Family awaits answers about jail death

Family awaits answers about jail death

URBANA — The family of Toya Frazier didn't find out that the 45-year-old Savoy woman had been found dead in the Champaign County Jail from the sheriff's office, the county coroner or a medical official.

Instead, Ms. Frazier's sisters got a call from a friend, another inmate at the jail, around 9:20 the night of Dec. 1. The sisters contacted the jail but were unable to confirm the news, so they left their names for someone to call them back, said Jacqueline Jones, Ms. Frazier's sister.

"They didn't even have the decency to call and say something," Jones said.

Unsure what to do, family members went to Carle Foundation Hospital, where they watched the entire 10 o'clock news before a nurse confirmed Ms. Frazier had died, Jones said. The family found out more details the next day by reading a story in The News-Gazette, which learned of the death via a news release from the sheriff's office.

An upset Jones called the newspaper to ask why the information was given to the media before the family.

Seven-plus weeks later, she's still looking for answers.

As the Urbana City Council heard a presentation Tuesday night about how the Champaign County Multi-Jurisdictional Investigative Team handles in-custody deaths and officer-involved shootings, Jones said she still hasn't been told by any official how her sister died on that tragic Thursday night in December.

Ms. Frazier had turned herself in to the jail one day earlier and was to begin serving a 3-year prison sentence for felony theft.

The start of her sentence had been pushed back on at least three occasions — in August, September and October. Court records indicate that she had asked for drug treatment at the time she was sentenced to prison.

When she was found lifeless a little after 5 p.m. Dec. 1, jail employees immediately administered CPR and were soon joined on-site by emergency medical officials and the Urbana Fire Department. But it was too late. Ms. Frazier was pronounced dead four hours later at Carle, the sheriff's office said in its release.

Sheriff Dan Walsh declined to comment on this story.

'I mean, a letter?'

Ms. Frazier's family members say they were contacted by the Illinois State Police and were told an investigation was being conducted. They also heard from the Champaign County coroner's office and were told that the initial cause of death was not known, but that foul play was not suspected, Jones said.

They were told they'd hear back about the cause of death in 4 to 6 weeks but still hadn't as of Tuesday, she said.

State Police Sgt. Mike Atkinson, who presented to the council Tuesday night, said after the meeting that authorities spoke to Ms. Frazier's family as part of their investigation but, to his knowledge, toxicology results weren't yet back and no cause of death had been determined.

Jones said the family's first correspondence from the sheriff's office came via a letter that arrived two-and-a-half weeks after her sister's death.

"Here my sister died in their custody, it took them near three weeks to send us a letter," Jones said. "A letter? I mean, a letter? Two and a half weeks later? Who does that? I think that is so sad that a grieving family has to go through that."

Process explained

Alderman Aaron Ammons asked that the council be briefed on the process Tuesday night, saying it's important for the public to know how deaths are investigated, especially given the ongoing national conversation about officer-involved deaths.

The as-needed team is made up of nine local agencies — the police departments of Urbana, Champaign, Rantoul, Mahomet, Parkland College and the University of Illinois; the county sheriff, coroner and the state's attorney's office.

When the team is called in, the eight other departments investigate the department under which the death occurred.

The investigation begins as soon as possible after the scene is stable, Urbana Lt. Bryant Seraphin said. Everything needed for the probe — including squad car video, information collected from the scene and statements from public safety workers — is immediately sent to the team.

Once the information is collected, the investigation "starts with the state's attorney's office," Atkinson said. "After that, it proceeds to the other entities."

Atkinson said the state's attorney investigates whether there was a breach of state law, the police departments look for policy compliance and training needs, the city legal departments assess whether there are legal and liability concerns, the coroner conducts an inquest, and, sometimes, the Department of Justice or FBI investigate whether there were civil rights violations.

Atkinson said he tries to conduct the investigations as quickly as possible.

"The nuts and bolts are done in two to three days, but in order to have some sort of a product to show to the state's attorney, it takes two to three to four weeks," Atkinson said. "It depends on the number of reports that have to be written, the number of videos that have to be watched."

Under a new state law that took effect Jan. 1, police departments cannot investigate deaths in their own department. Seraphin said the state law codifies what the team has been doing since it began in 1999.

Comments

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rsp wrote on January 20, 2016 at 5:01 pm

There was nothing in there about who is responsible for notifying the family. With so many parties involved, maybe it's too easy to lose sight of the victim. Maybe there should be a liason created, even if it's voluntary, for each case, to stay in contact with families. Make notifications, explain the process, ect. Go with people to court. Like CASA with background checks, training.

Fortis99 wrote on January 21, 2016 at 2:01 pm

"The investigation begins as soon as possible after the scene is stable, Urbana Lt. Bryant Seraphin said. Everything needed for the probe — including squad car video, information collected from the scene and statements from public safety workers — is immediately sent to the team."

Maybe the first step should be to notify the family?

pziggy wrote on January 21, 2016 at 4:01 pm

The first step should NOT be to notify the family.  The first step is to gather evidence and have all those involved write down their individual reports of what happened.  Evidence goes stale and memories of important facts fade VERY quickly.  Once what happened is set in stone, so that the proper steps may be taken in the future, only then is the incident over and can you begin to take action based on the incident itself, like notifying the family.

MajorMinor wrote on January 22, 2016 at 8:01 am
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It's barbaric, disrespectful and ridiculous that this family wasn't notified of the death of their loved one. How does contacting the family interfere with an investigation? Champaign County has always been "suspect". Lots of mishandled cases and corruption has made many of us lose faith in the judicial system. Hopefully, those responsible for this terrible and tragic situation will be held accountable.   

alabaster jones 71 wrote on January 22, 2016 at 10:01 pm
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OK, pziggy, how about this then?   Have someone who wasn't a witness and who wasn't involved contact the family.

I imagine that you would want to know as soon as possible if it were your loved one who died in custody.   I imagine that you wouldn't want the entire bureaucratic process to play itself out before you were given any notice.  Just a hunch.....