J’Mauri Bumpass, hours before his death on December 15, 2019. Courtesy of the Bumpass family.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Bumpass family

J’Mauri Bumpass initially died in a car accident, investigators said, when he crashed his vehicle into a power pole after Durham County Sheriff’s deputies tried to pull him over down a dark road in North Durham in December 2019. 

But the story quickly changed: it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound that killed the 18-year-old Black man, the sheriff’s office said days later. 

But the teen’s family believes something different, something far more sinister.  

The family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accuses the two deputies who pulled over Bumpass of killing him and conspiring to cover it up. Sheriff Clarence Birkhead was among those named in the complaint for his role in the alleged conspiracy.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen said in an email to the INDY that the department typically does not comment on pending litigation but added the two deputies—Anthony Sharp Jr. and Robert Osborne—who pulled over Bumpass neither “fired their weapon nor in any other way” caused his death. 

The Bumpass family isn’t convinced. Almost from the moment Bumpass died, his family has wondered what really happened to the teen—a young man with no criminal record or history of depression, suicidal threats, or other mental issues, according to his family.

As previously reported by the INDY, Sharp and Osborne claim Bumpass’s death was a suicide, with Sharp stating in an incident report that he heard a gunshot, saw the car accelerate forward, heard the crash, called for backup units, drove to the crash scene, and waited for backup to arrive. 

Sharp reported that when he approached the car, he found Bumpass “lying torso down in the vehicle. In between his legs was a desert tan Glock semi-automatic handgun. The barrel of the gun was expelling smoke as if it had just been fired.”

The complaint, filed May 18 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, however, accuses Sharp and Osborne of acting in concert to shoot Bumpass with a single bullet to the head. 

The complaint filed on behalf of the Bumpass family by Durham attorney Allyn Sharp (no relation to deputy Sharp) also accuses Birkhead of obstructing justice and being a willing partner in covering up what Osborne and Sharp did. 

The complaint alleges that Birkhead and his deputies “intentionally issued misleading press releases, made false statements and reports, destroyed evidence, provided false information to the medical examiners and to the State Bureau of Investigation, withheld crucial information from the Bumpass family while knowingly misrepresenting what had been produced and made material misrepresentations and omissions to Mr. Bumpass’s family and to the Superior Court.”

The complaint also suggests a possible motive for the fatal shooting: Sharp, who was hired by the sheriff’s office in 2012, had a history with Bumpass men during traffic stops.

In August 2016, Sharp arrested Timothy Bumpass Jr. on drug charges after conducting a traffic stop for an inoperable license plate light. Then seven months later, Sharp arrested Timothy Bumpass Sr. on gun and drug charges after another traffic stop, reportedly for speeding, according to the complaint.

Timothy Bumpass Jr. and Timothy Bumpass Sr. are distant cousins of J’Mauri Bumpass, whom he never met, according to the family. 

At the time of J’Mauri’s death, Timothy Bumpass, Sr. was in custody at the Durham County jail for gun and drug charges stemming from Sharp’s arrest, but he was in the process of contesting those charges.

“When Defendants Sharp and Osborne pulled J’Mauri Bumpass over, Defendant Sharp was scheduled to testify at a suppression hearing in Durham County Superior Court that upcoming week of December 16, 2019 in the criminal case of State v. Timothy Bumpass, in which Timothy Bumpass, Sr., was challenging the legality of the March 2017 traffic stop conducted by Defendant Sharp which led to his gun and drug charges,” the complaint states.

Bumpass’s death

It was in the early morning hours of December 15, 2019, when Bumpass was driving a Chevrolet Impala he owned that was displaying the license plate of a Honda Accord that he also owned. 

The complaint states that Bumpass had recently traded in the Accord for the Impala and was waiting for the title to the Impala to arrive in the mail so he could register the car with the tag from the Impala.

The complaint states that Bumpass was on the phone with a friend while driving to his mother’s house to pick up his sister when the deputies pulled him over at 12:39 a.m. less than a mile from her home. 

“Mr. Bumpass told his friend something didn’t feel right. His friend told him to keep his car in drive.”

Bumpass told his friend that the police had been following him for a while and wondered if they were going to pull him over, the complaint states. 

“Mr. Bumpass told his friend something didn’t feel right,” according to the complaint. “His friend told him if he did not trust the situation to keep his car in drive.”

The slain teen’s friend heard the deputies speak to Bumpass then heard a gunshot, the car crash, and then “either Defendant Sharp or Defendant Osborne tell the other deputy, ‘Oh shit, he’s on the phone,’” according to the complaint. 

In the lawsuit, the family paints a picture of a motivated young man who received good grades and graduated one semester early from Hillside High School—not a teen with motivations to kill himself. He lived with his mom, regularly spent time at his father’s home, played drums for Baha’i worship services, and worked at FedEx while preparing to attend college and study sports medicine.

The complaint lists a cache of troubling actions on the part of both the deputies and Sheriff Birkhead, such as the deputies driving a vehicle with an inoperable in-car camera system in violation of county policy. 

What’s more, the complaint alleges that the teen’s investigative file is being kept from his family to run out the clock on the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits.

According to the complaint, the wrongful acts of the two deputies resulted in Bumpass being “stopped, seized, shot and killed,” and the teen’s parents “have suffered loss of society and companionship as well as severe emotional distress” as a consequence of not only losing their son but from the cover-up and false report of suicide, which entitles the family to compensatory and punitive damages.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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