Lawsuit: Lansing cops ‘conceal facts’ after inmate dies beneath City Hall

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(This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2020.)

The city of Lansing is still refusing to release several key details after videos and reports showed that four police officers directly contributed to the death of an inmate in April. And those cops are back on duty despite an ongoing criminal investigation into the incident.

Video footage released by attorneys late last month shows Anthony Hulon, 54, of Lansing, being escorted by four LPD officers into a small cell at the city’s lock-up below City Hall at about 1:04 a.m. on April 11. After a brief struggle with officers, Hulon was pronounced dead at 2:12 a.m.

The events that took place during those 68 minutes are now the subject of a federal wrongful death lawsuit that was filed last week against the city, Police Chief Daryl Green, two sergeants, two detention officers and a patrol cop — all of whom are back at work this week.

Schor and Green declined interviews with City Pulse last week and refused to answer several basic questions about the incident via email. But a 30-page complaint filed last month in the Western District of Michigan alleges that the officers involved not only wrongfully killed Hulon, but “conspired to distort and conceal the actual facts and circumstances regarding his death.”

And newly surfaced emails show that efforts to conceal facts may have continued this week.

City Attorney Jim Smiertka, in response to questions from the City Council last week, said his  first notice that a lawsuit had been filed  was a recent story in the Lansing State Journal. He was quietly aware, however, for several weeks that the litigation was going to be filed. 

"We knew litigation was coming," Smiertka told City Pulse. 

Emails show that both Green and Smiertka were notified on May 29 of the pending lawsuit. Damico also sent Smiertka a copy of Hulon’s death certificate and autopsy photos on Sept. 16. She said that nobody at the city has sent her a response before the lawsuit was filed. 

“This is about accountability," said Jennifer Damico, the Detroit attorney for Heather Hulon, Anthony Hulon's sister and representative of his estate. “This is about an apology. It’s about a recognition that somebody did something wrong. This is about not allowing this to happen to someone else.”

‘I can’t breathe’

Hulon was booked into the city’s lock-up at 1:50 p.m. on allegations of domestic violence stemming from a fight with a friend at his home on Pennsylvania Avenue, the lawsuit states. At the time, Hulon was “visibly under the influence” of methamphetamine, according to reports.

After arrest, Hulon was taken to the city’s lock-up where he reportedly paced wildly around his concrete cell, stripping off his clothes and shouting for several hours straight. Cops decided to take Hulon to Sparrow Hospital later that evening for a medical evaluation, reports showed.

Medical staff gave Hulon some lorazepam to ease his anxiety. Cops picked him back up at 12:25 a.m., noting that, even hours later, he still “couldn’t stop moving.” Reports repeatedly noted that Hulon was “visibly under the influence.” He can be heard growling in video tapes. 

Video footage later shows four officers — identified in the lawsuit as Sgt. Edgar Guerra, detention officers Charles Wright and Gary Worden and patrol officer Trevor Allman — escorting Hulon back inside a cell and attempting to secure leg restraints before pulling Hulon to the floor.

Footage released by Damico’s office, which the city has refused to release independently, also shows the officers piling on top of Hulon as he pleads with them to ease pressure off his neck in the corner of his cell. “I can’t breathe,” he tried to shout. “I’m about to pass out,” he told officers.

Sgt. Billy Windom, who is also named in the lawsuit, reportedly looked on from a camera wired to a control room as Hulon appeared to make his final voluntary movements at 1:07 a.m.

Autopsy reports and Hulon’s death certificate clearly list the manner of his death as homicide, more specifically from “positional asphyxia” or the inability to breathe caused by another — something that could have been avoided and now requires cops to be held liable, Damico said.

The lawsuit also alleges that the cops failed to deliver adequate and timely lifesaving measures to Hulon. Video footage shows that the four officers involved also repeatedly ignored automated defibrillator alerts designed to notify them to give rescue breaths after several failed attempts at CPR.

“During the eight minutes from the time that the defendant officers determined that Hulon was not breathing and had no pulse, to the time that the first responders arrived, no defendant officer performed any rescue breathing and/or administered any oxygen,” the lawsuit further alleged.

Green said each of the officers were put on paid leave while the Michigan State Police was called in for a criminal investigation. The results of that probe were later handed off to Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office in July, where it remained under review earlier this week.

The lawsuit contends that criminal charges were expressly requested against the police officers, though neither the AG’s office or the Michigan State Police would confirm or deny that assertion. A spokesman for Nessel’s office declined to comment, except to note the review continues.

“There is no standard timeline for conducting reviews of these matters, and we prefer a thorough, comprehensive unbiased evaluation of the evidence rather than an expedited rush to judgment,” a spokesman for the AG’s office explained to City Pulse via email late last week.

In the meantime, the cops involved in Hulon’s death have been called back to work, though Schor and Green wouldn’t explain when or why the officers were allowed to return to duty. They also declined to elaborate on why the officers didn’t attempt to revive Hulon through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Hulon that night at the city’s underground lock-up.

Instead, a mayoral spokeswoman responded to questions with a joint statement from Schor and Green: “The Lansing Police Department has not been served with the lawsuit and has not had an opportunity to thoroughly review the allegations, and therefore, can’t provide comment on the pending litigation or the pending investigation and review by the Attorney General’s Office.”

‘Medical complications’

City officials also wouldn’t explain why Hulon’s death was attributed only to vague “medical complications” in a press release sent out about the incident to local media outlets in April. 

