Lawanda Sockey had been clean for years. She did a dangerous dance with crack cocaine in the 1990s, running afoul of the law on a few possession charges. But by the end of the millennium she was clean, with a steady job and a place of her own. For a decade things were good. Lawanda helped raise her sister's two youngest children, contributing to family life on a daily basis.
But then their mother died in 2009, which seemed to act as a trigger for Lawanda's addiction. "Little by little she started losing weight," says Teresa Flynn, Lawanda's sister. "You couldn't tell she was on drugs. I couldn't tell. And then little by little my family would tell me, 'She's doing something.' I started really noticing this year."
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Despite backsliding, Lawanda remained connected to her family. "Even though she was using, she still came every day," says Teresa's eldest child, Valorie. "She still cooked, she still bought the kids things."
But Lawanda's addiction worsened, as addictions do, and eventually it encroached upon the rest of her life. By the end of 2012 she had lost her job. In March she became homeless. And as so often is the case, her family did not know how to reach her.
"We all tried to help her," says Michelle, Lawanda's sister-in-law. "We tried. But she didn't care what we thought, pretty much. Not in a bad way, but she was like, 'This is me.' She wanted to stop, but I think she was already too into it."
"She was always, like, 'I'm going to be okay. Don't worry about me,'" Valorie adds. "That's all she ever told us: 'Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.' She didn't care what anybody thought about her. That's what I remember about it. But she was still a good person."
Good person or not, on April 24 Long Beach police arrested Lawanda for what the LBPD describes as a "felony narcotics charge." Detectives clarified to the family that her arrest was not related to anything that transpired April 24, but that earlier in the week undercover officers had witnessed her dealing cocaine.
At approximately 3 p.m. Lawanda was brought to the Long Beach City Jail. Two hours later paramedics were rushing her to the hospital. But her life was already over. While the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office is awaiting the results of a toxicology report before determining an official cause of death, LBPD detectives told the family that Lawanda's autopsy revealed "something found in her throat [...] in her esophagus."
That something, detectives say, was a baggie with 26 grams of either crack or crystal meth.
How it got there is anyone's guess. Detectives say Lawanda was able to talk during the booking process, although even then her behavior was of enough concern that officers summoned a nurse. "I think she had some difficulty [during] booking," a detective told the family. "That's why they called the nurse to booking. [... Her behavior went] up and down. We don't know if that from being under the influence or it's from that she's choking."
According to detectives, Lawanda's jailers say that at times she was mumbling and seemed reluctant to fully open her mouth, she was strip-searched, a procedure that is supposed to include a look inside the arrestee's mouth.
Detectives say there is extensive video documenting the next couple of hours--video they said would be shared with the family, although thus far the family has yet to be given the promised access (the LBPD declined to comment as to why)--that shows Lawanda being "fidgety." They say she complained of having difficulty breathing. "She didn't tell them, 'I swallowed a bunch of dope,'" detectives say. "She said she had asthma."
Detectives report that in the hours prior to her death Lawanda was seen by a nurse two additional times, in addition to being seen by a doctor; and that she was given an inhaler. At one point she was gagging, and officers brought a trashcan over to her cell, in case she needed to vomit. Eventually Lawanda's distress escalated, and paramedics were summoned. By this time she was foaming at the mouth (which detectives say can be a sign of a drug overdose). She was alive when paramedics arrived, but after working on her for approximately 20 minutes, Lawanda Sockey was dead.
Detectives speculate that, however the bag of drugs became lodged at the top of her esophagus, the reason Lawanda attempted to swallow it was most likely to avoid extensive incarceration. "This would have been a big arrest for her," detectives say. "She don't want to do that jail time. That's probably why she swallowed it. Because if we don't have the drugs, we don't have a case on her. She knows that."
The immediate concern of Lawanda's loved ones is to find out whether her jailers were neglectful, perhaps because they disdained to seriously entertain the complaints of a drug addict. "What we're worried about is that [whether] they did everything they could to save her," Valorie says. "I don't understand why...If the nurse had to come three times, and a doctor [came once], they knew something was wrong, and we wonder why they didn't take her to the hospital," says Teresa "They said the bag of drugs was found [at the top of] her esophagus. So she was having trouble breathing--but she didn't look sick, she didn't look pale? I don't believe that."
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Detectives have promised the family that any neglect on the part of Lawanda's jailers will be discovered. "Everything that happened will come out to light," detectives promised. "If there's any negligence, it will be brought out."
But even in the absence of negligence, the family says, police contributed to Lawanda's death by being foot soldiers in the "War on Drugs."
"I think they should offer to put them in some kind of program or...I'm not sure, [but] just some kind of help," says Teresa. "Because they're not criminals. Addiction to drugs is just hard to get off once you're on it. I think they should try to do more than just arrest them. [...] I think [Lawanda] would still be alive right now if they would not have arrested her and threw her in a cell. I think if they tried to help her, she would have listened to them. But she was afraid of them, I think."