One Death, Two Stories: Jail officials, family relate different stories surrounding inmate death — (Fredericksburg Patch)

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Fredericksburg Patch

By (Patch Staff) 

May 20, 2011

In the wake of the death of Brenda Cochran after spending less than 24 hours as an inmate at the Rappahannock Regional Jail, two distinct versions of her last hours have emerged.

Family and friends of Cochran said she was wrongfully arrested on drug charges, the victim of mistaken identification. They blame Cochran’s subsequent death on negligent jail staff who ignored pleas to provide her with medications which they said she needed to live a normal life.

Police and jail officials refute those accusations in the strongest language. Police said they arrested the right person and Cochran’s death was most likely the result of a sudden heart attack brought about by pre-existing medical conditions. Further, jail officials said Cochran did not raise any health issues with jail staff short of a nose bleed.

The Person

Carmen Cochran, Brenda’s mother, beams with pride when she describes her daughter.

“Brenda is my only daughter who turned out like me,” said Carmen Cochran. “She liked to work with the elderly, and she worked in nursing homes going back to age 16. She was just great at what she did.”

That is, until she was diagnosed with lupus three years ago. The disease forced Cochran into unemployment, according to family members.

Originally from east Los Angeles, the 41-year-old Cochran had moved to this area seven years ago to be with her sister Vera Dankers. Last year she moved in with Dankers in Spotsylvania County.

In all, six children ages 7 to 22 call Cochran their mother. Cochran was engaged to Bienvenido Contreras, and they were planning to move their family back to California in the next year.

“Before her sense of humor, she had a big heart,” said Dankers. “She was never greedy.”

Her family said it was in this spirit of giving that Cochran found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and on the wrong end of the law.

The Arrest

Cochran’s saga began in the early afternoon of May 2 as she was returning from a doctor’s office in Woodbridge where she had just picked up medications to treat a number of medical conditions, including lupus. She had stopped off at Potomac Mills to allow a friend of her oldest son’s to go into the mall to buy an item for a work uniform.

As Cochran waited in the car, the family said a thief grabbed a bag containing her medication and made off. Prince William County Police said officers responded to the mall at about 12:30 p.m. for a report of the theft of the medicine. During their investigation, officers discovered Cochran was herself wanted in Stafford County on a warrant for charges of illegally selling prescription medications. Prince William County police placed Cochran under arrest and drove her to the Stafford County line where she was transferred to the custody of the Stafford Sheriff’s Office.

Cochran, who was Hispanic and weighed about 300 pounds, was described on the warrant as a 150-pound white person. Cochran’s family has seized upon this detail to charge that Cochran was a victim of mistaken identity.

Further, Cochran’s address on the warrant is listed at 400 Excaliber Circle in Fredericksburg, an address unfamiliar to her family.

Stafford County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer William Kennedy said the police arrested the right person. Other details on the warrant, such as the birthday, match that of Cochran’s.

“Without question, we indicted the correct person, charged the correct person and arrested the correct person,” Kennedy said. “I can’t explain the weight gain, but I am very confident that we arrested and incarcerated the correct person.”

Kennedy also said that the only two options for race on Stafford County warrants are black and white and that people of Hispanic descent are usually grouped as white.

Kennedy said Cochran was identified, in the investigation which resulted in her drug charges, by other witnesses who had allegedly conducted drug transactions with her.

The Jail

Once in the custody of the Stafford County Sheriff’s, Cochran was transported to Rappahannock Regional Jail, arriving at 5:42 p.m. on May 2. Her bail was set at $5,000.

The normal procedure for a new inmate at the Rapphannock Regional Jail involves three steps. First, inmates are interviewed by the booking officer, asked a set of standard questions such as if they are contemplating suicide. Second, prisoners undergo a medical review, similar to a standard physical exam. Last, before being shown to their cell, they are photographed and fingerprinted.