That press release, the first formal notification to the public that something occurred that night, only noted that Hulon was “exhibiting medical complications unrelated to his arrest.” It doesn’t mention any physical altercation with officers, instead noting only that “his medical complications recurred” at 1:04 a.m. — just when officers were piled on top of Hulon in his cell.

“Officers immediately started life saving measures and used an AED in an attempt to regain consciousness,” according to the press release, in which Green labeled the incident a “tragedy.”

Green later told the Lansing State Journal that he wasn’t aware that Hulon’s cause of death had been ruled a homicide by the Ingham County Medical Examiner’s office. Despite their public availability, none of those reports were specifically sent to city officials, a spokeswoman added.

“To prevent any conflict of interest, the matter was referred to and investigated by the Michigan State Police,” Schor said in a statement. “The Lansing Police Department cooperated with that investigation. Without notification to the City of Lansing or Lansing Police Department, the Michigan State Police investigation was forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office for review.”

Schor and Green also added: “No decision has been provided from the Attorney General’s Office, nor has the Michigan State Police or the Medical Examiner released their records or reports to the City of Lansing, which is standard while a matter remains under review.”

The fatal risk of prolonged restraint, however, is something cops have been alerted to nationwide — particularly in the months following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on May 29. Like Hulon, Floyd’s death certificate also listed “positional asphyxia” as a contributing cause.

It’s also a lesson that city officials learned firsthand in 1998 when the city paid out $9.8 million in the alleged wrongful death of Edward Swans, a 260-pound man who was handcuffed, tied to his stomach and held down in a manner that was later found to have directly led to his death.

That case was tried for 27 days before the jurors eventually found in favor of the plaintiffs. And it’s a route that Damico is also prepared to take as she emphasizes the continued need for reforms — especially after learning all four of the officers involved have since returned to work.

“That’s the worst part. It’s like letting Larry Nassar continue to give exams,” Damico remarked, referring to the MSU sports doctor who is in prison for sexual assault.

Reports show that Hulon was at least the fourth inmate to die at Lansing’s lock-up in the last decade. A Traverse City Record-Eagle investigation also revealed that at least 200 inmates died in Michigan’s local jails between 2009 and 2018, most of whom died of suicide inside their cells.

‘A six-month coverup’

Green had told City Pulse more than a month after Hulon’s death that he didn’t think George Floyd would have died in Lansing. Local officers would know better, he explained — entirely failing to mention that Hulon died an eerily similar death just a few months earlier inside his jail.

“When that situation happened in Minneapolis, we kind of went into defense mode. It wasn’t our department. The first thought was this couldn’t happen here in Lansing,” Green said. “I still don’t believe it could happen here. I believe our officers would’ve stood up and intervened to stop it.”

Schor also then pledged to reaffirm police policies geared toward de-escalating violence, exhausting non-lethal alternatives and reviewing instances of police force. He also marched alongside protesters as they unknowingly chanted some of Hulon’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”

Many local activists, including Councilman Brandon Betz and several others tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, have since billed the lack of transparency in Schor’s administration — among other leadership issues — as reason enough for the mayor to immediately resign.

“It took over six months to find out what actually happened, and Schor’s administration has not been forthcoming about the case,” Betz wrote in an open letter. “This was clearly a murder that was covered up by the LPD and Schor has shown no interest in getting to the bottom of the case or holding anyone accountable. He has refused to answer any questions on the matter.”

Betz labeled the “unconscionable” incident at the lock-up as a “complete devaluation of human life” at the hands of police, also claiming that Schor has since shown more interest in “protecting himself” than holding officers at the Lansing Police Department accountable for their actions.

“In order to stop harming this city, he must resign,” Betz wrote in a letter sent to media outlets.

Betz added: “Whenever he is confronted for his actions, Andy is incredibly defensive and deceptive, showing that he has no remorse and is only looking out for himself. Lansing needs a leader willing to fight for the interests of the working class and Black and brown communities.”

Schor counted that Betz “has his agenda to decimate our public safety and will spread every rumor he can about me. Lansing residents need leaders that are focused on solutions not false attacks. I will continue to do my job on behalf of the City of Lansing, and if he wants to get back to the work of serving residents I’ll be waiting.”

Former Mayor Virg Bernero — Schor’s predecessor who is leaning toward running again next year — also labeled Hulon’s death as a “six-month coverup by the Schor administration.”

“The statements from the city of Lansing since the time of Hulon’s death were at best misleading and at worst a deliberate attempt to downplay and cover up this officer-involved tragedy,” Bernero said last week. “It is stunning that any municipal administration and police agency would engage in this type of behavior surrounding an officer-involved fatality in 2020.”

Bernero joined Betz in calling for Lansing to close its lock-up altogether following “increasingly problematic” issues inside over recent years. Instead, he said, the city should consider outsourcing inmates to the county’s jail in Mason or use more PR bonds for minor offenses.

“The times call for even greater transparency today, and yet, sadly we are getting exactly the opposite from this administration,” Bernero said. “Stonewalling and obfuscation will not do where loss of life is involved. We need to know why Lansing residents were lied to in April.”

Schor, while expressly declining to address the criticism from Bernero directly, called this City Pulse reporter back only to speak about the potential closure of the city lock-up. He said his administration is “actively looking at options” — including a unified facility with Ingham County.

“That’s absolutely on the list. It’s been on the list. Now it has some more urgency to it,” he said.

As for the police officers accused of killing Hulon in the city’s lock-up? Schor has nothing to say. “We’re just waiting to hear back from the Attorney General’s Office. I’m not a lawyer,” Schor said.

The city has not yet filed a formal response to the recent complaint in federal court.

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