Six weeks after Lauren Smith-Fields’ body was found in her Connecticut home after going out with a man she’d met on a dating app, police have said they will open a criminal probe into the circumstances surrounding her death.
The 23-year-old Black woman’s death was ruled an “accident” on Monday, with the state’s chief medical examiner finding that she had died from a toxic combination of fentanyl, prescription drugs, and alcohol.
On Tuesday, Bridgeport police chief Rebeca Garcia said in a statement that the department would look into “the factors that [led] to her untimely death,” according to Buzzfeed News. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration planned to aid detectives in Bridgeport’s narcotics and vice division, Garcia added.
The announcement of a criminal inquiry comes after Smith-Fields’ relative challenged the medical examiner’s ruling. The 23-year-old’s family has spent weeks calling for justice and is preparing to sue the city of Bridgeport and its police department for what they have called a “racially insensitive” mishandling of the case.
“They’re so angry right now,” Darnell Crosland, who is representing Smith-Fields’ family, told WTNH on Monday. The 23-year-old’s death looked “more like a murder” to her relatives, Crosland added. “And if the police don’t start acting fast, we’re going to have a real big problem on our hands,” he said.
Smith-Fields was found unresponsive in her apartment on Dec. 12 by her Bumble date, a 37-year-old white man, who woke up to find her “not breathing,” according to an incident report. Blood was also trickling out of her right nostril, the report said. The man called 911, and has not been charged with any crimes.
But the family has alleged they learned about Smith-Fields’ death two days later, when her concerned mother drove to her home to find a note, written by her landlord, pinned to the door. “If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number,” the note said, Shantell Fields told CBS News.
Smith-Fields’ brother, Tavar Gray-Smith, also told CBS that a detective later told the family the department hadn’t felt the need to reach out to them because they “had her passport and her ID, so we knew who she was.” The detective has since been removed from the case, according to multiple outlets.
A notice of claim, filed Friday as a part of the family’s planned lawsuit, alleged the police had “treated this family with no respect and has violated their civil rights.” In the notice, Crosland charged the police department with failure to collect potentially crucial physical evidence from Smith-Fields’ home.
It also condemned detectives’ refusal to consider the victim’s Bumble date a person of interest in the case. Investigators did not interview the man, the notice said, with the detective working the case at the time telling Smith-Fields’ father that “he was a nice guy,” according to WTNH. The detective eventually told the family to “stop calling” with questions about their daughter’s death, the Hartford Courant reported.
Activists and local lawmakers joined the family in pushing for justice. Maria Pereira, a Bridgeport city councilwoman, told the Courant she was appalled by the proceedings.
“Do you think if a white mother or father had their 23-year-old white daughter die and the last person who saw her was an older Black man that she met on a dating site, do you think that would have been handled in the exact same way?” Pereira asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that.”
A Connecticut state senator, Dennis Bradley, said Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation requiring authorities to notify a deceased person’s family within 24 hours of their discovery. The senator said in a statement that the proposed bill would honor Smith-Fields.
On Monday, Bridgeport’s mayor announced that the police department’s conduct in the case would be independently investigated by the Office of Internal Affairs. Mayor Joe Ganim also echoed promises for death notification by police, saying that “sensitivity and care is of utmost importance when working with the family of a victim.”
“I support and add my voice to the family, community, and elected officials who are calling for state legislation on this issue,” Ganim said, according to the Courant.
In a video released on Monday night, Crosland said that Smith-Fields’ family believed strongly that foul play had been involved in the woman’s death. “Someone introduced those drugs to her system, and it wasn’t her,” the attorney said, according to WFSB. “And we want answers right now.”
Hours before the Bridgeport police chief announced the opening of a criminal investigation, Crosland made another press statement. The autopsy results didn’t excuse the police department’s lack of progress, the attorney noted. “In fact, it makes it worse. As a result of a botched investigation, this morning we are left with more questions than answers,” Crosland said.
“No one is going to discard my daughter like rubbish,” Shantell Fields said in an emotional speech at a rally in Bridgeport on Sunday, the day Smith-Fields would have turned 24. “She’s not rubbish. She had a life. She had a business. She was in college. And she had a family and friends that loved her.”