Belleville Police Face Lawsuit Over Homeless Woman Who Died in Jail

Sep 16, 2010 at 8:00 am
Sunny L. Swanson - courtesy of Belleville Police Department
courtesy of Belleville Police Department
Sunny L. Swanson
courtesy of Belleville Police Department
Sunny L. Swanson
Around 5 p.m. on October 15, 2009, officer James Huber of the Belleville Police Department was summoned to KJ's Saloon on Illinois Street in the north end of town. A bar employee had called to report a burglary in progress at a vacant house across the street. Huber radioed for back-up, and the department's K9 unit showed up a few minutes later. The cops walked over the house and yelled through a shattered back window that the robbers had to "show themselves or the dog would be released."

A ragged homeless couple -- 39-year-old Sunny L. Swanson and her boyfriend, 43-year-old John H. Ellis -- surrendered without a fight. The pair didn't even have to give their names to the cops. As Huber noted in his arrest report, Ellis and Swanson were "known to our department on a daily, if not several times a day [basis]."

Indeed, Swanson was a regular with law enforcement across St. Clair County. She had been arrested a whopping 63 times since 2004 with 16 convictions, mostly for being drunk in public or trespassing. In the year before she was caught breaking and entering by officer Huber, Belleville Police had arrested Swanson 34 times, citing her on 17 of those occasions for disorderly conduct or being a "pedestrian under the influence of alcohol."

But Swanson's trip to the Belleville Jail that evening on charges of residential burglary would be her last. The following afternoon she was found dead on the floor of her cell.

Now, nearly a year later, Swanson's sister -- Kanas City resident Stacey Bray -- says she plans to file a wrongful death suit against the Belleville Police Department.

"There's evidence that Sunny was begging for help to be sent to hospital because she was vomiting blood when she was brought in," Bray says. "They did nothing to help her. They did not follow their protocol."

Belleville Police spokesman Captain Donald Sax declined to comment on any pending litigation. After receiving a public records request, however, Sax provided Riverfront Times with copies of the police reports about Swanson's death and the subsequent investigation. The documents (viewable in full on the following page) indicate that Swanson was in fact seriously ill when she was taken into custody -- and that she never received medical treatment, as departmental policy requires.
When Swanson arrived at the jail shortly after 5 p.m. on October 15, Huber noted that she was "sick/vomiting" and that he was "unable to process" her for booking.

The Belleville Police Policy Manual (a portion of which was also obtained via a public records request) states that "any person who is sick or injured" is "non-detainable" and should be taken to a hospital. The manual also states that "intoxicated persons" held for more than six hours "must be evaluated by a superior."

Jail records indicate that an officer checked on Swanson and the other prisoners every 30 minutes throughout the course of the night and following morning, never noticing anything amiss.

"Whenever I checked on her, she was asleep on her bunk under a blanket and did not appear to be in distress," Sergeant Jim Dahm wrote in his report narrative. "Although we never spoke I did notice that she changed position on her bunk several times. I did notice (when I put her lunch in the bars of her cell) that she did not eat her breakfast (which was not uncommon for her)."

Bray disputes Dahm's version of events.

"We have a witness that was in the jail at the time who didn't know Sunny," she says. "She heard her crying to them to call an ambulance, and they went by her cell and said 'Shut the hell up.'"

Swanson's body was discovered around 1:20 p.m. on October 16 by Officer Dan Cook and Lieutenant Doug Jones as they were preparing to transport prisoners to court that afternoon.

Jones wrote that Cook summoned him to Swanson's cell, pointed at her motionless body and stated, "'I think she might be dead." Jones noted that he "observed Swanson lying face down on the cell floor. Her head was lying on the floor between the bunk and the toilet. She was not wearing a top and her face was lying on a piece of clothing that appeared to be used as a pillow."

The two officers called an ambulance, and Swanson's body was transported to St. Elizabeth Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 1:52 p.m.

Cook wrote that Ellis, Swanson's boyfriend, reported that she "was complaining of feeling sick and may have been vomiting during the night," and that "he and Swanson had consumed three fifths of vodka yesterday afternoon before they were arrested."

The inquest of Swanson's body by St. Clair County Coroner Rick Stone (also obtained via records request) lists her official cause of death as "complications of chronic alcoholism." The toxicology report, however, found no trace of alcohol or alcohol by-products in her system.

"It's bizarre to say the least," says Clay St. Clair, the Belleville attorney slated to represent Bray in court.

Bray questions why police repeatedly arrested Swanson without referring her to an alcohol treatment program or helping her seek domestic violence counseling. (Swanson was taken into police custody as a victim of domestic abuse three times in the year leading up to her death, records show, including one incident where she suffered broken ribs.)

"She was my baby sister and she had a heart of gold," Bray says. "Alcohol dragged her down. The kid never had a chance. She tried hard to get on her feet and the system just knocked her down."

Bray says she will donate any money she receives as a result of the lawsuit to a fund supporting a sixteen-year-old son Swanson left behind. Bray also said she is planning a memorial service in Belleville's Rotary Park next month on October 16, the one-year anniversary of Swanson's death.

Click through to the following page to view .pdf files of the police documents and coroner's inquest cited above.