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On the final day of his life, the relatives of 17-year-old Tyrone McCollough Jr. recorded his image on videotape as he lay motionless in a hospital bed, tubes in his mouth and nose, monitors taped to his chest, wires dangling from his body.
An aunt, Stephanie Stanberry, says she had to leave St. Louis University Hospital because she couldn't bear to see him that way. She remembered McCollough -- nicknamed "Bird" by his family -- as a lively teen, an amateur boxer who once won second place in a championship. He had a talent for drawing, she says, and he could "out-dance all the rest of the kids."
"When they lived down on 19th and Ferry, he built a clubhouse outside that was real nice," Stanberry recalls. "Bird was like any other kid. He was just a normal kid."
The second-youngest of six children, Tyrone McCollough lived in the 4100 block of Oregon Avenue with his mother, who lost her ability to speak last year as a result of a stroke. The teenager wasn't without his troubles. A cousin, 31-year-old Don Stanberry, says McCollough had quit going to Vashon High School, where he was a junior, although his mother was pressuring him to return. In 1998, he was charged with attempted burglary, a case that got him six months' probation.
"He just loved to box and pretty much kept to himself," Don Stanberry says. "All kids have their bad sides, but that's just part of growing up. He really wanted to turn professional. All that's stopped now."
On Sept. 30, McCollough was arrested and charged with possession and sale of a controlled substance, accused of selling crack cocaine to an undercover police officer. He was first taken to police headquarters and, later, the City Workhouse, where, on Oct. 4, while housed in the No. 8 dormitory, he got into a fight with another inmate. After guards broke up the fight, McCollough and the prisoner with whom he fought were taken to the "premax tier" -- a section of the workhouse set aside for inmates with disciplinary problems -- and housed in the same cell block, which consists of 13 one-man cells measuring 9 by 6 feet each.
That day, McCollough placed a call to his aunt, nicknamed "Wife" by her nieces and nephews. She wasn't home. He got her answering service. Stephanie Stanberry says the message he left was brief and frantic: "Help, Wife, help."
The next time Stephanie Stanberry's telephone rang, it was St. Louis University Hospital, calling to tell her that McCollough had apparently tried to hang himself with a bedsheet in his jail cell. Please come to the hospital, they said. The teenager was brain-dead and on life support.
No one had intended to make a video of that final day of McCollough's life. But a deputy sheriff who was assigned to guard the hospital room told Stephanie Stanberry and her son, Don, that the teen's hanging might be suspicious. He said a doctor told him the injuries didn't seem consistent with suicide. Don Stanberry called a lawyer, who suggested the family make a video recording any bruises on the teen's body. On Oct. 5, less than 24 hours after workhouse guards brought him to the hospital, McCollough died. It was 5:45 p.m.
The St. Louis medical examiner's office conducted an autopsy and ruled that McCollough had committed suicide by hanging. Homicide detectives reached the same conclusion. As far as they're concerned, the case is closed.
For McCollough's relatives, there are enough troubling questions to raise doubt about the official findings. Why, for instance, would an emergency-room doctor say McCollough's injuries didn't support the view that he attempted suicide? Where did McCollough get the bed linen? What reason would he have to commit suicide if he was probably only days away from being released?
Deputy Sheriff Thomas Mueller told police that he was assigned to guard McCollough's room in the sixth-floor intensive-care unit at St. Louis University Hospital, where the teen was on life support. He spoke briefly with an emergency-room physician, Dr. Katrina Wade, who told him that in her opinion, the "victim's injuries were not consistent with him hanging himself, and that something else might have happened to him."
Around midnight on Oct. 4, Mueller escorted Don and Stephanie Stanberry to the sixth-floor hospital room, and when they asked what had happened to McCollough, the deputy sheriff relayed what the doctor had told him.
Detectives later tried to question the doctor, but they were referred to the hospital's legal staff and told that hospital policy prohibited the detectives from speaking with the doctor directly about a patient's medical treatment. Through a hospital lawyer, though, the doctor confirmed her conversation with the deputy sheriff. Hospital lawyer Michael Cardinez said Dr. Wade told the deputy that "the victim was brain-dead and might have suffered some type of head trauma. According to the police report, she also told him in her professional opinion, the victim's injuries did not appear to be consistent with him hanging himself."
On the basis of the deputy's account, Don Stanberry wonders whether his cousin was beaten or strangled at the workhouse by a guard or an inmate and his body hung to cover it up.