The Goodland, Kan., police chief on Monday defended the impartiality of his department’s investigation into the death of a Kansas City woman at the Sherman County jail amid concerns that the police detective who handled the investigation is married to the undersheriff.
Last week, the Police Department gave the county prosecutor the results of its investigation into the Jan. 22 death of Brenda Sewell, 58, who died after being arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Relatives say Sewell was held for days without being given an opportunity to make a phone call. They also say jailers refused to give her prescription medication and were slow to help after she collapsed in her cell.
Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pianalto asked Goodland police to look into the death after the Kansas Bureau of Investigation declined to investigate, Police Chief Clifton Couch said.
Couch acknowledged he had heard community concerns and seen blog posts about the potential conflict of interest given that Joni Showalter — the Goodland Police Department’s assistant chief and the detective who investigated the death — is married to Sherman County Undersheriff Jason Showalter.
“It is not an ideal situation,” Couch said. “I would have preferred the KBI investigate it, but as I said, they did decline to and this is what we were left with.”
Sewell’s brother, Rick Ray of Kansas City, said he had been concerned from the beginning that the state was going to sweep his sister’s death under the rug or not release any findings that would make their Sheriff’s Department look bad.
“There was going to be somebody trying to hide something, and now to find out, you know, that the investigating officer is married to someone in the Sheriff’s Department, then that pretty much confirms everything that I was thinking,” Ray said. “It is too easy to cover something up.”
The Goodland Police Department took “extra precautions” when it turned over the results of its investigation to the county attorney for a decision, Couch said. Its report did not draw any conclusions or summarize any of the evidence, as it normally would, he said.
The Police Department also turned over hours of raw video and audio recordings for the county attorney to review and make his own conclusion. Couch also noted that the undersheriff who is married to the case detective did not have any personal contact with Sewell.
KBI Special Agent in Charge Mark Malick said the bureau had received a request from the county attorney to investigate Sewell’s death but declined to do so because the information indicated the death was from natural causes and was not a criminal manner, he said.
“In-custody deaths are a priority,” Malick said. “But when it doesn’t meet the criteria by statute, it no longer falls within our priorities.”
Charles Moser, the county attorney, did not immediately return phone calls and email messages seeking comment.