Conn. police probe death of Lauren Smith-Fields, found dead after a date in December
Police in Bridgeport, Conn., have opened a criminal investigation into the death of Lauren Smith-Fields after weeks of criticism over the department's handling of the case.
The 23-year-old Black woman was found dead in her apartment in mid-December, shortly after meeting a man from a dating app. Members of her family have accused the police department of failing to notify them of her death and mishandling the subsequent investigation, and intend to sue over what their attorney described as its "racially insensitive" handling of the case.
The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Monday ruled Smith-Fields' death an accident resulting from "an overdose of Fentanyl combined with prescription medication and alcohol," according to a police statement shared with NPR over email. It said the Brideport Police Narcotics and Vice Division have opened a criminal investigation and will be assisted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The Bridgeport Police Department continues to treat the untimely death of Lauren Smith-Fields as an active investigation as we are now refocusing our attention and efforts to the factors that led to her untimely death," said chief Rebeca Garcia, adding that several partners will assist with this portion of the investigation and anyone with information should call 203 576-TIPS.
The family's attorney, Darnell Crosland, said on Twitter that the medical examiner's findings had left them with more questions than answers.
"I've never seen a medical examiner conclude a mixer of drugs as an accident without knowing who provided the drugs, or how it was ingested," he added. "Lauren didn't use drugs."
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lauren Smith (@soooolalaa)
Also on Monday, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim announced that he had referred the police department's handling of the case to its Office of Internal Affairs, saying in a statement shared with NPR that "there is no tolerance for anything less than respect and sensitivity for family members and their loss."
Ganim added that he shared the "concerns echoed by many about the amount of time and manner a family is informed of a loss," and pledged to work with the police chief to make urgent changes to the department's policies around notifying family members of a death.
"I recognize that the family and the community is experiencing a lot of pain because of the loss of a young woman in addition to unanswered questions and concerns about the way the matter has been handled," Ganim said.
Here's what we know so far.
Smith-Field's date called police after finding her unresponsive
Officers responded to a call for service at Smith-Fields' Bridgeport apartment Dec. 12 and discovered upon arrival that she had "passed away unexpectedly," according to the police department.
They found Smith-Fields lying on her back on the floor, with dried blood in and around her right nostril, according to a police report shared with CNN and other news outlets. (NPR has asked city and police department officials for a copy of the report.)
The man who placed the call was also at the scene when police arrived. His name was redacted in the report, though NBC News has identified him as a 37-year-old white man (many outlets, including NPR, are not releasing his name because he is not facing any charges).
The report said he had been doing chest compressions with the guidance of the emergency operator on the phone, and described him as frantic, "trembling and visibly shaken." He told police that he had met Smith-Fields on the dating app Bumble three days earlier, and had met her for the first time the previous night.
The man told police that Smith-Fields' had invited him over, and the two were taking tequila shots when she became ill and went to the bathroom to vomit. When she returned, he said, they drank more tequila with mixers, played games, ate food and started watching a movie.
Smith-Fields fell asleep on the couch, and the man reportedly carried her to bed and fell asleep next to her. He said he heard her snoring when he woke up early in the morning to use the bathroom. When he woke up again around 6:30 a.m., he saw that she wasn't breathing and had blood coming out of her nose, and called police.
Medics said she had been dead for at least an hour, according to the report.
Her family says the police were dismissive of both evidence and her loved ones
Smith-Fields' family maintains that the police did not notify them of her death, and failed to collect key pieces of evidence from the scene.
Crosland filed a legal notice last week as part of a planned lawsuit against the city and the police department, alleging that — in addition to not properly investigating Smith-Fields' death — police violated the family's civil rights.
Crosland told CNN that Smith-Fields' family only learned of her death two days later, through a note from her landlord. They had visited her apartment because "Christmas dinner was supposed to be at Lauren's house that year" and she hadn't been answering her calls.
"When I got there, there was a note on the door saying, 'If you're looking for Lauren, call this number,'" Shantell Fields, her mother, told CBS News.
Her brother, Tavar Gray-Smith, said a detective later told him they didn't need to reach out to family members because "we had her passport and her ID, so we knew who she was."
Officers did collect some items from the scene — like cash, her passport, a credit card and her cell phone — as evidence, according to the police report.
But Smith-Fields' family says potentially key pieces of evidence weren't processed until two weeks later when police returned to her apartment at their urging. Those include bloodied sheets, drinks, a pill and a condom with semen in it.
The family also alleges that police have refused to interview the man who reported her death as a person of interest.
"When we asked about this guy, [the initial detective on the case said] 'he was a nice guy, there was no need to investigate,' " Lauren's father, Everett Smith, told ABC affiliate WTNH.
They also said that the first detective assigned to the case told them to stop calling to ask about the investigation, and at one point hung up on her father. They were told that the detective has since been removed from the investigation, CBS News reports.
Crosland told CNN that the family "is not paranoid" about the racial insensitivity they have perceived. He pointed to the different level of resources and attention given to the investigation into Gabby Petito's disappearance and death last fall, which many have noted was disproportionate to the kind of attention typically given to missing Indigenous women and people of color.
"We will not stop until we get justice for Lauren and the thousands of Black girls that go missing in this country every year," Crosland said. "We owe them equal rights and justice regardless of race and we wouldn't stop fighting until we get it."
Their push for justice is gaining national attention
Sunday would have been Smith-Fields' 24th birthday. Supporters and community members marked it with a rally, marching from the police department to the city government center to demand answers from officials.
Smith-Fields' family reflected on her life and called for humanity and justice in the investigation into her death.
The Stamford High School track star was studying cosmetology at Norwalk Community College and owned her own business on the side, according to News 12 Westchester. Her brothers remembered her as bubbly, kind-hearted and funny.
"No one is going to discard my daughter like she is rubbish," Fields said, according to footage from the rally. "She is not rubbish. She had a life, she had a business, she was in college and she had a family and friends that love her."
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lauren Smith (@soooolalaa)
Her family reiterated calls for the state to conduct an independent probe, and for legislators to pass a law that would require families to be notified of relatives' death in a timely manner. State Sen. Dennis Bradley said he had submitted a bill on the matter, WTNH reports.
They have also reportedly paid out of pocket for an independent autopsy, and have set up an online fundraising page in the hopes of hiring a private investigator to conduct their own parallel investigation.
Bumble has released several statements in the wake of Smith-Fields' death.
In an initial statement shared with NPR, the company said it had contacted her family directly to offer support and was ready to provide information as requested by law enforcement. A Bumble spokesperson later told NPR that "law enforcement has not requested any customer information to date."
Its most recent statement came in the form of an Instagram post on Wednesday, in which it said "we continue to be unsettled by this loss" and called for a "thorough and serious investigation."
Buzzfeed News notes that people have been posting about the case — and lack of progress — on social media apps like TikTok and Instagram for weeks. Rapper Cardi B also tweeted about the tragedy over the weekend, which Crosland later told TMZ was "instrumental" in getting the police to open a criminal probe.
The growing calls for justice, and the announcement of a criminal investigation, have prompted an explosion in national media coverage in recent days.
"Lauren was bright," her brother, Tavar Gray-Smith, told CBS. "She had a future, and the world knows she should be here, and that's why [the news is] going viral like it is."
This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.
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