Juvenile Detention Guard Watched as Black Teen Took 'Dying Breaths,' Says Lawsuit

The federal lawsuit claims video shows a juvenile detention center guard “did not lift a finger” to help Gynnya McMillen; instead he returned to his desk.


By Sheryl Estrada

Gynnya McMillen, 16

Officials said Gynnya McMillen, a 16-year-old Black girl taken to Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, in January, died in her sleep. But a new federal lawsuit states a surveillance video shows an employee watched as McMillen took her “last gasps and dying breaths,” eventually succumbing to a seizure.

McMillen’s estate filed a lawsuit against the Department of Juvenile Justice and several Lincoln Village employees.The lawsuit,obtained by WAVE3 News, statesshe died between 11:39 and 11:44 p.m. on January 10 at the detention center after spending about 17 hours alone in a holding cell on her first night at the facility. She was found unresponsive early in the morning of January 11.

In March, as a result of an internal investigation, two staff members, Reginald Windham and Victor Holt, were indicted by a grand jury on misdemeanor charges. The guards failed to perform all of the required checks on McMillen and repeatedly lied about it. Both were responsible for checking on her every 15 minutes.

According to the suit, Windham, who heard coughing, said he checked on McMillen “to make sure she had not thrown up and was choking or something like that.” Surveillance video shows he looked through her cell door at 11:39 p.m. for 18 seconds, watching “her last gasps and dying breaths and final uncontrollable movements and seizure,” the suit claims.He “did not lift a finger to help her, instead returning to his desk,” it says.

WDRB obtained screenshots of the footage:

The lawsuit also claims, in total, during McMillen’s day and night in detention, employees failed to check on her 64 times, calling it a “systemic breakdown” at Lincoln Village.

As a result of the internal investigation, Bob Hayter, the head of Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, was fired in February. And several other state employees have been fired or resigned in connection with McMillen’s case.

The Department of Juvenile Justice issued a statement on August 31, the same day the lawsuit was announced, insisting McMillen was not awake when she died. It said:

“We respect the family’s right to bring this action and remain deeply saddened by their loss. We have also fully complied with three independent investigations, all of which confirmed that this tragedy was the result of natural causes,” the department said. “After reviewing all the evidence, medical examiners were clear that this child passed away in her sleep, without any signs of distress that would have prompted medical attention.”

Related Story: 16-Year-Old Black Girl Found Dead in Juvenile Detention Center

McMillen was brought into the facility at 6:07 a.m. on January 10, after having been arrested by police hours prior following an altercation with her mother, who called 911. McMillen was taken to the juvenile detention center by order of a state judge to stay overnight to await a court appointment.

Guards attempted to conduct a body search for drugs or weapons in the intake area. The teen refused to remove her hoodie sweatshirt, and guards used the Aikido control technique, a martial arts maneuver, to restrain her as they then removed her sweatshirt, according to officials.

The restraint lasted four minutes and 15 seconds. Surveillance video of the incident was captured, but the intake counter obstructs the view. The video is included in evidence presented in the family’s lawsuit. The complaint states that staff restrained the teen behind the counter in a location that was not viewable from the video camera. According to the investigation, a camera in the area was not functioning.

Employees who were involved in the restraint or witnessed it all said they noticed no injury to McMillen during or after the incident.

Dr. Donna Stewart, a state medical examiner, said in March that McMillen suffered from a rare heart condition called Inherited Long QT Syndrome that caused her to die from sudden cardiac arrest while she slept. The internal investigation stated an autopsy concluded the restraint “was not a factor in her death.”

The lawsuit states, “Gynnya passed away from sudden cardiac event called QT syndrome (LQTS) type 2, for which a prompt resuscitative intervention and emergency call in all likelihood would have save her life according to Plaintiffs’ consulting expert, and world renowned long QT syndrome expert, Dr. Peter Schwartz.”

The lawsuit also states that Windham admitted “looking back, he sees so many things that could have been done that could have prevented this from happening. He agrees that if he had done his bed check and went into the cell to do the wellness check, he may have detected her condition early enough to have gotten her some medical attention.”

Aikido Control Training Prohibited in Kentucky Public Schools

The Aikido control technique used to restrain McMillen at Lincoln Village is no longer being used in Kentucky public schools. In August, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt ordered school superintendents to immediately stop using the technique to restrain students.

Members of a state oversight panel on child abuse raised concerns the method can result in injuries, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The technique causes pain to students to get them to submit to the adult trying to control them.

Pruitt noted the Kentucky Department of Education said the training includes prone or supine restraint techniques. In a prone restraint, a student is held in a facedown position and pressure is applied to the body to keep the student in that position. A supine restraint uses the same technique, except the student is lying in a face-up position.

“The majority of restraint injuries we’ve been consulted on are Aikido-based maneuvers,” said Dr. Melissa Currie, head of Pediatric Forensic Medicine at the University of Louisville, who reviews cases of injuries to children from suspected abuse.

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