Rae of Sunshine

Emily Rae Rice died in jail. Her friends and family want to know why.

Sue Garber slides a small piece of paper across the table: a drawing done by her daughter, Emily Rae Rice, of Emily's hamster, Leche.

"She called him 'Leche' because he was white," Sue explains.

Two days before she died in the Denver City Jail, Emily had given the picture to her mother as a joke. Sue was leaving the house she shared with Emily to get a bite to eat when the 24-year-old playfully informed her mother that if she didn't return with something for her, too, she would hide Leche, who has a nasty tendency to nibble, in the sheets of her bed.

Emily Rice's smile could light up a room.
Emily Rice's smile could light up a room.

"So of course I came home with something for her to eat," Sue remembers. "Then later I found this drawing on my pillow. She was so funny."

"She loved life, and life loved her," recalls Emily's father, Roy Rice. "From the minute anyone ever met her, they were in love with her because she was just this glowing person. Even when she was little -- it was almost a problem. Standing out in the yard, anybody walking down the street was her best friend. She'd yell hello, invite them to come in. She knew no stranger. She really had an effect on people."

Now all those people can do is remember.

On February 17, Emily worked her normal shift as a waitress at Herman's Hideaway, the popular South Broadway concert venue where she had been employed for the past two and a half years. Emily had had a couple of drinks that evening, so she decided to leave her car in Herman's parking lot and split a cab with her friend, DJ Busenbark. "She seemed fine when I dropped her off," Busenbark says. "Not that drunk at all, really, just normal and fine."

Emily called her mother, who wasn't home yet, around 2:30 a.m., and talked to her boyfriend about twenty minutes later. A few other friends remember text-messaging with her after that, and Busenbark says he chatted with her until after 5 a.m. Around 6:45, Emily hopped in her mother's car and went out for some smokes. She headed westbound on East Hampden Avenue, according to the traffic-accident report, and stopped at the South Elm Street intersection to make a left into a Conoco station. An employee working at the gas station remembers two cars heading eastbound on Hampden, one after the other. Emily let the first car pass, then took the left turn and collided with a 1988 Honda Accord.

When police responded to the scene, they checked Emily out and found injuries severe enough to require immediate medical attention. They also slapped her with a DUI and charged her with driving with a suspended license, the result of a failure to pay restitution from a previous traffic accident. She was transported to Denver Health Medical Center, where she was treated and released back into custody. (The incident report did not indicate what happened to the other driver; he did not return Westword's phone calls.) Meanwhile, Sue was worried because she hadn't heard from her daughter since their late-night phone call. She frantically phoned around to try to locate her, but with no success. Finally, at around 4:45 p.m. on February 18, she got a call from Emily, who was in the Denver City Jail. "I asked her, 'Baby, are you okay?'" Sue remembers. "And she said, 'Mommy, I can't feel my feet.'" Emily then told her mother that she had gone out for cigarettes and had gotten into an accident.

"What did you hit?" Sue asked her.

"I don't know," Emily said.

Sue told her that she would be right there. She tracked down $400, the amount she says jail officials told her was necessary for the bond, and went to get Emily. But when she arrived, the cash-only bail had more than quadrupled. Sue didn't have that kind of money on her, nor the means to access it immediately, as it was early evening on a Saturday. Unable to see or help her daughter, she left.

"I was devastated," Sue relates. "I tried to get a message to her. I told them to tell her we were coming for her, that we didn't have enough money right then, but that we would be there first thing in the morning."

But Emily didn't make it till morning. She died from internal injuries not long after her mother had left.

The police report from Emily's brief stay at the jail reads as follows: "On listed date, just prior to listed times victim was contacted by Denver Sheriff's Department deputies. DSD officers asked if victim wanted to eat, victim refused. Victim was unable to move her legs. DSD nurses were called to cell, where victim was found unresponsive, ambulance was called to scene to transport to Denver Health Medical Center. Victim was pronounced Dead on Arrival at DHMC."

Emily's mother and father have hired former Arapahoe County district attorney Bob Gallagher to represent them in a potential lawsuit, but Gallagher, who's waiting to receive an autopsy report and certain medical and jail records, has not yet initiated any legal action. He does find it disconcerting, though, that Emily's injuries seem to have been overlooked by staff at both Denver Health Medical Center and at the jail. "I just don't see why nobody caught this," he says.

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