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Man in '96 publicity splash is killed

A Camden man who was infamously photographed in 1996 being frisked by a smiling Gov. Christie Whitman was shot dead early Saturday after a party.

Sherron Rolax, 28, was killed Saturday.
Sherron Rolax, 28, was killed Saturday.Read more

A Camden man who was infamously photographed in 1996 being frisked by a smiling Gov. Christie Whitman was shot dead early Saturday after a party.

Sherron Rolax, 28, was killed shortly before 1 a.m. on Louis Street in Camden, said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. No suspects had been identified.

Rolax spent most of his adult life in and out of prison on drug charges and was most recently paroled in July.

He was 17 in May 1996 when state police searched him on a Camden street corner. The event eventually turned Rolax, an African American, into a symbol in the debate over racial profiling and led to one of the biggest scandals of Whitman's administration.

Whitman was riding with six state troopers during a crackdown on drug crimes. The troopers spotted Rolax with friends near an intersection known for drug trafficking and surrounded the group.

Troopers ordered Rolax to place his hands against a building and patted him down. Finding no drugs or weapons, they offered Whitman a turn.

A trooper snapped a souvenir photograph as Whitman, smiling broadly, searched Rolax.

Four years later, the picture was leaked to newspapers and television shortly before the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

The image caused an uproar among minorities and some New Jersey Democrats, with activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton alleging that the Republican governor's pat-down constituted a civil-rights violation.

By then, Rolax was serving time for possession of crack cocaine in a school zone. The year after the photograph was taken, in December 1997, he had been arrested on the same corner where he had been frisked.

In April 2001, Rolax sued Whitman, the state police, and the state on allegations of discrimination, battery, and invasion of privacy. In the lawsuit, he said he had been the victim of a "cavalier attitude" toward racial profiling by Whitman and the troopers.

Whitman, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, admitted the search was a mistake.

A federal judge dismissed the case, saying it had been filed after the two-year statute of limitations had expired.

Camden lawyer Saul Steinberg, who represented Rolax in the civil-rights suit, said yesterday that despite the political fallout, publication of the photograph did not seem to affect Rolax in a significant way.

"Some things that seem so dramatic and so newsworthy are yesterday's news before you know it," Steinberg said. Rolax "had a lot of other things going on in his life at the time. He was in prison. And to say that it had a big impact on his life, I don't think that it did."

In 2002, after his release from prison, Rolax was again arrested for possessing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was arrested again in 2006 on the same charges. He served less than a year before his release.

Early Saturday, Rolax was at a party on the 1500 block of Louis Street in the Whitman Park neighborhood when his friends and some other people began arguing, Laughlin said.

Someone pulled out a handgun and shot Rolax on the street, less than a block from the party, at 12:48 a.m., Laughlin said. The gun had not been found.