The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lauren Smith-Fields died of an accidental overdose on a Bumble date, police say. Her family disputes that.

‘Black women don’t get the same treatment,’ they said, as police open a criminal investigation six weeks after her death

Shantell Fields, Lauren Smith-Fields's mother, protests with family members in Bridgeport, Conn., on Jan. 23. Smith-Fields was found dead in her apartment in December. (Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media/AP)
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Lauren Smith-Fields was dead for almost 48 hours before her family found out.

When her mother and brother showed up at her apartment in Bridgeport, Conn., to check on her last month, they noticed a note on the door that said, “If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number.” A detective who answered their call informed them that the 23-year-old had died on Dec. 12.

On the morning of her death, Smith-Fields, who is Black, had been with a White man she had met on the dating app Bumble, investigators say. A police report says her date called 911 when he woke up in her bed and found her unresponsive.

For the family, the news was followed by weeks of agonizing silence and stonewalling from the Bridgeport Police Department, according to Darnell Crosland, the attorney representing Smith-Fields’s relatives. Detectives quickly ruled out the date — the last person to see Smith-Fields alive — as a suspect without giving the family an explanation.

“They looked right in [her brother’s] face and said, ‘Don’t go jumping to conclusions. This is a nice man,’ ” Crosland said.

The case, which has gained attention in recent weeks through social media campaigns and national headlines, has renewed criticisms about how law enforcement investigates cases of missing people of color. Crosland has accused police of being “racially insensitive” to Smith-Fields’s family and said that investigators did not treat her death with the proper scrutiny.

Crosland claims the detective in charge dodged the family’s calls and failed to collect forensic evidence from her apartment. Smith-Fields’s family had found a used condom in the bathroom, an unidentified pill on the kitchen counter and bloodstained sheets on the bed, all of which the attorney said police left behind.

“Two weeks went by where they didn’t collect any evidence,” Crosland said in an interview with The Washington Post, adding that the items were retrieved only after the family insisted.

On Monday, the state medical examiner’s office said Smith-Fields died of an accidental overdose of “Fentanyl combined with prescription medication and alcohol.” The next day, “as a result” of that conclusion, the Bridgeport Police Department announced it had opened a criminal investigation into Smith-Fields’s death.

Bridgeport police said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will assist with the case as the investigation pivots to factors that could have led “to her untimely death,” acting Police Chief Rebeca Garcia said in a statement to The Post. The department did not comment or offer further details on the case and detectives’ procedures during the investigation.

The medical examiner’s conclusion has led to more questions among Smith-Fields’s grieving family as community members and activists demand that her case be investigated fairly.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Crosland said the findings do not make up for the police department’s missteps — “in fact it makes it worse,” he wrote. “As a result of a botched investigation this morning we are left with more questions than answers.”

Smith-Fields’s case highlights the stark difference in how White victims are treated, compared with Black ones, and how victimhood is easily stripped from Black people, especially women, Crosland said. Questions and outcry over the unbalanced treatment of cases involving Black and Indigenous people arose again last year as the Gabby Petito case captured global audiences. Petito, 22, a White woman, was reported missing in September during a cross-country trip with her fiance and was found dead later that month.

“Black women don’t get the same treatment that Gabby Petito got,” Crosland told The Post. “Lauren Smith-Fields is dead, and a White man walks out, and [police] have absolutely no interest in him.”

As the Petito case grips the nation, families of color say their missing loved ones matter, too

The night before her death, Smith-Fields, a Norwalk Community College student, invited an older man she met three days earlier on Bumble to her apartment, according to a police report obtained by The Post. The date brought a bottle of Casamigos tequila, and they took shots before Smith-Fields became ill and vomited in her bathroom, according to the report. She apologized, and the two continued drinking, eating, playing games and watching a movie, her date later told police. Investigators have not publicly identified the man.

Smith-Fields was texting her brother throughout the night, the date told police. She said her brother was “going to be dropping something off” for her, and she went outside for a few minutes when he arrived, the report says.

Crosland said Smith-Fields’s brother dropped off items he and his sister had bought while Christmas shopping ahead of a family holiday celebration.

When Smith-Fields returned to her apartment, she allegedly went to the bathroom again for 10 to 15 minutes before returning to watch a movie and drink with her date. The man told police that Smith-Fields fell asleep on the couch, so he carried her to her bedroom, placed her on her bed and lay down next to her before falling asleep, according to the police report.

The date told police he woke up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom. He said he heard Smith-Fields snoring, according to the report. He woke up again around 6:30 and found her motionless, with blood coming out of her nose, the date said.

The man called 911, and when officers arrived, he was “frantic,” “trembling and visibly shaken,” the report says. Smith-Fields was on the floor of her bedroom. The man told police he had performed chest compressions on her, as instructed by an emergency operator.

A medic pronounced Smith-Fields dead at 6:49 a.m. and noted she had been dead for at least an hour.

Officers took a few items as evidence, including Smith-Fields’s passport, her cellphone, $1,345 in cash and a credit card, according to the report. As the lead detective left, he told the landlord to give Smith-Fields’s family his number if they came to the apartment. The detective did not attempt to contact the family, Crosland said.

The detective broke protocol, which dictates that next of kin must be notified of a death — ideally in person — within 24 hours, according to Crosland. When the family called him, they said he promised to come to their home to discuss the investigation. But the detective never arrived, the lawyer said.

“They kept calling him back, saying, ‘Are you coming?’ And he said, ‘Listen, don’t call me anymore. We’re working on it,’ ” Crosland said. “He had no kind of empathy — nothing for the family.”

A co-worker invited him to a rural cabin. He was killed hours later.

The detective was taken off the case, according to Crosland. Mayor Joe Ganim said in a statement on Monday that the case has been referred to the police department’s Office of Internal Affairs for a “full and fair investigation.” He echoed the family’s frustration over the delay in learning about Smith-Fields’s death.

“Death notifications should be done in a manner that illustrates dignity for the deceased and respect and compassion for the family,” Ganim said. “Therefore, I will work with the Chief of Police to make appropriate changes here in Bridgeport now for our department’s policies and practices regarding notifying family members of a death.”

Smith-Fields’s family criticized the police department’s handling of the case during a Sunday rally on what would have been her 24th birthday. Crosland said they had to pressure the local police to not assume Smith-Fields’s death was an accident.

“Black families shouldn’t have to prosecute their own cases,” he added.

Last week, Crosland filed a notice to compel the city to pursue Smith-Fields’s death as a criminal investigation. He alleged that the police department and the city had violated Smith-Fields’s and her family’s civil rights and right to due process.

“No one is going to discard my daughter like she’s rubbish,” Shantell Fields, Smith-Fields’s mother, said during the Sunday rally.

Veronica DeLeon, 22, Smith-Fields’s best friend since high school, described her in an interview with The Post as loud and boisterous. Smith-Fields made others feel seen and welcomed when in her presence, DeLeon said.

Over the past few years, Smith-Fields dabbled in creating beauty and travel content for YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, DeLeon said. Smith-Fields was also focusing on positive affirmations, prayer and cleansing her living space with sprays and sage, DeLeon said, which gave her some “peace and acceptance” with her friend’s death.

“I know my sister is okay,” she said. “Our souls are tied. … I will see her again.”

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