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Officials silent on jail death

Officials won't say what happened at the Franklin County jail last month to cause the death of Ana Romero, a Salvadoran immigrant awaiting deportation.

Family members say that, shortly before her death Aug. 21, Romero was placed in isolation for refusing to eat. Mario Aguilar said Romero, his sister-in-law, had telephoned several times from the jail saying her stomach hurt and she was vomiting.

Matthew Pippin, a Louisville attorney representing the family of the 44-year-old woman, said an autopsy was performed more than 10 days ago, but a preliminary report has not been released.

"We are befuddled about not having preliminary autopsy results," said Pippin, who added that he is "certainly concerned about the circumstances surrounding her death."

The silence mirrors dozens of cases nationwide in which little information is released about deaths in jails and prisons among those awaiting deportation. Congress has recently demanded that more information be made public.

The New York Times recently reported that at least 71 people set for deportation died in custody from 2004 to May 2008. Advocates are now calling for improved health care and suicide prevention measures for the detainees.

Although the deaths of immigrants in custody has become a national issue, the topic hasn't received much attention in Kentucky, said the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, interim director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

"It's probably something we should watch," Delahanty said. "I hope someone does take an interest in it and begins to take a look at it."

Romero, who worked in Shelbyville cleaning houses to support her elderly mother and her two sons who were attending college in El Salvador, had not been charged with any crimes other than those related to being an illegal immigrant, Pippin said.

On Oct. 13, 2005, immigration officials ordered Romero to leave the country within 90 days, according to federal court records.. She did not.

Pippin said Romero, who came to Kentucky from El Salvador three years ago, was arrested on Jan.14 by Kentucky State Police after giving federal immigration officials a false identification card. Mario Aguilar said officers were looking for another suspect when they knocked on Romero's door.

As a result of the January charges, she spent five months in the Shelby County jail and was transferred to the Franklin County Regional Jail in May, where she stayed the last four months.

Romero entered a guilty plea that U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves signed Aug. 7. She was required to pay a $100 fine, but did not receive additional jail time.

Pippin said Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod told him that Romero was found Aug. 21 with a sheet around her neck.

Harrod did not return telephone calls Tuesday.

Pippin said he thinks officials are investigating the death as a suicide.

Franklin Chief Deputy Coroner Marchele Otten said Monday an autopsy was performed after the death, but her office had not received information from the state medical examiner's office about a preliminary cause of death for Romero.

Franklin County Jailer Billy Roberts did not return several telephone calls Tuesday. But the The State Journal reported in an article last week that 911 was called around 11:15 p.m. Aug. 21 and Romero was taken by emergency medical personnel to the Frankfort Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead just before midnight. Roberts told the paper that his staff tried to save Romero.

Aguilar, co-owner of Marimba's Mexican restaurant in Shelbyville, said that on Aug. 18 Romero called him complaining of stomach pain and vomiting. A female jail employee got on the phone and asked Aguilar to encourage his sister-in-law to eat.

But Aguilar said Romero told him that the food smelled bad and there was something wrong with it.

He said she called back again on Aug. 19 and said she was still sick. Aguilar said Romero told him she was placed in a dark isolation room on Aug. 20 for not eating.

"She had lost 30 to 35 pounds in the Franklin County jail because she did not want to eat the food," Aguilar said.

Pippin said Romero showed no signs of depression or being suicidal in the days leading up to her death.

She had family who loved her here and at home in El Salvador, he said.

Pippin said that Romero's family thinks her religious convictions would have prevented her from committing suicide.

"She was a devout Catholic," he said.

Pippin said a state police detective refused to talk to him about the case. State police officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Romero's son, Asdrubal Velasquez of El Salvador, said in an e-mail to the Herald-Leader that his mother's death, "was somewhat shocking for me and my brother."

"We miss her," Velasquez said, adding that it was "unfair" for the government not to give him and his brother information about their mother's death.

No officials have talked to Romero's family who saw her in the days leading up to her death, Pippin said.

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