Elgin Olu Stafford loved to travel and learn about other cultures.
Elgin Olu Stafford loved to travel and learn about other cultures. (Robert Casillas)

Elgin Olu Stafford was smart, popular, extremely driven and very close to his family.

But early on the morning of March 20, after staying up late talking to his parents and acting erratically, he ran out of his Carson home barefoot and never came back.

His family, members of his church, friends and even local politicians searched everywhere they imagined he could have gone. But they came up empty.

Nine days later, the 23-year-old was found dead, floating in the Dominguez Channel not far from his family's home, near Avalon Boulevard and the San Diego (405) Freeway. It took a day for him to be identified through dental records and fingerprints.

Sheriff's homicide Lt. Eddie Hernandez said investigators do not suspect any criminal activity or foul play in Stafford's death. Coroner's examiners conducted an autopsy but could not determine a specific cause of death, so investigators are hoping toxicology texts and tissue samples will shed light on when and how he died, Hernandez said.

"We're going to follow up on his medical history," Hernandez said. "We've determined there's no crime, no homicide."

The family doesn't know exactly what happened to Elgin - did he jump to his death early on March 20? Did he wander around the area and somehow fall into the channel days later? However, they do not believe anyone else caused his death.

His mother, Annie Stafford, father Michael, family friends, sister, nieces and nephews gathered at the Stafford family's richly decorated Carson home this week. They tried to sort out what happened and why, and find comfort in their community, as gifts of flowers and food continued to arrive.

"I'm just so hurt," said his older sister, Melitta Johnson. "My kids are in love with him. His smile, his hug, his embrace."

Annie and Michael Stafford immigrated to the area decades ago from West Africa. They raised their three children in Carson with strong Christian values and strong work ethics. They also maintained close, friendly relationships with the children, while supporting them in their educational and career pursuits.

Elgin was the family's youngest child, but he surprised them with his ambition. Through high school, he spent his Saturdays at the nonprofit academic mentoring program College Bound. He also was a member of the youth choir at his church, and had been accepted at several colleges after graduating from Carson High School. He went to University of California, Berkeley, where he studied Japanese, business administration and African-American studies and was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

On his fraternity's website, he wrote: "My Sierra Leonean background is something that I truly take pride in. I love my family dearly. There is an immense amount of work that needs to be done in the black community and I am ready to do the best that I can with the help of others to uplift it."

Elgin was seeking a master's degree in public diplomacy at USC when he died. He loved to travel and learn about other cultures, and planned to work in a foreign embassy.

"He loved Japanese culture, oh, Lord have mercy. I said, `Elgin, you're a black kid, why are you listening to Japanese music?"' said his mother, Annie Stafford. "He loved it. Ever since his father got him an Akita dog when he was younger.

Family members discuss the death of Elgin Olu Stafford, whose body was found on March 29. Melitta Johnson breaks down while talking about her younger
Family members discuss the death of Elgin Olu Stafford, whose body was found on March 29. Melitta Johnson breaks down while talking about her younger brother s death. (Robert Casillas)
"

But Elgin had taken the semester off from college because he had recently struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, his parents said. He was given medication but wanted to try to overcome his problems naturally through yoga and meditation.

He held various jobs during and after college, working for Merrill Lynch, Sony, and in U.S. Rep. Karen Bass' Washington, D.C., office.

But his family was a priority. When he was living in Washington, his niece Jailyn Johnson had a kindergarten graduation in Carson. Even though Elgin was making very little money working in Bass' office, he found enough to fly home for the graduation.

"I remember that he would give me anything I wanted," said Jailyn, now 7. The two had recently played together in the family's garage, singing and dancing.

Elgin's family described him as extremely sensitive, especially any time they worried about him.

"He always told me, `Mom, you need to relax. I'm fine, Mom, I'm OK,"' Annie Stafford said. "He cared so much. We would give him money and ask what he spent it on. He would put homeless people in his car and take them to get something to eat."

The night before Elgin ran out of his family's home, friends and family said they were concerned that something was wrong. He had Sunday dinner with his family. Then, Annie and Michael Stafford stayed up into the early morning hours of March 20, talking to Elgin and trying to boost his spirits. He talked about being confused with what direction to take his life, though he was good at many things and had many opportunities.

At 5:30 a.m., Elgin told his parents he was going to bed and his mother followed to bring him an extra blanket.

"He was acting funny," Annie Stafford said. "He just started jumping up and down, then ran past me. I just had knee surgery and couldn't catch him."

That was the last time anyone reported seeing him.

The family is now trying to piece together what went wrong. They suspect his struggle with anxiety and mental disorders may have taken its toll. He also may have had some personal problems they didn't know about.

"His life was full of excitement," said Melitta Johnson. "I will forever be looking at my front door for my brother to walk in saying: `Hi, big sister!"'

A public funeral for Elgin Stafford is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. April 14 at Holman United Methodist Church, 3320 West Adams Blvd., in Los Angeles. His family asks that any donations be made in his name to College Bound of Cerritos.

sandy.mazza@dailybreeze.com

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