Accidental overdose death of 23-year-old Connecticut woman to be investigated as a crime, police say
(CNN)The death of Lauren Smith-Fields, a 23-year-old Connecticut woman who died of an overdose, is now being investigated as a crime, Bridgeport police said Tuesday.
Officials said the department's narcotics and vice division has opened an investigation and will be assisted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
A day earlier, a medical examiner ruled Smith-Fields death was accidental and caused by "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol."
Police are focusing their attention on "the factors that led to her untimely death," acting police Chief Rebeca Garcia said in a statement.
"Fentanyl is a strong narcotic associated with an epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States," police said. "The City of Bridgeport is not immune to this epidemic."
Members of Smith-Fields' family have accused the police department of violating their civil rights, mishandling the investigation of her death and not notifying them she had died.
On Tuesday, an attorney for Smith-Fields' family said the medical examiner's report raises more questions.
"The M.E. findings doesn't cure any of the Bridgeport's lack of process, in (fact) it makes it worse. Instead we are left with more questions than answers as a result of a botched investigation or lack thereof," attorney Darnell Crosland told CNN via text message.
Smith-Fields, a Black woman, was found unresponsive in her home on December 12, 2021, by a Bridgeport Police Department officer, according to a police incident report obtained by CNN from the family's attorney.
The individual who called police was a man Smith-Fields had met on the Bumble dating app and had been on a date with the night before, according to police.
Before the ruling, her family said it planned to sue the city of Bridgeport, alleging in a notice of claim filed by their attorney that the Bridgeport Police Department didn't adequately collect physical evidence from Lauren's home and refused to consider the man she was on a date with as a person of interest. Members of her family alleged that the police department was "racially insensitive" to the family and violated their civil rights.
The notice of claim names Mayor Joseph Ganim and Chief Garcia, as well as detectives who were involved in the investigation.
"This family is not paranoid," attorney Crosland told CNN about the racial insensitivity the family feels. "The reason it feels that way is because as of late, Gabby Petito was missing and the type of manhunt that was out for her killer was insurmountably different than we see here."
"She was in college, and she had a family and friends that love her," Smith-Fields' mother, Shantell Fields, told CNN affiliate News 12 Connecticut. "No one is going to discard Lauren Smith-Fields, my daughter, (like) she's rubbish."
What happened to Lauren Smith-Fields?
Early on the morning of December 12, Bridgeport police received a report about an unresponsive woman at a home, according to a police incident report. Upon arrival, an officer found Smith-Fields lying on her back on the floor, with dried blood in and around her right nostril, according to police.
The officer also found a "frantic man," who identified himself as someone who had only known Smith-Fields for three days and met her on the dating app Bumble, according to police.
According to the incident report, he had been doing chest compressions after being instructed by the emergency operator on the phone. "He was trembling and visibly shaken," reads the report.
The man's name is redacted in the report.
He told police that he had arrived at Smith-Fields' residence the night before after she invited him over. They were drinking shots of tequila when she became ill and went to the bathroom to vomit, the man told police, according to the report. After her return, they continued drinking tequila with mixers, played games, ate food, and started watching a movie, according to police.
At some point during the night, Smith-Fields' brother stopped by her home to collect clothes from her, according to Crosland. When she came back, she went to the bathroom for approximately 15 minutes, the man who met Smith-Fields on Bumble reported to police.
When Smith-Fields fell asleep on the couch, the man carried her to bed and fell asleep next to her, the report states. When he woke up very early that morning to use the restroom, he said Smith-Fields was snoring, but when he woke up a couple of hours later, he said he saw her lying on her right side with blood coming out of her nostril onto the bed, prompting him to call police, the report states.
Medics who arrived on the scene pronounced her dead and said she had been dead for at least an hour or more, the report states.
Officers collected several items as evidence, including more than $1,300 in cash, her passport, a credit card and her cell phone, according to the police report.
The police did not notify Smith-Fields' family of her death, Crosland said, and instead, the family found out a day later after visiting her home and finding a note from the landlord on Smith-Fields' apartment door.
"The mom had been calling, because Christmas dinner was supposed to be at Lauren's house that year," Crosland told CNN. "They drove over there, found a note on door from the landlord that said if anyone is looking for Lauren, call me. The police never tried to reach out to the family, they just took her body out of the home."
Crosland described the detectives assigned to the case as dismissive and called them "rude." He said they treated the family badly when they called and met with police seeking answers about Smith-Fields' death.
During a meeting earlier this month, Crossland said, police told them they did not find anything suspicious at the scene and a detective allegedly told them "there was no blunt force trauma."
Family says they will fight for justice
In a statement, Mayor Ganim acknowledged the "unanswered questions and concerns" surrounding Smith-Fields' death and shared that he's referred the matter to the Office of Internal Affairs to conduct a full investigation.
"There is no tolerance for anything less than respect and sensitivity for family members and their loss," said Ganim in the statement. "I share concerns echoed by many about the amount of time and manner a family is informed of a loss. Death notifications should be done in a manner that illustrates dignity for the deceased and respect and compassion for the family."
Ganim also said he'll work with the chief of police to amend the department's policy surrounding notifying family members of deaths and that he had reached out to the State Medical Examiner's Office to expedite this matter.
When the family inspected Smith-Fields home after learning of her death, Crosland alleges they found a used condom, a sedative pill, the bloodstained sheet, an overturned plate of food, and bottles of alcohol.
"You'd definitely want to get the sheet, condom, you'd want to take pictures of the overturned plate," said Crosland. "After we forced them to collect it on December 29, I called the state forensic lab and the woman who answered said the police department has not made a submission."
Crosland also says that a detective described Smith-Fields' Bumble date as "a nice man" to her brother and also told him not to "jump to any inclusions."
Bumble confirmed to CNN that it is in touch with law enforcement. In a statement shared with CNN, Bumble said it was deeply saddened by the news of Smith-Fields' passing and had reached out to the family to offer support.
"The physical and emotional safety of our community is of paramount importance," the statement read. "We investigate member complaints and take swift, decisive action against any members who do not meet our standards. We stand ready to provide appropriate assistance and information as requested by law enforcement."
Crosland and Smith-Fields' family are prepared to fight for justice, they said.
"We will not stop until we get justice for Lauren and the thousands of black girls that go missing in this country every year," said Crosland in a statement shared with CNN. "We owe them equal rights and justice regardless of race and we wouldn't stop fighting until we get it."
CNN's Laura Dolan contributed to this report.
Mirna Alsharif and Maya Brown