Franklin County

Second opinion sought in immigrant jail death

The family of a Salvadoran immigrant who died in the Franklin County jail last month while awaiting deportation says they will ask a former chief state medical examiner to give them a second opinion on how she died, their attorney said Sunday.

Louisville attorney Matthew Pippin said the family of Ana Romero decided last week to seek the opinion of George Nichols II because they are concerned that officials are not aggressively investigating the case. Romero, 44, died Aug. 21, but it's not yet clear how she died.

The office of Tracey Corey, the current chief state medical examiner, has not released a preliminary cause of death. The Kentucky State Police announced last week it is investigating the death as a suicide by hanging.

Nichols said Sunday that he had not received the family's request yet, but that he routinely reviews cases at the request of families, attorneys and officials.

The state police investigation comes after Romero's family began inquiring about the circumstances surrounding her death. It also comes at a time when, nationwide, scant information is being released about deaths in jails and prisons of people awaiting deportation.

Congress has recently demanded that more details be made public. The New York Times recently reported that at least 71 people scheduled for deportation died in custody from 2004 to May 2008. Advocates say the detainees should have improved health care and suicide prevention measures.

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

Romero's brother-in-law Mario Aguilar and other family members do not think she committed suicide. They want to hire Nichols to conduct a second autopsy if he finds it necessary. Nichols said he often can make a determination by reviewing the results of the first autopsy.

"The police haven't asked me or my wife any questions," Aguilar said Sunday.

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

As a result of the January charges, Romero 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 Aug. 7. She was required to pay a $100 fine, but she did not receive additional jail time.

Family members say that shortly before she died, Romero was placed in isolation for refusing to eat. Aguilar said she had telephoned several times from the jail saying her stomach hurt and she was vomiting. She said the food smelled bad and that something was wrong with it.

Suicide, the family said, did not appear to be on her mind. Romero did not appear to be depressed and her religious convictions would have prevented her from committing suicide, her family says.

In the days before her death, Romero was not upset about the deportation; she was looking forward to going home to see her elderly mother and two sons. Romero helped support her family by working in Shelbyville cleaning houses, Aguilar said.

"We usually talked to her at least once a day," he said.

Aguilar said his wife — Romero's sister Blanca Aguilar — had mailed Romero's clothes and other belongings to San Salvador in preparation for the deportation.

"Ana talked to her son recently," Aguilar recalled. "He said: 'Everything is waiting for you.'"

Ana told her son, "I'll be there."

"She was hoping," said Aguilar, "that it would only be a few days."

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