Hundreds gather on March 3, 2024, for a candlelight vigil in memory of teacher and coach Dexter Butler. FLOYD JENKINS/contributed

By Mandy Miles and Gwen Filosa

The community of Key West was shattered by the sudden death of beloved teacher and coach Dexter Butler, whose body was found on March 2 in a storm drain outside the high school’s gym, police said.

Butler was 37. Born and raised in Key West and part of a family that goes back generations here, he was a Conch athlete who flourished on the ballfields, both in high school and then at college. He returned to his hometown to teach and coach youth just like his father, sports legend Bill Butler, had.

In the days after the fatal incident, people had more questions than Key West police said they had answers. Locals immediately came together in their collective grief and offered comfort to the Butler family.

“An amazing young man,” City Commissioner Clayton Lopez told Keys Weekly this week. “Like his dad, he touched more lives positively than most will ever know. In his short time with us, he added much to the script that was the legend of both his mother’s and his father’s family legacy.”

Monroe County Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford on March 2 identified the deceased as Butler, the son of Bill and Anita Butler. The cause was drowning, she said.

Dexter Butler taught at Horace O’Bryant School and coached KWHS basketball. MONROE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT/contributed

“His keys fell down the drain,” Axford told Keys Weekly. “He was reaching for them, lost his balance and fell face first, then drowned in 18 inches of water in the drain. Really a tragedy on many levels.”

At midday, Key West police were at the high school at 2100 Flagler Ave. The gym was blocked off with yellow crime scene tape.

Police called it a death investigation, adding that it doesn’t appear suspicious but it was too early to release a cause.

“I can’t release anything on an open death investigation until detectives get the autopsy report and the case is closed,” police spokeswoman Alyson Crean told Keys Weekly two days after Butler’s death.

Within 24 hours, locals organized a GoFundMe account for his family and a crowded candlelight vigil at Horace O’Bryant School, where Butler was a teacher. People flooded social media with condolences, grief and shock.

Lopez spoke to Butler’s mother by phone after learning of her son’s death. “You are not alone in your grief,” Lopez later wrote to her. “Though I know no one can feel it more strongly, the community grieves with you.”

On the morning of March 2, Key West police and fire departments were dispatched to the high school, responding to a report of an injured person.

“Upon arrival, units observed an adult male in a storm drain near the school gymnasium,” KWPD said in a statement. “The investigation is ongoing.”

The death happened on a Saturday morning while students were on campus for team sports.

School officials canceled all sports activities for the rest of the day. But the Butler family wanted the game to happen as a tribute to the man many in Key West knew as “Coach Dex,” Coach Ralph Henriquez told Keys Weekly before the game started.

Children take part in a candlelight vigil the day after Dexter Butler died. JONATHAN CRANE/contributed

Many of the players who won the game had Butler as a teacher at HOB, or as the JV baseball coach a few years ago before he started coaching basketball.

The Key West team also wanted to play in honor of Butler – who as a KWHS senior hit .475 with 28 RBIs, 22 runs, 3 home runs as 13 stolen bases, according to his records at the University of South Florida.

“I left it to the kids after the family said they wanted us to play in honor of Dexter,” Henriquez said, while in the dugout,” Henriquez said. “So we’re playing this game in his honor tonight.”

The Conchs defeated Spanish River 3-2 at Rex Weech Field.

Butler coached JV baseball at KWHS before becoming the high school basketball coach. He became a father on Oct. 27, 2021, when he and Maria Castillo became parents to Viviane. “She’s starting, almost, to roll over,” Butler told Keys Weekly in 2022 of his then-4-month old daughter.

Butler followed in the footsteps of his local sports legend father Bill Butler in becoming a Key West basketball coach.

Dexter Butler grew up to coach KWHS basketball on the court named in honor of his dad.

The younger Butler posted often about his players on his Facebook page. The latest one was from Feb. 11:

“Our season came to an end last Thursday at the hands of Gulliver Prep,” Butler wrote. “I cannot be more proud of the strides these young men made from last offseason to this basketball season. Next season will be something special but with great expectation comes great responsibility.”

Reports of Butler’s death stunned the tight-knit island community. Hundreds turned out the night after his death at HOB for a candlelight vigil.

Key West Little Conch Baseball page posted their condolences to Butler’s family on Facebook: “He was an amazing asset to our Key West community and will be greatly missed.”

School district officials made available counselors at HOB and KWHS on Monday, March 4, offering help to anyone who needs to talk.

“Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need someone to talk to or if you need help coping with your emotions,” the district said. “We’re here for you.”