- Michael Fletcher is a senior writer with ESPN’s enterprise and investigative team. Before that, he wrote for ESPN’s The Undefeated, focusing on politics, criminal justice and social issues. He spent 21 years at The Washington Post, where his beats included the national economy, the White House and race relations.
PAMELA FOSTER TURNS the question over in her mind, day in and day out: Why did her husband, a retired New Orleans Saints player-turned-successful-businessman, end up dead in the backseat of a police SUV, two days after he was arrested in rural Alabama?
Nearly three months after the death of Glenn Foster Jr., his grieving family has received no answers from authorities in Pickens County, Alabama, where Foster was taken into custody halfway through his drive from New Orleans to Atlanta on a business trip.
They have no official autopsy results. No incident reports. No explanation from the sheriff’s department that was transporting Foster when he died.
“Every day, you want to make a story in your head, but nothing adds up,” Pamela Foster told ESPN. “So it is very difficult. It is very hard to breathe when you are trying to put pieces of this puzzle together, and the pieces are just not there because there is no transparency.”
Everyone who knew Foster said he had big ambitions, a big heart and a big personality to match his 6-foot-4 and 270-pound frame. The former Saints defensive end grew up in a striving, middle-class family steeped in entrepreneurship. He played just two years of pro football before his career was cut short by injury. But Foster turned the setback into a springboard to realize his lifelong dream of going into business.
The only thing Alabama officials have said is that Foster, 31, was found unresponsive in a police vehicle on Dec. 6 after being transported from the Pickens County Jail to a hospital a half hour away in Northport, Alabama, for a mental health evaluation. Alabama’s State Bureau of Investigation is probing his death.
“Nothing further is available as the investigation is ongoing,” the bureau said in a statement. “Once complete, the findings will be turned over to the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office.”
The district attorney’s office also declined to comment, saying only that if the investigation reveals evidence of a crime, it will be presented to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.
The murky circumstances of Foster’s death have stirred deep suspicion among Black residents who say a long history of racial hostility in Pickens County remains unbroken. The Equal Justice Initiative documented 14 lynchings there between 1877 and 1950. In recent years, activists and civil rights lawyers in the area have accused local police of continuing to operate with murderous impunity. Foster is the third Black man who has been killed by police or who died in police custody under questionable circumstances in Pickens County, population 20,000, since 2019.
“There is a pattern and practice of violating the constitutional rights of African Americans by this sheriff’s department,” Benjamin Crump, the prominent attorney who has been retained by Foster’s family, told ESPN. “They play this game of charades where they try to delay, delay, delay by saying it is an ongoing investigation in hopes that people are going to forget and they can sweep it under the rug. [But] we’re going to keep pushing.”
FOSTER’S DEATH CAME two days after he was arrested for allegedly speeding and attempting to elude police in tiny Reform, Alabama, just west of Tuscaloosa. Police in Reform said they clocked Foster’s black 2020 Jeep Wrangler going 92 mph in a 45-mph zone shortly before midnight on Friday, Dec. 3.
Police said Foster led them on an 8-mile chase that ended in the town of Gordo, where police laid down spike strips to stop him. His car rolled through a parking lot and behind some businesses before hitting a metal railing. Police charged Foster with reckless endangerment and resisting arrest, and he was taken to the Pickens County Jail.
The next morning, Foster’s father said he received an email from Reform Police Chief Richard Black. Glenn Foster Sr. called the chief, who explained the circumstances of the arrest, and immediately suspected his son was having a mental health episode. Foster was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder in 2010, but his family says he mostly managed his condition well.
Foster Sr. told Black that the behavior he was hearing about was out of character and agreed with the chief that his son needed a mental health evaluation.
“For him to try to elude police was not the Glenn we raised,” Foster Sr. said. “I’ve been pulled over by police. He’s been pulled over by the police before. You show your proof of insurance, your driver’s license and your registration, you get your ticket and you keep on trucking.”
Foster Sr. made arrangements with police to bail out his son, but by the time he, his wife Sabrina, and Foster’s wife Pamela, arrived in Pickens County from Louisiana on Sunday, things had changed.
Jail officials would not release Foster because he faced new charges of assault and robbery after allegedly attacking a fellow inmate in what authorities said was an attempt to steal the man’s socks. The other inmate was taken to the hospital for treatment of bone bruises and swelling from the assault, and a sheriff’s deputy was slightly injured when breaking up the fracas, according to court records.
The next day, Foster went before a Pickens County judge who observed that Foster “is not mentally stable and a danger to himself and others.” The judge then ordered Foster be held without bond and that he undergo a mental health assessment.
COVID-19 restrictions prevented his family from seeing him, and it was left to the Pickens County sheriff’s office to transport Foster to Northport for the assessment.
