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Mother of autistic shooting victim always believed he could achieve

Suzette Ragland and her Autistic son, Deonn Carter, share a happy moment before his untimely death.
Suzette Ragland and her Autistic son, Deonn Carter, share a happy moment before his untimely death.

Doctors told Suzette Ragland that her son, Deonn Carter, would never talk. They said he would never make eye contact or develop the capacity to love.

After diagnosing the child with autism while the military family lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., specialists recommended that she place the 18-month-old boy in a home for people with disabilities.

Ragland only had one response: “No, not this child.”

That was in the 1980s when very little was known about autism, Ragland said. But she always believed her son would live a full and productive life if given the opportunity.

Carter died Saturday at Midtown Medical Center, 11 days after being shot during an attempted armed robbery at Parkside at Britt David Apartments on Armour Road. The incident occurred after he stepped out to get the mail, his mother said.

A preliminary autopsy determined that the cause of death was deep vein thrombosis due to a gunshot wound, according to Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan.

On Monday, Ragland reflected on all that her son accomplished during his life, despite the obstacles that he faced.

Carter was a Columbus High School graduate who worked at Piggly Wiggly and served as a deacon at Love Revolution Church, she said. He was a friend to firefighters and police officers, whom he endeared with his uncanny ability to remember names and other personal details.

On the night that Carter was shot, many firefighters, police officers and EMS workers responded to the call as if he was one of their own. They continued to visit him frequently in the hospital, bearing gifts and posting photos with him on Facebook.

Another group of friends created a GoFundMe page on Carter’s behalf and raised about $8,600.

Ragland, a longtime employee of the Muscogee County Tax Assessor’s Office, said the outpouring of love by so many people is a testament to her son’s robust life. She said he had about 5,000 Facebook friends and his last post before his death said, “I love everybody.” She believes he died knowing he also was loved.

Ragland said a viewing will be held 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at McMullen Funeral Home, and the funeral will be held 1 p.m. Friday at Cascade Hills Church.

“The police, fire department, sheriff’s office, EMT, motorcycle squad, they all will be there,” she said. “We’re going to send him off with a blast.”

Carter was born on Nov. 2, 1984, in Nuremburg, Germany, where his father was stationed in the Army. Ragland said she looked forward to the birth of her first child, but there were complications.

“He was a hard birth,” she said. “He had what they call a previa placenta, which means the afterbirth was on the top of his head. I was sick with Deonn from my sixth to my ninth month and I was on bed rest for the last two months of my pregnancy.”

Ragland said the family left Germany for Colorado when Carter was still a toddler. At first he seemed to be developing normally, saying “Mom” and “Dad,” she recalled. Then all of a sudden the talking stopped.

“After a hearing test, the doctor wanted me to go see a specialist,” Ragland said. “That’s when they brought in a team of people and came up with the fact that Deonn was handicapped and he had autism.

“When you hear your child is handicapped, you go through three stages,” she said. “First, you’re going to deny it, which I did. Second, you’re going to get mad. Then you pray about it and you accept it. I talked to the good Lord, so I knew the good Lord was going to bring my baby to a point where I wouldn’t have to worry about him, and he did that.”

The family went back to Germany, and then returned to Columbus in 1989. Carter still wasn’t talking and the Muscogee County School District placed him at the Woodall Center, which serves children with severe autism.

“Deonn’s autism is what they call a ‘pervasive autism,’” she said. “He was going to be highly functional in different areas. So once they did that, they gave him a speech therapist. ... He was around 6 or 7 years old when he started saying one word. By the time he was 8 years old, he was using full sentences.”

Ragland said she moved Carter from Woodall to Wynnton Elementary School, and then to Wesley Heights Elementary School because she didn’t want him mimicking the kids at Woodall. She said a teacher at Wesley Heights challenged Carter to do more and participate in activities. She required that he ask for things, taught him how to sign and got him to participate in Special Olympics, where he played baseball as a first baseman.

“That teacher would come on the weekends and take Deonn swimming and to do other things,” she said. “... And the more that they did together, the more Deonn started blossoming.”

From there, Carter went to Marshall and Blackmon Road middle schools, then Columbus High, where he continued to participate in the Special Olympics and other extracurricular activities.

“Before I even let my child go into Columbus (High), I went to see the counselor. And I said, ‘Anything that a ninth grader does around here, we want Deonn to do. I don’t want him isolated from the children.’”

She said Carter went to the prom with a date. He went on class trips and attended all the sports events. She didn’t have to worry about him because he had befriended many police officers who looked out for him.

“Deonn developed a love for police at an early age,” she said. “So the police that did come to the schools, he always made sure he knew who they were, how many children they had, what their family history was — trust me, Deonn knew it.”

As he grew older, Carter always liked to exercise his independence, working at Piggly Wiggly and hanging out with friends, his mother said. He also loved wearing suits, and insisted on buying a new one every year. He posted videos on Facebook, where he prayed for people and offered encouragement.

Lindsey Howard Grubbs, 29, is the daughter of former Columbus High School baseball coach Bobby Howard, now the coach at Central High School. She said Carter has been a part of her family for 15 years. She posted a tribute to him on her Facebook page recounting their times together.

“People can’t meet him and not love him,” Grubbs told the Ledger-Enquirer in an interview on Tuesday. “When I was in middle school, he started going to my dad’s baseball games and he was the biggest cheerleader for baseball, and everyone’s cheerleader, really. He never forgot birthdays. He always called for my husband and my anniversary. And he called when my daughter was delivered. He’s just so extremely thoughtful.”

Grubbs said her family ate with Carter about once a month and they spoke to him at least every other day. As usual, he was decked out in a suit when he attended her wedding in July of 2010.

“The time came and he wanted to dance at our wedding, and we didn’t have dancing, we had a 2 p.m. wedding at St. Paul (United Methodist Church),” she said. “So I promised him a first dance at my best friend’s wedding, and he got that. We were out on the dance floor and we were the only ones on there in front of about 400 people and we had the time of our lives.”

She said Carter was close to many families in Columbus, and his untimely death is devastating.

“It breaks my heart because I believe there’s so much hate and so much crime in this world and it couldn’t have happened to a more loving person,” she said. “The only peace I have is know that he’s with God right now.”

Pastor Chase Welch, of Love Revolution Church, said Carter began attending services there over a year ago, and he immediately became part of the congregation.

“He had no fear or boundaries of love and getting close to people,” he said. “He just would love anyone, and he had a boldness about him to get to know people.”

Welch said he spent several days with Carter at the hospital and expected him to pull through. But he is comforted by the belief that Carter lived a life pleasing to God.

“The church took it very hard until we kind of learned the truth about why Deonn really died,” he said. “We believe that Deonn was a martyr, and the definition of a martyr is someone who loses their life in service to God.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter