THE DARK STATE: Lack of open records prevents complete picture of many Kansas criminal cases

Law enforcement, family at odds over woman's death

The Sunflower State has very little sunshine for law enforcement records. Most Kansans are unaware of their inability to see records collected about themselves or loved ones. They're either forced to spend thousands of dollars to open them or can't afford to even try. This story is part one of a three-part investigation that shows what can happen when records are restricted in Kansas. Read about the other two and watch our documentary at KSHB.com/darkstate.

The many framed pictures of Joy Biggs and her sister in tropical paradises bring warmth and priceless memories to Biggs’ home in Ruskin Heights.

But those memories are now eclipsed. Her sister Brenda Sewell died this winter in a dingy jail cell in western Kansas after the sisters were pulled over for speeding.

“When I close my eyes, I don’t see the sister I should see,” Biggs said, 55, slowly rocking on the edge of a couch, tears stinging her eyes, “I see my sister laying on the concrete floor.”

For two days in the jail in Goodland, her 58-year-old sister became increasingly ill even as she begged for her medications and her vomit turned to blood, Biggs said in an interview last month. Finally Biggs said she found herself trying to resuscitate her sister on that concrete floor and screaming for help from the guards as her sister’s life faded.

“I don’t know how to get over that,” Biggs said, as one of her sister’s two dogs moved closer to the stricken woman.

Now Sewell's family and friends have several questions:

  • Why did a jail guard looking through a window into the cell not respond immediately to Biggs’ cries for help?
  • Why wasn't Sewell given her medications?
  • Why wasn't Sewell in a hospital if she was as sick in her cell as her sister and others said she was in an interview with 41 Action News.
  • Why did Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pinalto call state law enforcement for assistance in investigating her death even before Sewell was declared dead?

But the likelihood those questions and others will be answered are slim, a 41 Action News investigation has found. 

Authorities in Goodland, the Sherman County seat, aren't talking.

Sheriff Pinalto said he would not comment.

Judge Scott Showalter, who set the bond for Sewell when she appeared before him on January 21, said little when a 41 Action News investigator asked about the woman's physical condition."I'm sure you are familiar with the rules of judicial ethics” Showalter said. “You have a nice day. By the way that's a no comment.”

Goodland police, who also would not comment, conducted an investigation into Sewell's death and turned it over to Sherman County Attorney Charles Moser for review.

Moser made it clear that few answers would be coming from his office. 

“It is my policy not to release” investigations when finished, and he said he did not have plans to do so in this case unless ordered by a judge.

For more than three decades, Kansas law has prohibited the release of most police reports, records and files. Even basic arrest and search warrant affidavits that show the evidence authorities need to make an arrest or to search homes and businesses are withheld from the public.

The law also makes it a misdemeanor crime to release those records.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In early May, both houses of the Kansas Legislature passed a partial open records bill. Gov. Sam Brownback has indicated he will sign the bill into law.

The Kansas prohibition on police records is unlike any other states' laws in the country and even federal government laws. 

“A central tenant of democracy … is the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable, and without the ability to know what’s going on, you have no way of holding anybody accountable,” said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who has fought to open police records in several high-profile cases.

One of her cases has become a cause celebre worldwide for those concerned about abuse of police powers.

Johnson County sheriff's deputies dressed in SWAT gear raided Robert and Addie's Leawood home almost two years ago . The Hartes were never charged with a crime but it took a year and $25,000 to see the records used to gain entry to their home. They now have now sued the sheriff’s department in federal court.

They are also campaigning to try to get laws passed to open police records.

As a result, Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and retired federal judge, introduced a bill in February that would require arrest reports to be open to the public. The bill passed the House of Representatives but last week it was severely cut in the Senate, and Rubin is scrambling to salvage it before the end of the session April 4.

The bill in its initial form would be a great improvement, supporters say. However it is limited and would not make public all records

The Sunflower State has very little sunshine for law enforcement records. Most Kansans are unaware of their inability to see records collected about themselves or loved ones. They're either forced to spend thousands of dollars to open them or can't afford to even try. This story is part one of a three-part investigation that shows what can happen when records are restricted in Kansas. Read about the other two and watch our documentary at KSHB.com/darkstate.

The many framed pictures of Joy Biggs and her sister in tropical paradises bring warmth and priceless memories to Biggs’ home in Ruskin Heights.

But those memories are now eclipsed. Her sister Brenda Sewell died this winter in a dingy jail cell in western Kansas after the sisters were pulled over for speeding.

“When I close my eyes, I don’t see the sister I should see,” Biggs said, 55, slowly rocking on the edge of a couch, tears stinging her eyes, “I see my sister laying on the concrete floor.”

For two days in the jail in Goodland, her 58-year-old sister became increasingly ill even as she begged for her medications and her vomit turned to blood, Biggs said in an interview last month. Finally Biggs said she found herself trying to resuscitate her sister on that concrete floor and screaming for help from the guards as her sister’s life faded.

“I don’t know how to get over that,” Biggs said, as one of her sister’s two dogs moved closer to the stricken woman.

Now Sewell's family and friends have several questions:

  • Why did a jail guard looking through a window into the cell not respond immediately to Biggs’ cries for help?
  • Why wasn't Sewell given her medications?
  • Why wasn't Sewell in a hospital if she was as sick in her cell as her sister and others said she was in an interview with 41 Action News.
  • Why did Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pinalto call state law enforcement for assistance in investigating her death even before Sewell was declared dead?

But the likelihood those questions and others will be answered are slim, a 41 Action News investigation has found. 

Authorities in Goodland, the Sherman County seat, aren't talking.

Sheriff Pinalto said he would not comment.

Judge Scott Showalter, who set the bond for Sewell when she appeared before him on January 21, said little when a 41 Action News investigator asked about the woman's physical condition."I'm sure you are familiar with the rules of judicial ethics” Showalter said. “You have a nice day. By the way that's a no comment.”

Goodland police, who also would not comment, conducted an investigation into Sewell's death and turned it over to Sherman County Attorney Charles Moser for review.

Moser made it clear that few answers would be coming from his office. 

“It is my policy not to release” investigations when finished, and he said he did not have plans to do so in this case unless ordered by a judge.

For more than three decades, Kansas law has prohibited the release of most police reports, records and files. Even basic arrest and search warrant affidavits that show the evidence authorities need to make an arrest or to search homes and businesses are withheld from the public.

The law also makes it a misdemeanor crime to release those records.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In early May, both houses of the Kansas Legislature passed a partial open records bill. Gov. Sam Brownback has indicated he will sign the bill into law.

The Kansas prohibition on police records is unlike any other states' laws in the country and even federal government laws. 

“A central tenant of democracy … is the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable, and without the ability to know what’s going on, you have no way of holding anybody accountable,” said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who has fought to open police records in several high-profile cases.

One of her cases has become a cause celebre worldwide for those concerned about abuse of police powers.

Johnson County sheriff's deputies dressed in SWAT gear raided Robert and Addie's Leawood home almost two years ago . The Hartes were never charged with a crime but it took a year and $25,000 to see the records used to gain entry to their home. They now have now sued the sheriff’s department in federal court.

They are also campaigning to try to get laws passed to open police records.

As a result, Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and retired federal judge, introduced a bill in February that would require arrest reports to be open to the public. The bill passed the House of Representatives but last week it was severely cut in the Senate, and Rubin is scrambling to salvage it before the end of the session April 4.

The bill in its initial form would be a great improvement, supporters say. However it is limited and would not make public all records

The city of Prairie Village fought hard to keep police records closed in a case in which a police officer fatally shot Susan Stuckey, a mentally ill woman, when she refused to leave her apartment.

Stuckey’s mother, wanting to make sense of her daughter’s death, tried for two years to get police records that in any other state would have been easily accessible.

“I asked for the records, and they said, ‘You’ll never get them,’” said Beverly Stewart, Stuckey’s mother.

She spent thousands of dollars to get it to a court hearing.

The city argued in part that Stewart only wanted the files so she could sue the police department, but a judge ordered the records to be released, saying a lawsuit and criticism might result, but the court cannot use that as an excuse to close records.

After reviewing the files, Stewart did file a lawsuit that said police could have used non-lethal weapons to subdue her daughter and Stuckey’s constitutional rights were violated.

“What I found out in the records, they lied to me,” Stewart said. “They lied to me.”

The city settled late last year and paid Stuckey’s mother more than $560,000.

Next: A woman's drive home from Colorado ends with her violently ill in a Sherman County jail cell. Did her jailers act quickly enough to save her life? Records that could shed light on the circumstances aren't available to the public.

In her obituary, Brenda Sewell was described as “the rock that everyone could rely on.”

When she died, she had been a widow for only three months and left behind a son and grandchild.
A lifelong resident of south Kansas City, she was known for her compassion for kids and animals. She always “gave to anyone in need, no matter the reason,” the obit said.

A 1973 graduate of Ruskin High School and a cosmetology school, she found her niche as a teacher’s aide in the Hickman Mills School District. She loved the children and donated items to classrooms that were lacking supplies.

“She gave, gave, gave…she would go without to help,” Biggs said.

Sewell loved to travel, most of all to Hawaii. In recent years, she began tracking down her high school graduation class and created an all-girls group that did charity work.

When her husband Richard Sewell, a retired CPA, died in October, Sewell also was having health problems but medication kept her life enjoyable, Biggs said.

She suffered from several autoimmune diseases including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome. She also had Hepatitis C, thyroid disease and high blood pressure.

The diseases were painful and Sewell had difficulty retaining water, so she drank water both day and night, Biggs said.

In January, Sewell arranged to buy an RV from friends in Colorado. The friends drove the RV to Kansas City for Brenda to see. After purchasing it, Sewell and her sister drove the friends back to Colorado in Sewell’s Lincoln.

While there, Sewell bought a small amount of medical marijuana. She used pot to help manage pain, Biggs said.

The Trip Home

The sisters left their friends’ home in the Rocky Mountain foothills about 11 a.m. on Jan. 20, Biggs said.
After crossing over Kansas-Colorado state line, Biggs noticed she was nine miles over the speed limit. But a Kansas Patrol Trooper had spotted her and pulled her over at 4:19 p.m. at mile marker 18 near Goodland, a police report said.

The trooper told the women he could smell marijuana. Biggs and Sewell said no one had smoked marijuana, but the trooper wanted to search the car.

Sewell then told him there was some marijuana in two small jars that she used for medicinal purposes. The trooper also found 16 prescription pills in a multi-day pill box without a label.

The pills were Sewell’s medication, Biggs said. They were seized as illegal drugs as well as the marijuana and their car impounded.

The trooper arrested the women and deputies took them to the Sherman County Jail.

The sisters were placed in a cell with Louann Medrano, 26, of Oakley. Medrano had been in jail for several weeks for a probation violation.

In the cell, bunk beds stood against opposite walls and a picnic table sat in the middle of the floor.

A dirty toilet sat openly in the corner. The drinking faucet, corroded with lime and rust, sat on top of the toilet's tank.

The sisters were told they could place a call to relatives using a phone in their jail cell. But the phone didn’t work. They waited several hours for a jailer to give them a passcode, and then it still didn’t work.

Biggs would try to call home, a relative would answer but couldn’t hear her.

“We could hear them, but they couldn’t hear us, so I couldn’t tell anybody,” Biggs said.

Medrano, who spoke exclusively with 41 Action News, also said the phone did not work.

Biggs actually screamed into the phone to no avail, and the jailer said he was too busy to let her use another phone, Medrano said.

Jailers would not give Sewell her medications even though she explained she really needed them and was supposed to have a medical procedure, a scoping, the next day to examine lesions she had on her esophagus from the hepatitis C treatment, her sister said.

Monday evening, they were given “Salisbury steak TV dinners,” and Sewell ate all of it even though she said she didn’t feel well. It was the last food she would eat.

Early Tuesday morning, she began vomiting forcefully and continued throughout the day.

By afternoon, Sewell couldn’t make it to the toilet on her own, and she used a plastic tote that is used by prisoners for toiletries.

“She was literally rolling over and puking into it,” Biggs said.

Sewell vomited on the floor a couple times, and a jailer gave the women rags to clean it up.

That scene greeted Halea Kopetsky, 18, of Indiana when she was moved into the women's cell, she told 41 Action News in an exclusive interview.

When Kopetsky learned Sewell had Hepatitis C, she questioned whether they should be wiping up the vomit without any protective gear. Hepatitis C can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids.

But they were given no other choice.

Biggs and Medrano told the jailers several times her sister needed a doctor, “but they just blew us off,” Biggs said.

The sisters were taken separately just after 4 p.m. to see Judge Showalter. Sewell could hardly stand and had to be helped to the courtroom by a jailer.

Judge Showalter set bond, but the sisters’ hopes they were going home were quickly dashed.

The jailer said it was too late Tuesday to release them, and they would have to wait until the next morning.

When they returned to the cell, Sewell refused dinner.

“By that time she was puking dark … she was puking blood,” Biggs said. “She was pale and clammy.”

Medrano said the situation was horrible.

“She just kept asking for her meds, and they just kept telling her that they weren’t able to give them to her because they were not in the right prescription bottles,” said Medrano, who kept a diary of the events. “The container was full of her puking blood.”

Finally EMTs were called to take her to the hospital.

“I was very relieved, very, very relieved,” Biggs said.

But not for long. Her sister was returned to the cell about an hour later with some medication to try to quell the vomiting.

“She didn’t look any better,” Biggs said.

She wasn’t getting sick to her stomach “not as drastically, but I think that’s because she didn’t have anything left in her,” Biggs said.

Early Wednesday, when breakfast was served, Sewell couldn't eat.

Finally, Biggs sat her up,and she starting coughing, fluid spurting from her mouth.

“She was acting like she was going to talk but it wasn’t words, it was like mumbo jumbo…and she started kind of getting limp,” Biggs said.

