Prosecutor: No criminal charges warranted in case of woman who died in jail

Brenda Sewell

On Jan. 20, Brenda Sewell, 58, and her sister had just crossed into Kansas on Interstate 70 after spending a weekend in Colorado.

They were doing about nine miles over the speed limit when a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper pulled them over near Goodland.

It was just weeks after Colorado had legalized the sale of marijuana, and during the stop, Sewell acknowledged she had about an ounce of it — for medicinal purposes, she said. The trooper arrested both Sewell, of Kansas City., Mo., and her sister, Joy Biggs. They were taken to Sherman County’s jail, known as the Bastille.

A few hours later Sewell began vomiting, and about 36 hours later she was dead.

Controversy has swirled since about whether Sewell received proper medical care, and the case became a regional news story, in part because law enforcement had refused to release records surrounding the death and the investigation of it.

This month, for the first time, Sherman County Attorney Charles Moser released the police investigative file exclusively to the Journal-World. Among the findings in the report: Douglas County Attorney Charles Branson was brought in to review the case to see whether criminal charges against the county were warranted in relation to Sewell’s death.

Branson found that the correctional officers overseeing Sewell did not commit a crime.

“I will make no comment with regard to civil liability,” Branson wrote in the review that was completed in May.

The file describes Sewell’s downward spiral as her health deteriorated over about 36 hours: a video recorder documented the women’s activities in the cell.

While Moser would not release the video, he did release a log describing what it recorded.

Sewell vomited more than two dozen times over 15 hours. After being taken to a medical center and given intravenous fluids and anti-nausea medicine, she was returned to her cell. The next morning she was sick again, began having seizures and quit breathing.

Sewell suffered abdominal hemorrhaging when her spleen ruptured, according to an autopsy report. Contributing factors to the rupture included vomiting and abdominal retching, the autopsy found.

Sewell’s family doesn’t understand why she wasn’t provided better, faster medical treatment.

“I firmly believe she would be alive today if they had just listened instead of treating (her and his aunt) like hardened criminals,” said Sewell’s son, Aaron Ray. “Everything about this was absurd.”

Sewell’s sister Biggs found the investigative file lacking in information.

For example, Biggs tried to use the telephone in the cell to call family members so she could get help for Sewell. But the phone was broken — she could hear the person she called, but they couldn’t hear her.

“They wouldn’t give me access to a phone so I could call my family,” Biggs said. “The report never mentions how many times we tried to call home and we asked them to let us make a phone call. This report is really deficient.”

The family says it plans to file a lawsuit over Sewell’s treatment.

Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pianalto did not respond to a request for an interview and has not commented since Sewell’s death.

Neither Sewell nor Biggs had criminal backgrounds.

Branson’s findings

To charge someone with mistreatment of a confined person, the evidence must show the victim was abused, neglected or ill-treated, Branson said in his review.

“Based upon the review of the materials listed above, there is no evidence of any type of physical abuse by jail staff of Ms. Sewell,” Branson wrote.

Branson also said jail staff appeared to be courteous toward Sewell. He also noted that Sewell never complained of being neglected or mistreated, although she did say she was sick.

Branson found there was “some delay in summoning help” for Sewell just before she died.

Sewell’s condition worsened the morning of Jan. 22, and at 6:36 a.m., her sister tried to summon deputies by yelling and waving a towel several times at the video camera in the cell. It wasn’t until 7:07 a.m. that jail staff, busy serving breakfast, called for assistance and an ambulance.

By the time the ambulance arrived, Sewell had suffered seizures and was being tended to on the floor of the cell by her sister and an inmate. At 8 a.m., Sewell was pronounced dead. Records show she was in cardiac arrest in the ambulance and EMS workers shocked her heart unsuccessfully.

A KBI memorandum released by that agency earlier this year detailed an agent’s conversation with Pianalto by telephone while an ambulance was taking Sewell to the hospital.

The memo said Pianalto told the KBI agent that he believed Sewell would be pronounced dead at the hospital and that he believed illegal drug use was to blame.

Pianalto asked the agent if KBI would conduct an independent investigation but the agency later declined after the autopsy found that Sewell died of natural causes.

In addition, Lyle Noordhoek of Hays, the coroner who did the autopsy, told two KBI agents that same day that he believed after deputies told him about Sewell’s death that the woman had probably died from “complications to a drug withdrawal,” the KBI memo said.

