GATESVILLE — An autopsy that ruled an inmate died from mechanical asphyxiation by homicide following an altercation with Coryell County jailers in October was disputed by two witnesses at an inquest hearing held Tuesday by Justice of the Peace Coy Latham.
Kelli Leanne Page, 46, died Oct. 8 during an altercation with correctional officers while in custody at the Coryell County Jail in Gatesville.
The case was presented to Latham for an inquest hearing to determine possible criminal charges, as well as the cause of death.
Medical examiners at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas ruled the death a homicide through mechanical asphyxiation. The term means strangulation from smothering, choking or throttling.
By legal definition, a homicide is the death of an individual by the actions or omission of another and is not necessarily criminal in nature.
Page, of Gatesville, became unresponsive after being handcuffed by officials who entered her cell about 8:35 a.m. following “jail violations,” according to the Coryell County Sheriff’s Office.
Jailers attempted CPR, which was continued unsuccessfully by county emergency medical services upon their arrival.
Page suffered from a medley of health issues, according to Texas Ranger Adam Russell in testimony Tuesday. Among them was cirrhosis of the liver, Hepatitis C and a heart that was twice the normal size, which can cause irregular blood flow or patterns.
She also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes it difficult to breathe.
Jailers responded to Page’s cell in the separation unit after Page began “beating and banging” on her cell door with a hairbrush and her hip.
Dr. Sparks Veasey III, a pathologist and professor at Sam Houston State University, disagreed with the asphyxiation determination and said so in his testimony Tuesday.
“I do not think that there was a crime committed at all, and that is based on the video and the autopsy,” he said.
Russell said the same thing. Through his investigation, he believed that the two correctional officers involved in the incident acted both within the law and Coryell County Jail policies to restrain Page during the altercation.
“To strangle someone, it takes three to four minutes for a body to be medically dead,” Russell said.
Just 72 seconds elapsed from the time the incident began to the time Page appeared unresponsive, according to Russell.
Following the hearing, Latham said he would review the incident and make a determination within 60 days on the cause of death and possible criminal charges.
The case will then be presented to a Coryell County grand jury for possible criminal indictments.
While Russell was on the witness stand, he described step-by-step what he saw while viewing the surveillance footage from the Coryell County Jail, and conducting his investigation.
Page had been placed in segregation because of a separate investigation into whether or not she was “cheeking” her medication. Cheeking is the act of pretending to take medication, then storing it somewhere later. Page was prescribed Vasodilators, which resemble amphetamines, and if they are taken in large quantities, it is possible to get high off of them.
Page woke up about 7 a.m., pulled out a hairbrush and began to brush her hair, according to Russell. Shortly afterward, she began banging on the walls of her cell with that hair brush, and according to an inmate who spoke with Russell, demanded her commissary privileges back. Guards came to speak with Page twice and asked her to stop making a commotion. When that didn’t work, they prepared to enter the cell and restrain her, according to Russell.
The correctional officers asked Page to retreat to the back wall with her hands above her head so they could restrain her, Russell said. That didn’t happen, and Page stood with her back to the officers and held her hairbrush like a weapon and took an “offensive posture” according to Russell. The officers sprayed pepper spray through the food slot in an attempt to get her to drop the brush. When that didn’t happen, they entered the cell.
Page “actively resisted” the officers, and at one point, reached back and snatched a pair of handcuffs from the officer’s belt, Russell said. During the scuffle, the correctional officer delivered a series of strikes with his knee to Page’s legs and upper body, Russell said, and she continued to reach for the hairbrush, which had fallen on the floor. When Page refused to comply with the officers’ repeated demands to stop resisting, the officer hit Page in the face with his open fist.
That was the first of three punches to the face he delivered. An “empty-hand strike” is standard procedure for a correctional officer who is going through the use of force continuum, often used by officers on a resisting subject, according to Russell.
The second punch came after Page allegedly kicked the officer in the groin, grabbed him in the groin area and bit his hand, Russell said. As Page moved forward and attempted to bite the forearm of a second correctional officer, the first officer struck her in the face for a third and final time, Russell said. Page did not move, and there was a short moment of relief among the correctional officers at first. Then they saw a look of distress on Page’s face, and they realized that something was wrong.
Shortly afterward, the officers began performing CPR, and later switched off with emergency medical services. CPR was performed for about 30 minutes off and on before it was determined that Page was dead, according to Russell.
Among those who attended the inquest hearing Tuesday was Page’s daughter, Tiffany Gruwell, and Page’s oldest sister, Ginger Tucker. They had a meeting with Coryell County District Attorney Dusty Boyd and Russell on Friday, to go over the investigation’s findings. Family members still have questions about the sequence of events that took place in that jail cell, but most of all, they want to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else, Tucker said..
“Medical records need to be available to guards,” Tucker said. “Anyone in the correctional field needs to be CPR trained for these types of incidents.”
Page was booked into the jail May 5 after what was described as a narcotics raid. She was being held on a litany of charges including multiple charges of manufacture/intent to distribute a controlled substance, forgery of a financial instrument-elderly, assault of a police officer and two failures to appear on driving while intoxicated charges in Llano County, according to Sheriff Scott Williams,
Page had been arrested five times by the Gatesville Police Department between 2012 and 2016, according to police records.
Three of the arrests concerned outstanding warrants in Page’s name for traffic violations and drug possession. Page was charged in 2012 for driving while intoxicated with an open container and in 2016 for shoplifting $33 of toiletries from an H-E-B on Main Street in Gatesville.
Gruwell said that Page was not a good mother to her, and battled addiction for a while. She had problems, but appeared to have been getting better while in prison.
“She might not have been the greatest person, but she deserves to have a voice and be listened to,” Gruwell said.