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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.

"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.

Gallagher also says that during his initial research, he found that some of Emily's complaints to jail officials of numbness and trouble breathing were met with mulish advice to "sleep it off."

"We're still waiting for the results of the autopsy to determine the actual cause of death," says DPD spokeswoman Virginia Quiñones. "Our homicide investigators have taken over the case, as they would in any death."

Dee Martinez, director of public relations and marketing for DHMC, would not comment on Emily's injuries, saying that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevents the hospital from discussing the care of any patient.

But while the police and the hospital aren't talking, news of Emily's passing hit the Denver community fast and hard. As word got around, the Denver Message Board quickly filled with thoughts and prayers from her many friends and acquaintances.

"That's chilling," one message reads.

"Uggggg. That's my guts ripping out again," says another.

At Herman's, employees swap Emily stories, telling them as though the girl who began as a valet on the curb out front will walk through the door at any second. "She was bubbly, energetic, kind, sweet and funny," says Deb Seigerman, head waitress at Herman's. "She filled the room with smiles. I remember once there was a guy sitting at the bar one night. He was sitting down and his pants were loose, and he had a bit of a plumber's crack hanging out. I kept noticing it all night. Then, toward the end of the night, Emily walks by and real nonchalantly drops a pen down the back of his pants. He didn't even feel it; he had no idea. Ten minutes later, she walks over to the same guy and asks him if she can borrow a pen."

"There are not too many people that you meet, and the moment you meet them you know they just have no negative side whatsoever," says Mike Roth, one of Herman's owners. "Emily was like that. I never saw her upset or out of line. She was just a really nice, good person. She treated everyone like a friend."

A couple of days after Emily passed away, one of her friends stopped by to see Emily's mom. Sue says the woman told her she hadn't been able to stop thinking about Emily and that she seemed to have involuntarily appropriated one of Emily's quirks: hanging pay-phone receivers upside down. "It was just something that Emily always did," Sue says. "Her friend told me that now she couldn't pass a pay phone anymore without doing it, too."

At a benefit concert to celebrate Emily and raise money for her family this past Monday, other friends reported adopting the quirk as well, flipping phones across the city as a tribute to the irreverence, playfulness and sense of fun that their friend brought to the world every day.

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