Noordhoek’s autopsy report, however, did not indicate that Sewell had used illegal drugs.

Sewell becomes sick

Sewell suffered from several autoimmune diseases including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome, her family said. She also had thyroid disease, high blood pressure and Hepatitis C, the family said.

Among Sewell’s prescriptions were pain and muscle relaxant medications prescribed to deaden the pain some of the diseases caused.

The log created from the jail video recorder, narrative reports and audio recordings of interviews describes what happened:

Sewell first became sick about 5:51 a.m. Jan. 21, and within an hour vomited three times. She appeared throughout the day to have chills and hot flashes, often using a wet cloth to wipe her forehead and chest.

At 3 p.m., a deputy took Sewell to her first appearance in front of a judge, where she said she was ill, records show.

Back in her cell at about 4 p.m., she began vomiting into a gray tote that was under her bed.

About 6:30 p.m., a detention deputy reported that the vomit was bloody. By then Sewell had vomited more than two dozen times.

Deputies decided Sewell should go to the hospital at about 7 p.m. She was seen by two nurses. One nurse told Pianalto that she would give Sewell some fluids but that she would likely be released, according to the log.

After receiving fluid and anti-nausea medication Sewell was returned to the jail. Biggs and Luann Medrano, another person in the cell, later told the investigating detective that Sewell was chided by deputies because she “was faking it,” according to audio recordings.

Sewell slept until about 6:30 a.m.

Last hour

That morning, Biggs and Medrano realized there was something wrong with Sewell, who told her sister, “I feel like I did last night,” Biggs told the detective in an interview.

At 6:35 a.m., Biggs waved at the camera twice with her hand, according to the jail log. She then picked up a towel and waved it at the camera nine times.

“She was delirious,” Biggs later told the detective. “She was choking, everything was coming out of her mouth, she was gagging but she wasn’t.”

Biggs waved the towel again at the camera 12 times and then again six times. By this time Sewell had gotten back onto her cot and was lying in a ball with a blanket over her.

“They weren’t coming, and they weren’t coming,” Biggs told the detective. “Her eyes were dilated, and she was cold to feel.”

At 7:02 a.m., Deputy Aaron Mann came to the cell, and Biggs told him Sewell needed her “puke pill,” Mann wrote in his report. Biggs told him her sister “was going downhill” and was unable to sign the med sheet.

“At this time I observed (from the cell window) Sewell to be very pale to ashen, clammy looking, and it appeared she was having difficulty getting her breath. She was also very unstable in a sitting position,” Mann wrote.

Mann left to call dispatch to get an ambulance.

He then went back to the cell window to check on Sewell through the window.

“Biggs yelled, ‘She’s getting worse, and she needs help. … They thought she was faking last night, that’s why they aren’t hurrying,'” Mann wrote in the report.

Mann said he told Biggs she needed to calm down and left again.

The video shows Sewell going into convulsions at 7:08 a.m. and her body appeared to go rigid with enough force to move Biggs, the jail log said.

Mann wrote that he could hear Biggs and Medrano “both screaming that Sewell was not breathing.”

Biggs and Medrano put a blanket on the floor and lay Sewell on it. Another inmate who had been placed in the cell the night before began trying to resuscitate her, Mann’s report said.

Biggs and Medrano were holding Sewell, sitting on the floor. Sewell’s head would drop to her chest, and her sister would pull it back up, patting her hair.

Finally Biggs began giving her sister chest compressions, according to the log.

When Biggs couldn’t continue, the third inmate took over.

“Ms. Biggs can be seen screaming ‘HELP!’ several times in the area of the cell door,” the jail log said. “The word ‘help’ is clearly discernible from watching Ms. Biggs’ mouth.”

At almost 7:20 a.m., EMS workers arrive at the cell.

Going home

After her sister died, Biggs was released from the jail. Pianalto took her to get her car and had her follow him to I-70. Biggs said he then pointed east and said “‘Kansas City is that way.'”

Biggs was charged with possession of her sister’s one ounce of marijuana, pleaded guilty this fall and was placed on probation.

A school bus driver, Biggs said she couldn’t afford to go through a trial in Western Kansas, 430 miles from her home.