Foster’s family left for home. On the drive back, they called the Pickens County sheriff’s office to see how things were going with the exam. They were stunned by the response from Sheriff Todd Hall, who they said told them, “Woo, it was a ride!” Hall then went on to say Foster was still being evaluated.
Later, Foster’s court-appointed attorney called to tell the parents their son was already dead — before an exam could take place.
“My wife later called the sheriff back and asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ He said, ‘I don’t like to give bad news over the phone,'” Foster Sr. told ESPN. “That was the response.”
WHEN GLENN FOSTER JR. was growing up in Chicago, his biggest dreams were not about football. Instead, he wanted to build on the example of his parents, who owned several rental properties. Foster’s parents would often enlist Glenn and his sister Bria to help out with the business. They would paint, sand floors, lay tile, change locks and even collect rent. One summer, Foster worked with an older cousin who hired him as a runner at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“Our mission was to facilitate [for] Glenn and his sister better chances for success by working hard,” Foster Sr. told ESPN. “You want your kids to do better, and we wanted to ensure that they would do better.”
As a young athlete, Foster ran track, wrestled and played football in a city recreation league, where he was not always a star. He was cut from the football squad at Mt. Carmel High School his freshman year, but came back to make it the next season. By the time he graduated in 2008, Scout.com ranked him as the 47th best defensive end in the country. He turned away interest from the likes of Michigan State and Colorado to attend the University of Illinois.
Foster went to college with no real aspirations of going pro. “I think initially, he wasn’t even thinking about the league,” his father said. “Glenn was thinking about starting his own business, being an entrepreneur.”
That changed when he saw several of his Illinois teammates make the leap to the NFL. “He told me, ‘Dad, these guys are getting to the league. I think I can do the same thing. I am going to do it,'” his father said.
Foster was still in college in 2010 when he met Pamela, a student at nearby Millikin University. She said the first time she spotted him, Foster was in the middle of a dance floor. “I saw Glenn and there he was, dancing,” she recalled. “You couldn’t miss him because he was so big. The place was full but they made space for him. Glenn knew how to get down, you could say.”
The two immediately hit it off, in the way that opposites can. Pamela was reserved and quiet, and Glenn an extrovert, the life of the party. They married less than two years later and have four daughters who range in age from one to 10. “He was very active, very lovable, very outgoing,” Pamela said. “I called him my teddy bear.”
In 2010, his family noticed that he was acting uncharacteristically. Family members would not be specific about Foster’s behavior, although his father said, “It was nothing aggressive at all, just a change in his personality.”
The changes were alarming enough that Foster’s parents brought him back to Chicago from college for a mental health evaluation and treatment. That’s when he was diagnosed as bipolar. He was prescribed medication, which his parents said he was weaned off of within six or seven months. And while his friends described Foster as exuberant if not hyper, his wife and parents said his condition did not present any problems after that, at least not for a long time.
“The only time we had an issue was the episode in college,” Pamela said. “Other than that, he had a very productive life.”
After Foster graduated from Illinois in 2013, he was signed by the Saints as a free agent. In his rookie year, he notched three sacks, and seemed poised for a breakthrough season in 2014. But a serious knee injury early in the year derailed his plans, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Less than a year later, he needed back surgery, and the Saints cut him during the 2015 preseason. His wife said he had opportunities to catch on elsewhere, but he decided to retire.
“It was a combination of injury, opportunity and family,” that prompted him to retire, Pamela said. “He wanted to make sure he could play with his children. And he had aspirations to do other things.”
THE MONEY FOSTER made in football helped fuel his business dreams. Before long, he was working as a general contractor, developer and real estate agent and his parents had moved down to Louisiana to help. By 2017, he and his wife had opened SLAG Tile and Countertops, a stone fabricating business that did commercial jobs and operated stores in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I used to call him the Stone Ranger,” said Kyle Resmondo, a general contractor who partnered with Foster on dozens of jobs, and became a close friend. “Glenn was a big personality, kind of like a young [Dennis] Rodman in a way. One day it’s blue hair. Next day it’s yellow hair.”
Foster was open to trying his hand at many endeavors. For a while, he and a friend, Wayne Clark, went in together on a business that cleaned trash containers. They bought a specialized truck for the task, but the business folded after about a year.
Last year, Foster and Clark again partnered, this time on a New Orleans coffee shop, an investment Foster made mostly to help Clark realize his dream.
“I saw this place for lease and hit him and said, ‘I want you to meet me at this spot. I want you to check it out,'” said Clark. “I showed him my vision and he was in love with it.” Not long after, Foster put up the money to help Clark get started but made clear he did not have time to be involved day-to-day. “He really wanted to see everybody win,” Clark said. “It is almost unreal that this dude was this way with everyone.”
