Willine Gracia had been trying to keep her only son alive since he was 16.
That's when she sat Max Gracia down for their first come-to-Jesus talk. He wasn't doing anything wrong at the time – he was just black. At the time, they were living near Washington Shores, one of the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of West Orlando. As a single mother raising a son and a daughter, Willine was particularly worried about Max, texting and calling him multiple times a day to make sure he was safe. Born in New Jersey, he had grown up in neighborhoods where the police presence was less conspicuous, and his mother says he didn't understand at first the limitations in Orlando.
"I remember when I told him he had come home from a friend's house walking and didn't have a cellphone," she says. "I sat him down and I told him, 'You can't just go around here at night walking or on a bike. The police are going to stop you.' My son loved to debate everything, but I told him not to argue with them because he could get killed. You have to stay out of trouble because they don't play fair, and the system is not designed to work for you. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be out late like other young people, but as a black man, you can't do that in this area."
Two years ago at the beginning of August, his mother says she took a then-22-year- old Max to the courthouse to get his passport. He was supposed to leave for training in a couple of weeks for an airline that hired him.
It was the last time she saw him alive.
Days later, on Aug. 6, 2015, Max Gracia would be arrested by Orlando Police officers who accused him of robbing a Circle K convenience store with a gun. Gracia tried to escape by hiding in Lake Mann, but officers sent in a K9 after him. The police dog bit him multiple times before he was captured and taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center for treatment before being booked in the Orange County Jail. Willine Gracia says she didn't immediately go see her son because she was upset he was in trouble, but four days after his arrest, on Aug. 10, 2015, she went to the jail to put money in his account for food and to check on him – a friend had told her he was in pain. Detectives upended her life when they told her Gracia was dead, killed hours earlier by a fatal blood infection that stemmed from the dog bites.
After two years of searching for answers, Gracia's family filed a federal lawsuit with Orlando attorney Mark NeJame last week against Orange County, alleging a "culture of neglect" caused health staff to fail to provide adequate medical care for Gracia, ultimately leading to his death.
"I'll never know if he did [the robbery] because he's dead, and he's not here to defend himself," Willine Gracia says. "My son didn't hurt anyone. He hadn't been found guilty. Let's just say he did it – he should have gotten arrested, put in jail and had his day in court. Instead, he was in that jail screaming for help. Regardless of the charge or record, why was he being ignored?
"I don't know what happened with the robbery, and I don't care. My child shouldn't have died."