.  Fortunately, no one died in that case.

Stabbing suspect is ‘Lost Boys’ refugee by Elizabeth Zavala

FORT WORTH — A man shot by police Monday after they said he repeatedly stabbed a UPS driver on her delivery route was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” refugees who came to Fort Worth this decade, a minister said Tuesday.

Police identified the suspect as James Panchol, 32. Panchol was in critical condition Tuesday and was scheduled for surgery at John Peter Smith Hospital, said Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman.

A hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday that she had no information on the man, but Gatjang Deng, a friend of Panchol’s, said he was in critical condition with gunshot wounds to his neck, left arm and chest.

Wichieng Wetnyangran, associate pastor of African Immigrant Ministries at Peace Lutheran Church in Hurst, said Panchol was part of the group of about 40 Lost Boys who came to Tarrant County in 2001. More than 4 million refugees came to the United States to escape years of civil war and famine in their country.

“It’s absolutely a shock,” Wetnyangran said of reports that Panchol is a suspect in the stabbing. “That was a part of the life they ran away from. They were hoping their lives would change.”

Wetnyangran, who had a similar role at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth when the refugees arrived, recalls that Panchol had to undergo treatment for mental illness but does not remember the specifics.

Deng, also a Sudanese refugee, said Panchol was prescribed medication a few years ago for a mental condition but was unsure whether Panchol was still taking it.

According to Texas Department of Public Safety records, Panchol pleaded guilty in Tarrant County in 2002 to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

During Monday’s incident, officers were called about 12:30 p.m. to a reported stabbing at the Bent Tree apartments on Randall Way in west Fort Worth. Witnesses told police that the man approached the UPS driver and repeatedly stabbed her in the back, according to reports.

The driver apparently broke free and ran, police and witnesses said. The man was chasing the woman when police arrived. He was ordered twice by officers to drop the knife and refused each time, police said. When one of the officers fired a Taser at the man, he charged her, police said, and the other officer shot the suspect with his weapon.

“They told me the Taser did work, but the suspect pulled the probes out of his body,” Criado said. The officer who deployed the Taser was treated for minor injuries and is on paid administrative leave.

The UPS driver, whose name has not been released, is 50. She was treated for stab wounds Monday at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, was listed in good condition and was expected to be released Monday night, Criado said.

The suspect and the driver did not know each other, he said.

 – – –

I was doing some web research on the Lost Boys of Sudan.  There are plenty of success stories.  Some went onto college or became active in helping their fellow Sudanese (in the US and in Sudan).  What I was struck by is there desire to accomplish their goals on their own and they supposedly haven’t accepted much government assistance (although some church communities offered help when they first arrived).  One thing that can be said about these Lost Boys is that they are survivors and they can take care of themselves (which, however, has obvious downsides as some problems can’t be solved by one self).

A New Life for a ‘Lost Boy’ of Sudan (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Finally Find a Home (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Reunion (NPR)

Revisiting Sudan’s Haunted ‘Lost Boys’ (NPR)

Lost in America (

Are the Lost Boys still lost? (Seattle Weekly)

Stress issues still plague ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan (

Sudanese “Lost Boys” in the United States:Adjustment after Six Months (BRYCS)

The Lost Boys of Sudan: Ambiguous Loss, Search forFamily, and Reestablishing RelationshipsWith Family Members (Family Relations Journal)

Resettling the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ in the United States: BU medical researchers find family, community engagement may mediate traumatic reaction (Science Blog)

The “Lost Boys of Sudan”: Functional and Behavioral Health of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Resettled in the United States (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine)

It’s a sad fact that there are a number of examples of Lost Boys who have lived troubled lives and in some cases died violently.  For those like Deng, life didn’t work out so well.  Even for those who are successful, the trauma of their past (and the still occurring violence in Sudan) isn’t easily forgotten.

This is extremely sad because it’s unnecessary.  Idealistically speaking, violence is unnecessary as a general rule, but that isn’t what I mean.  There was an attitude after the Nazi death camps of WWII.  Many people thought we had fought the good fight and we had won.  Never again, was the collective declaration.  Yet, genocides keep happening and some of them have been far worse than anything experienced by the Jewish community.

Between imperialistic colonizing and the World Wars, 20th century Africa was left in endless conflict.  The many genocides that have occurred there were caused by Western interference in local cultures which gave favor to particular groups.  Even America, which isn’t generally considered imperialistic in the traditional sense, was built upon the slave trade coming out of Africa as it was being colonized.  The race clashes in the US have their origins in the history of colonized Africa.  African-American slaves saw more trauma than even the Lost Boys, and it was upon this collective trauma that the African-American community was built.  Colonization, exploitation, slavery, cultural destruction, World Wars, genocide… all of the modern world is built on collective trauma.  The Lost Boys are just a sign of the times.

John Deng may now be dead, but this deep-seated conflict in the world remains.  People who think they can isolate themselves and their communities from these problems are being very naive.  Besides, too many Americans forget that their own ancestors were also refugees escaping persecution and ended up spreading their trauma to every other culture they met (be it Africans or Native Americans).  None of us are innocent, but all of us are deserving compassion.

 * * *

You were laid here to rest

so you could settle at last in the earth,

where your village rejoined around you

their prayers burning with sorrow and memories.

And we are none of us so settled,

not so settled

as we seem.

Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette).  (Source for image: Gazette Online) 

8 thoughts on “John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

  1. This is so very sad. Those black people who didn’t even know deng knew his plight. He was a dead man the minute that bully approached him. There is an intentional genocide going on in America and the cops have been given carte blanche to shoot any unarmed black man dead. All they have to say is that they felt threatened and we all know that they all do feel threatened. I remember reading on a white supremacist site that they were invading all levels of the justice, or should I say, injustice system. Looks like it’s saturated with them. And the so-called supreme court (laughable), condones and cosigns white supremacist in blue. Poor Mr. Deng. Having survived Sudan, only to come to AmeriKKKa to die in the streets for no reason other than being black and dropping a can or a bottle. I cry out to God to come and help the black people of the world. To avenge their systematic murders from the collective womb and from the collective streets.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Our society does feel quite injust at times. And, no doubt, minorities have always felt injustice the most. At different points in history, there have been different minorities who have been attacked or otherwise got in the way of the majority. But it can’t be denied that blacks have been the favorite despised minority group of white Americans.

  2. I loved John. I was his high school English teacher in Fort Worth. I just found out today of his dealth. I am in shock and mourning. I know his real story, if anyone can contact me. I would love to tell it. I would love to be able to find his family and share the young man that I loved.

    • It was a shocking story, especially for a liberal college town like this that is known for being a good place for the homeless and others in need. There are a ton of social services in this town. Iowa City police aren’t typically trigger-happy, but there was another negative incident ending in death some years ago that has left many bad feelings around here.

      I’d like to hear the story you have to tell. I’m sure many other people would like to hear it as well.

      However, I’m not sure I’m the one you should be talking to. I never knew John other than maybe having seen him around town at some point. I couldn’t even say that I know anyone who knew him, but someone I knew probably knew him as I know a lot of people in this town.

      If you want to tell his story, I see three possible venues. There is the local newspaper (Iowa City Press Citizen), there is the university newspaper (The Daily Iowan), and there is the local culture/arts magazine (Little Village). Here are their contact info:

      Of course, I’d be willing to host your story here on this blog. I’ve never hosted anyone on my blog before, but I’m sure we could work something out.

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