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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.
But Dr. Michael A. Graham, chief medical examiner for the city, says it was a clear-cut case of suicide. "All the information we see fits that," he says. "We didn't see anything contrary to that. It was pretty straightforward."
He says there was no evidence of any recent beating. "We didn't see any evidence of a beating or anything like that. Oftentimes, people will get marks related to the therapy they receive, and plus there are a number of things that happen to bodies as people are dying that are often misconstrued as injuries by people who don't see these things all the time."
When asked about Wade's opinion, the medical examiner was dismissive. "Their records do not reflect that opinion at SLU," he says. "I don't know why she would have that opinion. The record I reviewed by the senior attendings doesn't reflect that, plus our examination doesn't reflect that -- which is more important."
Adding to the mystery surrounding McCollough's death is the question of where he obtained the sheet he allegedly used to hang himself. The corrections officer on duty that day says McCollough was never issued any sheets.
Workhouse officials told police that when McCollough was transferred to the premax section -- along with Kellen Gillespie, the prisoner he fought with in the dormitory -- each man's linens and toiletry items were packed in a rubber tote and left outside the premax area. The section consists of 13 one-man cells along an eastern wall, the doors of which can be opened individually or all at one time. Each cell contains a sink, toilet, bed and metal air vent.
Linda Henderson, the corrections officer on duty Oct. 4, told detectives that McCollough didn't have any linen when he was placed in his cell, nor was he ever issued any "during his tenure in his cell."
McCollough was in cell No. 12. The prisoner next to him, Brian Mabery, later told investigators that he was asked by McCollough how many sheets he had. He had two, he said, and McCollough asked for one, but he denied giving him any.
Gillespie, who was transferred along with McCollough for their fight, told detectives he was outside his cell for a 30-minute recreation period, walking back and forth in the tier, when he heard McCollough tell the prisoner in the next cell that he needed a sheet. While walking past cell No. 12, Gillespie said, he saw McCollough hanging from the vent with a brown bedsheet around his neck. It was Gillespie who summoned a corrections officer.
Workhouse officials, including Superintendent of Corrections Dennis Blackman, did not return phone calls seeking comment. An internal investigation is being conducted by the city's Department of Public Safety.
J. Justin Meehan is a St. Louis lawyer who represented Gregory Bell, a mentally retarded man who was beaten by police in his home in 1997 after he accidentally set off a burglar alarm. Meehan got a call from the Stanberrys while McCollough was in the hospital. After hearing details of what happened, he suggested they videotape the teenager's body. McCollough's cousin pointed out any suspicious markings on the recording: what appear to be bruises on his arm and leg, marks near his shoulder, what could be teeth marks on the webbing of one hand.
Meehan says he tried to obtain the teen's emergency-room records after McCollough died but had a difficult time finding them. McCollough, he later learned, had been admitted to the hospital as a "John Doe" with an incorrect birthdate and Social Security number. That is just another of the oddities of this case, he says.
"If there hadn't been so much secrecy, there wouldn't be so much concern on the part of the family," he says. "My primary concern is to make sure this isn't swept under the rug and to involve the family and keep them informed. Even if this is an individual that hung himself, there are changes that need to be made. It doesn't make any difference if there was a conspiracy or foul play or not. The point is, a kid went into a city institution and came out dead. How does that happen?"
Perhaps most troubling to McCollough's family is their firm belief the 17-year-old would not have killed himself and had no reason to.
The family's lawyer says the pending drug charges were unlikely to lead to any significant jail time for the teen, who would have turned 18 last month. He says McCollough, with only one prior charge on his record, was a likely candidate for more probation or a drug-treatment program.
He says the entire incident "just doesn't smell right.... Neither the family nor the workhouse believed Tyrone was likely to do anything to harm himself."
McCollough's family dismisses the notion that the confinement might have driven him to suicide, because it wasn't the first time McCollough had been behind bars and he was likely to be released shortly.
Stephanie Stanberry says McCollough spent three or four weeks in jail last winter after his arrest on the attempted-burglary charge and she talked to him regularly then. "When kids get locked up because they've been doing something, they want to get out."
But, she adds, her young nephew never sounded the way he did on Oct. 4, when he left the message on her answering service.
"He had never sounded like he did this time. He sounded scared to death."