Sewell didn’t seem to be able to breath, and so Biggs and Medrano laid her on the floor, and Biggs and Kopetsky took turns performing CPR.

“But my sister’s jaw was already clinched , and I couldn’t get her any air,” Biggs said.

At the same time, the women were yelling at the jailers to open the door. A guard looking through a window into the cell did nothing.

“He kept just looking in the little window and saying ‘somebody’s coming, somebody’s coming,' but it seemed like forever…and nobody came, and nobody came, and my sister didn’t have a pulse,” Biggs said.

Finally the jailer opened the door and two EMT workers came into the cell and took Sewell away on a gurney, leaving Biggs and the two other women behind.

Jailers inexplicably taped paper over the cell window. Through the shut door, Biggs kept asking how her sister was, and finally one jailer told her she had a strong pulse but offered no other information.

After what seemed a long time, Biggs and Medrano were moved to another cell.

In the new cell, the telephone worked but Biggs decided to wait to call family until she was released and had picked up her sister from the hospital.

That was not to be.

“Instead this lady came…and told me that my sister had died, and that they had done everything they could,” Biggs said.

Biggs placed her phone call finally to the family’s attorney who called “the kids.”

Sheriff Pianalto then took Biggs to the tow lot to get the Lincoln. Biggs asked where she could pay the tow fee of almost $200, and he said, “No charge.”

The sheriff led her to I-70, and pointed east.

“‘Kansas City is that way,’” Sheriff Pianalto told Biggs.

Next: Pleas from police for outside investigation go unanswered while Brenda Sewell's family continue asking for answers in her death.

Even before Sewell was confirmed dead Wednesday morning, Sheriff Pinalto asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to examine her death, according to emails and letters obtained by 41 Action News investigators.

Sewell was being moved to the hospital from the jail when Sheriff Pinalto contacted a KBI agent. The sheriff told the agent he believed Sewell would be pronounced dead when she reached the hospital, according to a KBI memorandum dated almost two weeks later.

Pinalto told the agent that the woman had been taken to the hospital the night before because of seizures and then returned to the jail.

He also told the agent he believed illegal drug use was to blame, according to the KBI memo.

Lyle Noordhoek, the coroner who would do the autopsy, also spoke to the KBI agent and said he had been told “about the situation” and it “sounded like it was complications to withdrawal” from drugs, the memo said.

Noordhoek talked to another agent and told him Sewell had died from "complication to a drug withdrawal,” the memo said.

But the autopsy listed Sewell's death to be from “natural causes,” internal bleeding caused from a ruptured lesions on her spleen.

Noordhoek was never told about Sewell’s lengthy medical history nor the medications she was taking before the autopsy was done, he told 41 Action News.

Indeed, he didn't know about her medical conditions until contacted by a 41 News investigator more than a month after he autopsied her.

KBI officials would not do a separate investigation because the autopsy did not indicate a crime had occurred.

“We reviewed the information they provided us, and everything that they provided us indicated that it was natural causes and that she died under the attending care of a physician at the hospital in Goodland,” Mark Malick, KBI Special Agent in Charge, told 41 Action News.

Because KBI would not investigate, Goodland police did. But there were concerns over the appearance of a conflict of interest. The lead investigator for police is married to the county’s undersheriff.

The Goodland police turned over its investigation on January 31 to County Attorney Charles Moser for review.

Even after police finished their investigation, Sherman County authorities again asked KBI to investigate, saying it could be helpful for the sheriff's department because of concerns that Sewell's family would sue and that the family would believe there was a “cover-up,” according to a February 20 letter written by KBI Director Kirk D. Thompson.

“I am not convinced that another investigation will bring any additional clarity to the situation,” Thompson wrote.

In a recent interview, Goodland Police Chief Clifton Couch told 41 Action News he stands by the investigation. It was fair and unbiased, he said. But he would not say what the investigation found.

Moser will not say when he will conclude his review of Sewell's death.

After the autopsy, Sewell’s family brought her body back to Kansas City. On Feb. 1, a memorial service was held. The invitation asked family and friends to come celebrate the life “of the most giving woman anyone has ever met.”

Biggs now is facing multiple felony counts of possession of marijuana and prescription drugs and having no drug tax stamp. A school bus driver, she has hired an attorney that she says she cannot afford.

Biggs doesn't agree with the autopsy findings that her sister died of natural causes. She says video from a surveillance camera in her cell will corroborate her story but law enforcement will not release them.

She also hopes that no other people are ever treated like her sister was.

“I believe if we would have been able to bond out … and get home, my sister would still be here today,” Biggs said. “She made the world beautiful … and is going to be missed a lot.”

Friends and family have started the Facebook page "Justice for Brenda Sewell" to raise awareness about her death.

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