Police probe delay in treating victim they thought was dead

Woman was alive but assumed dead for almost five hours

jkegley@herald-leader.com ksaltz@herald-leader.comJune 12, 2010 

  • Timeline

    6:21 p.m. Wednesday: Officers arrive. They find Umi Southworth in some bushes "shortly after."

    9:05 p.m.: Coroner's office is called.

    9:35 p.m.: Deputy coroner arrives; Coroner Gary Ginn arrives "soon after."

    11:05 p.m.: Southworth is found to be alive and taken to hospital.

    1:19 p.m. Thursday: Southworth is pronounced dead.

Shortly after they arrived on Meadowthorpe Avenue about 6:21 p.m. Wednesday, Lexington police found Umi Southworth lying in the bushes behind her home. Southworth, 44, had been assaulted, and her injuries were so bad that responding officers thought she was dead, according to initial accounts from police.

Police records say Southworth sustained severe head and facial injuries "believed to have been caused by an intentional assault with a large piece of wood."

Neighbors say dozens of officers were on the scene, going in and out of Southworth's home, talking to neighbors and canvassing the area for evidence.

It wasn't until 9:05 p.m. that the coroner was called. Two hours later, investigators determined Southworth was alive, said Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn.

That nearly five-hour gap in time fueled questions throughout the day Friday about Lexington police's response to what is now being investigated as a homicide. Southworth died Thursday at University of Kentucky Hospital.

Lexington police Chief Ronnie Bastin released a short statement late Friday, saying the Division of Police is assessing its response to the incident at 1486 Meadowthorpe Drive.

"We want to assure the residents of Lexington and Fayette County that we are giving this situation the full attention it deserves," the statement said. "We are reviewing this incident from all aspects to determine if there was a personnel or policy failure. If we find there has been such a failure, we will take appropriate action."

It's unclear what tests were performed on Southworth to determine whether she had a pulse. Neighbors said no ambulance was called to the scene until more than an hour after the coroner arrived.

Fire officials did not return calls Friday.

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry, said the mayor was deferring to Lexington police to comment.

Police declined to discuss the case in further detail.

Bastin said in his statement that he was not able to release specific details related to the case because there "is an ongoing homicide investigation related to this incident" and "doing so could compromise the investigation."

Meanwhile, Southworth's co-workers and neighbors were perplexed by the situation.

Co-workers said Southworth's death was especially painful because they had to live through the news of her death twice.

Southworth, who was an accountant for Fazoli's corporate offices on Palumbo Drive, was reported missing by her colleagues Wednesday when she didn't show up for work.

Vice president for human resources David Craig said employees were told Wednesday night that Southworth was already dead when police found her on Meadowthorpe Avenue. But Thursday morning, Craig said they realized Southworth was alive — only to lose her later that afternoon.

"It was particularly difficult because we went through it twice," Craig said.

Neighbor Paige Prewitt said many of Southworth's other neighbors don't understand the time lapse between when police arrived on the scene and when Southworth was taken to the hospital.

"Why did it take so long?" she asked. "The general consensus of the neighborhood is we wonder if the outcome could have been different."

No arrests, no suspects

Preliminary autopsy results have not been released, and Ginn said he would not comment about Southworth's injuries because of the active police investigation.

As of Friday, police had not made any arrests or named any suspects in Southworth's death.

Officers executed a search warrant at the Southworths' home and took several items, but police would not elaborate.

Investigators said they have interviewed Southworth's husband, Don.

Don Southworth has a history of domestic violence, according to court records.

At least three emergency protective orders have been taken out against Don Southworth by two women.

In 2005, he was charged with fourth-degree aggravated assault, first-degree sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. He pleaded guilty to assault and paid a $500 fine and $148 in court costs.

On Thursday, a woman identified in court records as the mother of one of Don Southworth's two daughters filed an emergency protective order on behalf of the girls. A judge granted the order the same day. The request for the protective order says Don Southworth was "seeking to find his minor children" and that he is "a person of interest in the death of his wife."

'She didn't come in'

Umi Southworth was supposed to be at work at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. She never showed up. She didn't call.

"She didn't come in, so that in itself was very unusual," said Craig, the vice president of human resources. "She had a great work ethic."

Four co-workers went to the Southworths' home to check on her during their lunch break at 11:30 a.m.

The co-workers said they saw things outside that concerned them, Craig said. He would not elaborate. He said they found a police officer who did a wellness check on Southworth's 12-year-old daughter, Almira Fawn, who was in the home at the time.

They returned to work, but still hadn't heard from Southworth, so they called the police at 6 p.m.

Lexington police said officers arrived at 6:21 p.m. in response to that missing-person report.

Sherelle Roberts, spokeswoman for the police department, said "shortly after" officers arrived, Southworth was found in some bushes behind the four-plex at 1486 Meadowthorpe Drive.

Joe Collins, president of the Meadowthorpe Neighborhood Association, said his wife, Rachelle, told him there were several police officers outside Wednesday night and that the area had been blocked off with crime tape.

Rachelle Collins said she and other neighbors walked by periodically to see what was going on, but police told them they were working a missing-person report.

Joe Collins said neighbors were told that Southworth was dead at the scene and that neighbors should not be concerned about safety. Craig said Southworth's colleagues were told at 8 p.m. that she was dead.

Rachelle Collins said she does not recall seeing an ambulance.

Prewitt, who lives nearby, said she watched police activity from her front porch Wednesday. She said even after the coroner's van arrived, it was another hour before an ambulance arrived to take Southworth for treatment.

According to Ginn, the coroner's office was first notified by police at 9:05 p.m.

Ginn said a deputy coroner arrived at 9:35 p.m. At 11:05 p.m., investigators realized Southworth was alive. She was taken to UK Hospital, where she was placed in the intensive care unit until she was pronounced dead at 1:19 p.m. Thursday.

Many of the people who know Southworth are wrestling with her death.

Craig said Southworth was a private person, but she would often speak of her daughter, local singer and songwriter Almira Fawn. Craig said Southworth never gave any indication she felt unsafe or that she was in danger.

Southworth's co-workers are still discussing the possibility of a memorial.

"She was the type of person you were proud to be associated with," Craig said.

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