NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Less than two months before he was killed, Walter Lamer Scott turned 50 and wanted everyone around him to join in the celebration.
It was February, and Scott’s family had taken him to dinner at a Japanese steakhouse. As waiters and other staff gathered around to sing “Happy Birthday,” Scott jumped up on the table and started dancing.
“He had everybody in the restaurant laughing,” Rodney Scott said of his older brother. “That’s the kind of person he was.”
Walter Scott had much to celebrate: His job as a warehouse forklift operator, which had begun as temporary work over the holidays, was going so well his boss was determined to keep him as a permanent hire. And he had popped the question to his longtime girlfriend, who had agreed to become Scott’s third wife.
But Scott also had a problem that kept him looking over his shoulder: The father of four had fallen behind, again, on his child support payments. Failure to pay can mean jail time in South Carolina, and Scott had been locked up three times since 2008.
His family suspects it was Scott’s fear of returning to jail that led him to run during a traffic stop last Saturday.
Scott ended up dead, shot in the back. The policeman who opened fire was charged with murder after the shooting was caught on video, and the case stirred outrage across the country as the latest instance of an unarmed black man killed by a white officer.
“He had trouble keeping up with the payments, that’s all, and he knew he would go to jail,” Rodney Scott said. “His mission was to avoid the police as much as possible.”
Rodney Scott said his brother would take long detours when driving to their parents’ house because he thought there were more police patrolling the direct, 10-minute route from his home. He said Walter also tried to make sure any vehicle he drove had working headlights and taillights.
A few days before his death, Scott struck a deal to buy a 1991 Mercedes from a neighbor. His old van, a hand-me-down from his parents, had bald tires and a failing transmission. The Mercedes needed some work, too, Scott’s brother said, but it seemed like a reliable ride that he could afford.
Scott was driving his new car to an auto parts store Saturday morning, his brothers said, when a North Charleston policeman pulled him over for what the officer told him was a bad taillight. With flashing lights in his rearview mirror, Scott called his mother to say he might be headed back to jail.
“He wanted to let her know he was getting pulled over and the way this was going, he’d probably be getting arrested,” said Anthony Scott, his older brother. “In other words: ‘Get ready to come and get me.’”
Video from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Michael Thomas Slager asking Scott for his license and registration, then heading back to his cruiser. Scott gets out of the Mercedes and bolts.
Separate video, recorded by a bystander, captures the officer firing eight shots at the fleeing man. Slager had initially said Scott was shot in a scuffle over the officer’s stun gun.
Scott grew up in the Charleston area, where his parents still live in the house they bought in 1969. Charleston police records show Scott was arrested in September 1987 on a charge of assault and battery. An officer said Scott shoved him after he tried to break up a fight between Scott and another man. It wasn’t known how that case was resolved.
Other Charleston County court records show Scott had several traffic tickets and three trips to jail in 2008, 2011 and 2012 for owing between $3,500 and $7,500 in child support.
At the time he was pulled over, Scott owed more than $18,000 in child support and court fees. He last paid child support in 2012 and a bench warrant for his arrest was issued in early 2013.
Those who knew Scott say they can’t fathom why he was killed. They describe a laid-back, fun-loving man who took his girlfriend dancing on weekends, entertained family and friends with backyard cookouts and hosted regular domino games the way other men have poker nights.
“He wouldn’t hurt a fly, man,” said Ronald Smith, 29, a co-worker who often got advice on marriage and other life decisions from Scott when the older man gave him a lift home after their shift. “All of us looked up to him.”
Settling on a career hadn’t been easy for Scott. As a young man, he served two years in the Coast Guard. Years later, his brothers said, he earned a degree in massage therapy. But that didn’t work out, either.
Along the way, he gained experience driving a forklift and working in a warehouse. Scott returned to that line of work last November when he took a job with Brown Distribution Centers, which operates 300,000 square feet of warehouse space in the neighboring town of Ladson. The warehouse’s operations manager, Mark Hughes, said Scott performed his job so well that he planned to keep him on permanently.
Co-workers said Scott always seemed calm at work and would often stop to ask others how they were doing. He loved to talk about pro football, especially his favorite Dallas Cowboys, even in the spring, when the rest of the sports world had moved on to college basketball and March Madness.
Anthony Adkinson, another forklift operator, said they had barely met when Scott gave him $100 to pay attorney fees he owed.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about paying it back,’” Adkinson said.
Despite his struggles to keep up with child support payments, his brothers said, Scott stayed close to his four children — a 24-year-old daughter and three sons, ages 22, 20 and 16.
And despite two failed marriages, he was gung-ho to tie the knot a third time.
Scott had been dating Charlotte Jones for about five years. They got engaged about a week before he was killed, his brothers said.
“He said if he met her the first time, he’d have been married the whole time,” Anthony Scott said.
Scott and Jones lived together in a modest, one-story brick house with a carport tucked behind one of North Charleston’s busy commercial thoroughfares.
Friends and relatives said Jones was too rattled to talk with a reporter. Rodney Scott said she had been “a godsend” to his brother.
“He didn’t have to clean dishes. She didn’t even want him to cut grass,” Scott’s younger brother said. “Man, she handled him like a baby. Spoiled him.”
Associated Press Writer Bruce Smith contributed to this report.