Franklin County

Woman's jail death ruled a suicide

Ana Romero Rivera, the Salvardoran immigrant who died last month in the Franklin County jail, hanged herself by the neck with a sheet, according to a preliminary autopsy report.

The report, released to the Herald-Leader on Friday by the state medical examiner's office, confirms that Romero died of asphyxia by hanging. Kentucky State Police have been investigating the death as a suicide by hanging. That investigation is continuing.

The medical examiner's report provides the first official word on how Romero, 44, died on Aug. 22.

Romero's family and their attorney, Matthew Pippin of Louisville, had been inquiring about the report for weeks and say they are calling for an investigation of everything that happened at the jail before her death.

The report provided Romero's family with little relief.

Mario Aguilar, her brother-in-law, said Friday, "We don't believe she did it herself."

"She was almost ready to be deported and was looking forward to it," he said. "She was fine. And then on Aug. 18, she said she was sick."

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.

According to a dispatch transcript from the Frankfort Police Department, obtained through an open records request, staff at the jail made a 911 call about 11:15 p.m. Aug. 21, requesting an ambulance for Romero because she was not breathing and a CPR unit was assisting. At 11:19 p.m., "jail staff advised she hung herself and was not breathing."

The medical examiner's report says the jail took Romero to the hospital late Aug. 21. She was pronounced dead about 2:40 a.m. Aug. 22.

The preliminary autopsy report, which has been given to Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod, says the manner of death is still pending because a number of things are still unknown, including the toxicology report and the circumstances of death.

The circumstances of Romero's death have been a major point of contention for her family and their attorney.

Congress has recently demanded that more information be made public about the dozens of deaths in jails and prisons among those awaiting deportation.

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

Last week, Romero's family decided to seek the opinion of former state medical examiner George Nichols II because they were concerned that officials were not aggressively investigating the case.

Pippin said Friday that Romero's family is eager to see toxicology and other medical reports.

"It seems awfully strange that she exhibited no signs of being suicidal," Pippin said. "I think at this point the family will want to see what our expert says."

The family wants to hire Nichols to conduct a second autopsy if he finds it necessary. He has said he often can make a determination by reviewing the results of the first autopsy.

Franklin County Jailer Billy Roberts did not return telephone calls Friday.

Franklin County Attorney Rick Sparks would not say whether he was investigating the circumstances surrounding the death.

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.

Aguilar said he went to the jail last week to get his sister-in-law's belongings, but jail officials told him that state police were reviewing the items as part of their investigation.

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