Foster also dabbled in music, and had plans to form a communications company. He established a foundation in 2021 that he envisioned as a resource for aspiring entrepreneurs. He also volunteered with youth groups, becoming a reliable presence and valued benefactor at Son of a Saint, a program that mentors boys whose fathers are absent from their lives.
“When he entered a room, energy was there,” said Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, the program’s founder and chief executive. “He was a big guy, so he sort of demanded attention. He was like a walking motivational speaker.”
Lee said when the group unveiled plans for an ongoing $4 million renovation of an old ice house into its new 16,000-square-foot headquarters, Foster immediately committed to donating all of the countertops. “He was always high energy,” Lee said. “Very positive.”
In the days before his death, some of Foster’s friends and family members noticed that things seemed off with him.
Clark said Foster would stop by the coffee shop almost daily, and sometimes help out with errands or repairs. Not long before Foster died, the two were working on a drop ceiling one night when Foster asked, “When is the last time you felt near death?” At the time, Clark dismissed it as small talk, but now he thinks “the timing of that was crazy.”
A couple days after that, Foster bounded into the shop with a bottle of water in his hands, more hyped than usual, Clark said. He announced he was on a cleanse, then stepped out for a few minutes. A moment later, an employee of his countertop business stopped by. “She looked shook,” Clark said. “And she asked, ‘Have you seen Glenn?'” A few minutes later, Foster reappeared with much of his shirt wet.
“I thought to myself, ‘What the hell does Glenn have going on?'” Clark said. Foster then got into an intense, seemingly work-related conversation with the employee before leaving, he said.
Jolie Bernard, a family spokeswoman, said Foster’s wife and parents were also aware of “some different behavior” shortly before he died. They were trying to get him some help, but he left for Atlanta before anything could be arranged.
SINCE FOSTER’S DEATH in December, his family has been waging a futile struggle for answers.
“My message as a father who lost his son is, what did they do to my son while he was in jail for those many days? What happened to him physically? Whether he was beat by inmates, whether he was beat by prison staff, or sheriff’s police,” Foster Sr. told reporters shortly after his son’s death. “And then [were] there any altercations inside of the vehicle he was in when he was transported to the medical facility?”
In the absence of official autopsy results, lawyers Crump and Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann commissioned an independent autopsy. It found that Foster did not die of natural causes. “There was some evidence of neck compressions and strangulation,” the lawyers said in a statement. “Keeping people in your custody alive is literally the lowest bar we can set for a law enforcement agency, and is something that the Pickens County sheriff’s office failed to do. Pickens County owes the family the truth relating to Mr. Foster’s tragic death.”
The mystery has lent new urgency to questions about the deaths of two other Black men since 2019.
Last August, 40-year-old Michael Broady Jr. died in the custody of Pickens County authorities. Police have not explained the reason for his arrest nor the circumstances of his death. As in Foster’s death, the State Bureau of Investigation is probing the case. An attorney for the Broady family told ESPN he was preparing a lawsuit.
Also, in 2019, Wallace Wilder, 62, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was shot to death while allegedly brandishing a knife at police who had kicked in his apartment door after he refused to open it for a mental health check. Last year, Wilder’s estate filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit that named Sheriff Hall among the plaintiffs.
In a letter sent to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, two civil rights lawyers called for the removal of Hall, whose office had a role in all three deaths.
“What has been consistent throughout Mr. Hall’s tenure is a complete lack of transparency in explaining these deaths. Nor can it be coincidental that all three men were African American. Three deaths at the hands of law enforcement in two and a half years would be unconscionable for any county,” read the January 13 letter from attorneys Johnathan Austin and Richard Rice. “In a county with a population of less than 20,000 people, one can only conclude that the leadership of the agency responsible is barbarous.”
Neither Hall nor Ivey’s office responded to repeated requests for comment from ESPN.
“I expect the truth. Even if it is not from [the sheriff’s office], I’m hoping that other people can come forward and do the right thing,” Pamela Foster said. “If they saw something to say something. I expect justice and I also expect change. Because Glenn is not the first. They have a pattern up there.”
Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner, who also played football at Illinois and saw Foster as a little brother, said the case reminded him of the death of Pierre Sims, his former high school teammate from Chicago, who was found unresponsive before dying in police custody in Limestone County, Alabama in 2011.
Questions about Sims’ death were never fully answered, Buckner said, and he worries that those surrounding Foster’s death might never be satisfactorily answered either.
“Anytime anyone dies in police custody there are going to be questions,” Buckner said. “But anytime a seemingly healthy Black male dies in police custody after being picked up by police in the dark of night in Alabama, there are going to be even more questions.”
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