According to Phil Grimes, deputy superintendent of Rappahannock Regional Jail, Cochran never made it to the fingerprinting and photography. During her medical review she developed a nosebleed and was transferred to a cell in the infirmary for observation where her nosebleed quickly stopped. Grimes said Cochran had filled out a form allowing jail officials to get her medical records, but it had not been processed by the time she died.

Coincidentally, next to her in the infirmary was her brother, David Cochran, serving a five-year prison sentence for grand larceny. David Cochran was in the infirmary suffering from kidney stones. Grimes said that once jail staff realized the two were related, they moved Brenda to a different cell on the opposite side of the infirmary.

Grimes also said Cochran was not disruptive or combative during her stay. He said she did not indicate any medical distress beyond the nosebleed.

Cochran’s family tell a different story of her stay in the jail, one in which she was denied vital medicine which could have saved her life. They said she needed to take a cocktail of medications at least three times a day or else she would be hobbled with pain.

“She would need to take her meds because of her lupus,” said Vera Dankers, Cochran’s sister. “If she didn’t take her meds she would go through severe pain …she wouldn’t be able to move.”

After Cochran’s death, her family compiled a list of medications which she had been prescribed. The list includes xanax, trazodone, amoxicillin, diazepam, cymbalta, celebrex, hydroxyzine, Hydroxychloroquine, Oxicontin and Roxycodon.

As a result, the family said both Brenda Cochran and her brother David were frantically trying to urge jail staff to get Brenda some medication to deal with her pain. They said jail staff were dismissive of the concerns, telling David Cochran to mind his own business.

The family also said they received frantic phone calls from Brenda and David Cochran urging them to do anything they could to post bail as soon as possible to get Brenda access to her medicine.

Grimes said jail records show Cochran attempted to make 14 phone calls during her stay, 11 of which went through to the intended recipients. At 3:51 p.m. on May 3, Cochran dialed her last call from jail. The intended recipient did not pick up.

The Death

According to jail officials, shortly before meal time, at 4:30 p.m. on May 3, Cochran was observed moving around in her cell by a prison officer. However, less than 10 minutes later at 4:38 p.m., Cochran was found unresponsive in her cell by staff serving the evening meal. CPR was performed on Cochran, first by a prison nurse, then by Stafford County rescue units who transported Cochran to Stafford Hospital Center where she was pronounced dead at 5:36 p.m. Cochran had been in the custody of the jail for just under 24 hours.

William Kennedy, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said deputies were alerted of the death around 5:45 p.m. Kennedy said staff at the jail immediately called rescue services after finding Cochran unresponsive.

This timeline is also disputed by the family members who say David Cochran reported that Brenda Cochran was dead by the time she was taken from her cell, and staff were not administering CPR as she was being transported.

According to Steve Murman, administrator of the Richmond district of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, preliminary autopsy results show the cause of death to be a heart attack brought about by dilated cardio-myopothy, an enlarged and weakened heart. Toxicology reports have yet to return.

“There is no one to blame,” said Grimes. “From my understanding, from the preliminary cause of death, if she was sitting at home, the same result could have occurred.”

Cochran’s family disputes this, saying that her death could have been avoided if she had access to medicine to control the symptoms of her maladies.

Virginia Freedom Of Information Act requests for cell check logs and security camera footage were denied, citing broad exemptions protecting inmate records from FOIA disclosure.

The Aftermath

The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death, but officials have said preliminary indications are that Cochran died of natural causes.

With the two wildly different version of events, Grimes said the family’s version is “totally inaccurate” and inmates at the jail are treated with dignity at all times.

“They remain human beings,” Grimes said. “There is a process for them to request a number of things, they have books and GED classes. If they think an officer is being short or unprofessional, then they can write a complaint and it will be reviewed by staff and supervisors.”

Cochran family members said they want answers, and are examining their legal options. They said they were dismayed that the death of Cochran meant that she would never get her day in court to try and clear her name of the charges against her.

“Let’s just say that there was this side of my sister,” Dankers said. “It does not give them the right to neglect a person and take a life.”