Stephanie Anderson died in Boulder County Jail of what an autopsy maintains were natural causes. But attorney David Lane, who's representing Anderson's family, suspects that there was nothing natural about some of the events that took place prior to her passing — and he's conducting an investigation with an eye toward a possible lawsuit.
A key detail in Anderson's late-May death certainly raised a red flag for Lane. Sources maintained that one of her jailers, Deputy Kenneth Heck, callously dismissed her cries for help amid the health crisis that would ultimately take her life with a flippant remark: "Officer no habla español."
The Boulder County coroner subsequently determined that Anderson died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease exacerbated by obesity. And an extensive report on the case by the Boulder County Sheriff's Office, seen below along with a video featuring footage shot inside the jail, stops short of saying jail personnel could have prevented her death.
While acknowledging that deputies should have checked on her more often, especially since she had been hospitalized shortly after arriving at the jail, the report accepts Heck's claim that his "Officer no habla español" line had been directed at another inmate, not Anderson. Moreover, it essentially suggests that Anderson unwittingly contributed to her own demise by declining medical care — something attorney Lane doesn't buy.
"It is illogical to demand to go to the hospital and then refuse treatment once you're there," Lane says.
Anderson was jailed on May 26 after she was busted for shoplifting in Superior; she also had active Adams County warrants in her name.
Around eight hours after being booked, Anderson told jailers she was suffering from chest pains — a legitimate situation, according to her father, who told authorities that she had a "very bad heart."
Lane says Anderson was dependent on meds to manage her condition, noting that "her friends have told us there were times when she'd get arrested, and they would scramble around to get her medication and take it to the jail for her. And there were other jails that would give her the right medication. But somehow, Boulder never managed to give her what she required in order to keep her heart going."
At the hospital, one of the accounts in the report maintains, Anderson became upset when members of the emergency room staff tried to treat her with Ibuprofen rather than a heavy-duty painkiller — namely Vicodin. That may be why one nurse "felt as if she was shopping for narcotics, and because of her demeanor and how excited and mobile she was, didn't feel that she was in as much pain as she was stating," the report says. Another passage states that Anderson failed to reveal what other medications she may have been taking, presumably due once again to her frustration over the way she was being treated.
In the end, Anderson was given an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection discovered during her examination, as well as some anti-nausea meds. But the report says she didn't take them out of anger over being refused the other medication she had demanded.
This decision is characterized as an example of Anderson's lack of cooperation — but Lane sees it differently: "If she refused treatment, it was her non-treatment she was refusing."
At that point, Anderson was taken back to the jail, and inmates housed near her said she was sick all night long, vomiting at least once. During this span, inmates reported that Anderson asked for help on multiple occasions — requests that supposedly spawned Heck to say, "Officer no habla español." But he insisted that this remark was actually aimed at Nicole Genova, another inmate who is said to have been distraught and was screaming on a regular basis.
This assertion contradicts information Lane has received.
"We have talked to witnesses saying it was Stephanie Anderson calling for help, not the crazy lady in the cell next door," he says. "Stephanie's last words were, 'Please help me.'"
The next day, Anderson was due in court. But when a deputy looked in on her just after 1 p.m., she was said to be sleeping, and the court appearance was pushed. Just over two hours later, the deputy returned to find Anderson unresponsive, and attempts to revive her failed.
The Boulder sheriff's office concedes that two hours between checks on Anderson was way too long; they should have been conducted every fifteen minutes or so. Lane finds this acknowledgment modestly refreshing. "Admitting they were less than perfect is unusual for a law-enforcement agency investigating itself," he allows.
Likewise, Lane concedes that the case is marked by "a very complex set of facts." But he says, "I reject the idea that Stephanie refused treatment at the hospital. She had a great deal of experience with her heart condition. This wasn't something new to her; she knew what her doctors told her she needed. So their explanation doesn't ring true to my experience."
Anderson's family feels the same way.
"This has been an extremely painful experience for them," Lane says. "She was a troubled woman, but she was a daughter, the mother of children, and everyone is really broken up by the whole thing. So we're going to continue our investigation, talk to medical experts, talk to hospital personnel — although getting hospital personnel to talk to us is even more difficult than getting police to talk to us. And if, at the conclusion of our investigation, we believe Stephanie Anderson's Constitutional rights were violated, we will see everybody in federal court."
Continue to view the aforementioned jailhouse video, followed by the Boulder County Sheriff's Office report about Anderson's death.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.