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Crime

A month later, mystery shrouds case of federal prosecutor found dead on Hollywood beach

Update: Mysterious death of federal prosecutor on Hollywood beach ruled a suicide

A month after the body of federal prosecutor Beranton J. Whisenant Jr. washed up in the surf on a beach in Hollywood, there is still no answer from police about what happened to him — but plenty of unfounded internet speculation.

Hollywood police and the Broward medical examiner’s office remain tight-lipped, declining numerous public records requests on Whisenant’s death. In the immediate aftermath of recovering his body on May 24, the department revealed that the highly regarded 37-year-old lawyer in the Miami office of the U.S. Attorney had sustained some type of trauma to his head.

But investigators haven’t added any information since, starting with the most basic questions: Gunshot or something else? Suicide or homicide?

“[Detectives] are still actively investigating it and are waiting for new evidence to come in,” said spokeswoman Miranda Grossman, explaining the department’s silence.

The wait for an explanation about what might have happened to the Miramar father of three has left friends and former colleagues searching for clues themselves and has frustrated some family members. One relative, Angela Padgett, the aunt of Beranton’s wife, contacted The Miami Herald to ask about progress in resolving what she said the family believes was a murder — by a gunshot to the head.

“The coroner told Beranton’s wife that he had a gunshot wound in his head when they turned over his body to the family” in late May for funeral services, said Padgett, who lives in Georgia. She said she was a “concerned family member who has not gotten a good night’s rest since Beranton was killed.”

Whisenant’s immediate family members, including his wife, Ebony, a doctor who teaches at Florida International University’s medical school, and his parents, both Jacksonville physicians, also did not return calls and emails seeking comment on a death that remains shrouded in mystery.

The lack of information from authorities has opened the door for internet fringe sites that traffic in unfounded political conspiracies. But there is little evidence in the real world or in Whisenant’s personal and professional background to suggest someone would target him. Colleagues scrutinizing past cases during a 13-year career as a lawyer — most dealing with asbestos lawsuits — found only one that had sparked any obvious friction. Whisenant, acting as a guardian ad litem in a Miami-Dade family court custody case, was granted a restraining order against a father who wrote him threatening emails a year ago.

But there is no indication that the case in family court, where legal disputes can be highly emotional, has even registered on the radar of Hollywood investigators.

A well-known attorney

Someone walking on Hollywood Beach first spotted Whisenant’s body, still dressed in business clothes, floating off shore before dawn on May 24. He had been at work in the U.S. attorney’s office only the day before.

Although he had only been working at the Miami federal prosecutor’s office since January, colleagues who knew him say they were impressed with his commitment and passion, making his death all the more difficult to comprehend. Whisenant was also well known outside the office, having volunteered on Florida Bar committees, taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami law school and participated in the Miami-Dade black lawyers’ association.

Early on the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI determined that it had no connection to his employment as a prosecutor or his federal criminal cases, leaving the death investigation to the Hollywood Police Department. He first did a brief stint in the office’s appellate division, then was assigned to the major crimes section, like all new prosecutors. He handled cases on foreigners illegally entering the country, passport fraud and visa violations, along with a few drug distribution prosecutions.

Inevitably, the vacuum of information about his death has led to fake news stories popping up on the Internet: Several sites have circulated unsubstantiated claims that his death was linked to a local lawsuit filed by supporters of Bernie Sanders against the Democratic National Committee, which alleges DNC bias for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary campaign.

Discredited theories

Some of the same sites also falsely connected the death of the late DNC staffer Seth Rich, fatally shot last year in Washington, DC, to the same suit. Fox News — after complaints and denial from Rich’s family and investigators — wound up retracting another internet-inspired conspiracy theory that Rich’s death had been connected to DNC email hacks that were leaked to help President Trump’s campaign.

The Whisenant postings focus on the fact that the prosecutor died in the south Broward district of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was chairperson of the DNC during the primary season.

People close to Whisenant say they have seen the postings and are “disgusted” with the exploitation of his death, saying he had no connection to the DNC case. For most of his career, he had been in private practice. Whisenant, a graduate of the University of Florida law school, had worked as a state prosecutor in Jacksonville and later for almost a decade at a Miami civil law firm, Foley & Mansfield, before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in January.

“I find that type of behavior disgusting and offensive,” said a close friend, who did not want to be identified. “To use someone’s death to manipulate a scenario that has no basis in truth is disturbing.”

At his former firm, Whisenant focused on asbestos and other tort litigation but also worked at least once as a guardian ad litem in Miami-Dade County family court, representing the interests of a child in a long-running dispute between a father and mother over financial support, visitation rights and other custody matters.

After Whisenant issued his guardian ad litem report early last year, the father began sending the lawyer a series of “hostile” emails, challenging the findings, making “personal attacks” and threatening to sue, according to the attorney’s Jan. 25, 2016, motion seeking sanctions against the father.

Whisenant asked the presiding judge in the case to keep the father away from him. The judge issued the stay-away order the following month.

Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver

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