On Jan. 10, Gynnya McMillen was taken to Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The 16-year-old spent 14 hours alone in a holding cell that night and never woke up the next morning. Officials have not been forthcoming with information about the young girl’s death.
A cause of death has not yet been released. The Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet released a statement simply saying, “The youth appears to have passed away while sleeping and the preliminary autopsy report shows no cause or manner of death.” William Lee Jr., the county coroner, did not see any physical signs on McMillen’s body attributable to trauma and said the young girl likely did not have a heart condition. With no foul play suspected, no criminal charges are currently pending.
Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley requested the investigation be expedited. The results of McMillen’s autopsy, which could take several more weeks to be ready, are also to be expedited.
Details about the hours leading up to McMillen’s death have slowly been made public. McMillen, who had never been arrested before, was taken to the detention center on the night of Jan. 10 after allegedly being involved in a domestic dispute with her mother. (McMillen had previously been removed from her mother’s home in Shelbyville and taken to a group home in Louisville for abused children.)
Upon arriving at the detention center, McMillen refused to remove her sweatshirt to submit to a pat down search. It is unclear why she would not take it off. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice reported in a statement, “The staff performed an Aikido restraint hold to safely conduct a pat-down search and remove the youth’s hoodie.” Aikido is a form of martial arts. After the restraint, McMillen’s hoodie was removed and the search was conducted.
Youths in isolation at the center are required to be under constant video surveillance, and this footage has been given to the authorities. While what happened between then and the discovery of McMillen’s body is still a mystery, though, what didn’t happen has been revealed.
A Lincoln Village employee is required to check on the youths every fifteen minutes. Reginald Windham, who has worked with the Kentucky juvenile justice system for a decade and should have performed these checks on McMillen, failed to check on the girl for hours. He has been placed on paid administrative leave.
Employees failed to check on McMillen after trying to communicate with her three separate times that morning. At 6:30 a.m. an employee called to her for breakfast, and at 8:30 a.m. someone offered her a snack. At another point that morning, an employee told McMillen her mom was on the phone.
McMillen’s body was not discovered until 9:55 a.m. on Jan. 11 when a deputy arrived to escort her to court and she was found unresponsive. It took nine minutes for 911 to be called after finding her body; the 911 call can be heard here. During the call, a nurse describes her body as “cold” and “stiff” and says McMillen has “no vital signs.” Another two minutes went by before CPR was attempted.
The teen was declared dead at 10:15 a.m. and was en route to the coroner by 11:33 a.m.
According to Michele Deitch, an expert in juvenile justice and an attorney, McMillen’s unresponsiveness should have raised concerns immediately — especially when she did not respond for meals.
“It is not normal, not acceptable, for a kid to be not eating, not engaging, not responsive, and that should trigger alarms,” Deitch explained. “It seems like there were so many missed opportunities and missed signals that something wasn’t right here.”
Allegedly, the staff saw no reason for concern when McMillen did not respond because she had not been verbally communicative with staff from the time she was brought in.
But according to Deitch, it is not only helpful but in essence the job of the staff to be more proactive with the kids brought in to the facility.
“Really the job of the juvenile detention staff is to engage with the kids,” she said. “Especially in the beginning of this period when they’ve just been detained, there’s this kind of shock.”
LaChe Simms, McMillen’s sister, has spoken out as well and said the chain of events simply “doesn’t make sense.”
“If she was just not moving at all, they should have tried to wake her up,” she said. “If your child doesn’t get up for breakfast, what are you going to do You’re going to find out what’s wrong.”
McMillen’s death eerily echos that of Sandra Bland, who, while was not a minor, also died under suspicious circumstances after being taken into police custody. Bland, 28, was pulled over and subsequently arrested last July and found hanging from a trash bag in her jail cell just three days later. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her family and supporters remain suspicious. Brian Encinia, the state trooper who arrested Bland, was recently fired and charged with perjury in connection to his testimony on Bland’s arrest.
Just weeks after Bland’s death another Black woman, 37-year-old Ralkina Jones, died while in police custody as well — mere hours after telling officers, “I don’t want to die in your cell.”
In the meantime, McMillen’s family is left with a lot of grief — as well as a lot of questions.
“Why did it take so many days for them to give a statement It makes me what else is going on” Simms said. “I think slowly but surely stuff will come out.”