Herman Turner is still seeking answers, and justice, after his wife, Raynette Turner, was found dead in a police holding cell. The 42-year-old mother of eight died Monday at police headquarters while awaiting arraignment on a shoplifting charge, and her husband of 23 years said he hasn’t been able to get additional information about the circumstances leading to her death.
“Sounds like a cover-up to me,” he said Tuesday evening in the Gramatan Avenue office of his attorney, Osvaldo Gonzalez. “If they [Mount Vernon police] did their job she would still be alive.
“I want somebody’s head to roll on this. I am not going to rest until I get some type of justice for my wife. That’s the bottom line.”
Officials in this city and beyond are trying to determine how Raynette Turner died Monday.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sent investigators from his new team tasked with probing police-involved deaths to Westchester County, spokesman Eric Soufer said. The case is one of the first Schneiderman’s office has examined since Gov. Andrew Cuomo named him special prosecutor earlier this month, granting him the power to investigate and — if necessary — prosecute police officers involved in the death of an unarmed civilian.
It’s not yet clear whether Schneiderman will launch a full investigation. Soufer said that’s what investigators are trying to determine.
Cuomo’s July 8 executive order requires Schneiderman to investigate “certain matters involving the death of an unarmed civilian, whether in custody or not, caused by a law-enforcement officer.”
In Mount Vernon on Tuesday, Turner’s camp and city officials gave accounts of what happened to Turner that differed on some key points.
Herman Turner, 49, said he wasn’t sure whether his wife had been arrested on Friday or Saturday, but Mount Vernon Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Burke said that Turner was arrested Saturday afternoon after allegedly stealing crab legs from Restaurant Depot at 650 S. Columbus Ave. Burke said she was found a few blocks away from the store.
Herman Turner went to City Court on Monday to await his wife’s arraignment and was told there she would likely be released without bail, said Gonzalez, his attorney. He then was told she had been complaining that she was not feeling well, which he believed had delayed her arraignment.
The family did not learn of Turner’s death until Tuesday morning when two detectives came to their home to break the news, Gonzalez said.
“We know she was requesting medical treatment and it seems that, at some level, the system and the protocols that the city was following failed,” he said.
Mount Vernon officials, speaking at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, said Turner was taken into custody Saturday sometime after 3 p.m. on a petty larceny charge, after she allegedly shoplifted from the wholesale food store.
City officials said it was Turner’s third shoplifting arrest in recent weeks, though Herman Turner said that is “nothing but a bald-faced lie.”
He said his wife had been on probation for five years and had not been arrested during that time.
After her arrest, she was put in a holding cell to await arraignment at the start of the week, according to Burke and Capt. Edward Adinaro.
While she was still awaiting arraignment, Turner was taken by TransCare ambulance to Montefiore Mount Vernon hospital between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday after complaining that she did not feel well, police said. She was treated for hypertension — high blood pressure — and returned to the cell by ambulance shortly after 10 p.m., they said.
She was the only person being held in the cell at the time; one of about 20 to 24 at the station, police said.
The cell block is monitored by video and people being held there are checked hourly, officials said. Turner was last seen awake between noon and 1 p.m., they said. She was found dead at 2 p.m. when officers tried to wake her for her arraignment.
Herman Turner said he sat in court all day Monday until about 4 p.m. waiting for his wife’s arraignment.
“No one said anything to me about my wife was downstairs, dead,” he said. “They just let me sit in the courtroom all day long, waiting for her to come and be seen by the judge.”
Herman Turner also said that he went to the hospital and that it had no record of his wife being there.
“I’m angry,” he said. “Very angry. Somebody needs to pay. Somebody really needs to pay for this. I’m sorry, I’m not going to let this rest.”
Turner said funeral arrangements are still being made with the help of his sister, Elizabeth Turner-Parks.
Autopsy results are pending.
“It’s a tragedy when anyone dies in police custody,” Burke said, but: “There is no foul play suspected.”
“Unfortunately the woman had a history of bariatric problems. She had bariatric surgery. She also had hypertension.”
Gonzalez, however, said Turner was healthy and feeling very well after undergoing weight-loss surgery a year ago.
Herman Turner, with his sister, Elizabeth Turner-Parks, speaks in his attorney’s office about the death of his wife, Raynette Turner. (Matt Spillane/The Journal News)
“She was a nice lady, a sweet, loving mother and a good person,” Gonzalez said. Her children range in age from 8 to 21.
Mayor Ernie Davis, at the news conference, extended his condolences to Turner’s family.
Turner’s death should be a wake-up call to many local police departments that need to update their antiquated protocols for dealing with inmates, said Damon Jones, New York representative for Blacks in Law Enforcement of America.
“I hope that there are some policies and procedures that will be put into place when you’re dealing with people that are ill,” he said, “to make sure that these incidents will not happen.”
Corey Stoughton, a senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Turner’s death in police custody has echoes of the death earlier this month of Sandra Bland, a Chicago woman who was found dead in a Texas holding cell after an arrest on a minor traffic violation.
Both were arrested for minor charges and put in a holding cell over the weekend, she noted. An autopsy ruled Bland’s death was a suicide but her family has disputed that account.
“After incidents like this you should have the local governments that operate holding cells question the wisdom of holding people arrested for minor crimes over the weekend,” Stoughton said. “You have to ask why someone accused of petty theft has to spend three days in jail before even seeing a judge.”
Supervisors of holding cells have the same responsibility as prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care, she said.
Montefiore Mount Vernon sees inmates from Mount Vernon on a case-by-case basis but has no formal agreement with the city to care for people held in the lockup, a spokeswoman for the hospital said.
Community leaders said they want answers.
“It’s deeply troubling that this lady died in our custody,” said city Councilman Richard Thomas, a candidate for mayor. “We need full transparency so we know what happened.”
Community activist Ronnie Cox warned against jumping to conclusions before all the facts are known. But referencing Bland, she added, “We have to be very concerned about any individual who passes away in jail.”
The Westchester County District Attorney’s Office is assisting in the probe into the death, spokesman Lucian Chalfen said.