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Homeless woman's death in police custody stirs anger in St. Louis

March 29, 2012|By Matt Pearce

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Anna Brown was homeless and had so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk.

When Brown, 29, refused to leave the emergency room at St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights, Mo., a suburb near inner St. Louis, the police thought she was on drugs and arrested her for trespassing. She’d already been examined, and a doctor said she was healthy enough to go to jail.

The police carried her into a jail cell by her arms and ankles, her body slackened. There were a couple of beds in the cell, but they left her on the concrete floor. A couple of officers stood by the door as she writhed and moaned, and then they walked away. “They thought she was a drug seeker,” an officer said later.

She had stopped moving within 15 minutes and was pronounced dead a short time later.

PHOTOS: Homeless woman dies in police custody

She’d had blood clots in her legs and lungs, an autopsy found, and no drugs in her system. Family members are now considering a lawsuit in the 6-month-old case, whose details were brought to light by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an investigation published Sunday that included video of Brown at the emergency room, in the police car and dying in her jail cell. She leaves behind two children and a raft of anger and confusion.

"She was not a drug dealer or a hooker or doing other things that she could've ended up dead for," said sister Krystle Brown, according the Post-Dispatch. "People assume things because of the way they talk or the way they live or the things they do. My sister is not here today because people passed judgment."

Hospital and police officials maintain that they did everything right. According to the Post-Dispatch, Brown showed up at SLU Hospital in St. Louis a week earlier complaining of leg pain after she said she’d sprained her ankle in a ditch; hospital officials said there were no sign of blood clots, as did the St. Mary’s Health Center officials who examined her the day she died. Richmond Heights acting Police Chief Maj. Roy Wright defended his officers' actions, saying the hospital had told them she was good to go.

"A lot of times people don't want to stay in jail and will claim to be sick," he told the Post-Dispatch. "We depend on medical officials to tell us they're OK."

The story is reminiscent of the 2007 case of Edith Isabel Rodriguez, a "quasi-transient" who showed up at what was then called Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in Willowbrook, south of Watts, complaining of stomach pains. A janitor cleaned the floor around her as she vomited blood and went untreated -- a scene captured on video -- and two people called 911 to beg for help, without success. Rodriguez died at the scene, shortly after police had tried to arrest her on an outstanding warrant.

Brown’s death might have escaped public attention if the Post-Dispatch hadn’t gotten a random tip from a caller. According to a Post-Dispatch reporter, the Richmond Heights Police Department never announced that someone had died in its care, a common practice for some departments in the St. Louis area.

“How often might this happen?” reporter Christine Byers said. “Because it almost happened without anyone knowing, because we almost didn’t know about it. Certainly the police didn’t publicize that they had an in-custody death, even though it was natural causes.… It was scary to think it could have gone on without any scrutiny.”

Byers said the video also revealed that the police suspected Brown went to the hospital looking for drugs, which was not mentioned in the department’s documents. Meanwhile, Byers’ voice-mail box is jammed full of angry messages as Brown’s name and story have spread and her family continues to demand answers.

"If the police killed my daughter, I want to know," Dorothy Davis, Brown’s mother, told the Post-Dispatch. "If the hospital is at fault, I want to know. I want to be able to tell her children why their mother isn't here."

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