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Family of another Black woman found dead in Connecticut questions police response

Brenda Rawls, 53, was found dead at a residence in Bridgeport the same day as Lauren Smith-Fields, her family said.
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The family of a Black woman found dead in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the same day as Lauren Smith-Fields allege that city police have not investigated her death or taken the case seriously.

And like Smith-Fields' family, they said police never notified them of her death. They said they learned she had died through their own investigating.

The woman, Brenda Rawls, 53, died Dec. 12. The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Thursday that the cause of death has not yet been determined.

Her sister Dorothy Rawls Washington said she and her sisters are close and talk on the phone or text one another every day. On Dec. 11, Brenda Rawls told her family that she planned to go to the home of a male acquaintance who lived down the street from her. Her family said they tried unsuccessfully to reach her Dec. 12 and 13.

"Then, on the 14th, we said something's wrong," Washington said. "So two of my sisters, my niece and my niece's boyfriend walked down to that male's house."

When they asked him whether she was there, he told them that he couldn't wake her up on Dec. 12 and that she had died, Washington said.

Angela Rawls Martin, another of the sisters, said: "He gave me the clothing that she had on and her shoes. I don't understand why that was left behind."

Bridgeport police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Nobody ever notified us that she died," Washington said. "We had to do our own investigation and find out where she was."

One of the Rawls sisters called a funeral home to ask whether her body was there, but it wasn't. Washington said the funeral home advised the family to contact the state medical examiner's office, and that's where they found her.

"They never took any opportunity to look for next of kin," she said of police. "The next time we saw our sister, she was in a funeral home."

The family provided NBC News with copies of four letters they said they sent to Mayor Joseph Ganim and acting Police Chief Rebeca Garcia. They said they have not received any responses. A spokeswoman for Ganim did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the family's allegations.

In response to criticism of the handling of Smith-Fields' death, Ganim said Monday that he was planning to work with the police chief to "make appropriate changes here in Bridgeport now for our department's policies and practices regarding notifying family members of a death."

In her letter, Martin said that she spoke to a police sergeant multiple times and that when she asked him whether police had searched her sister's apartment or the residence where she was found, he told her it was not in the police report. In an interview, she said the same police sergeant also apologized to her and told her that police had "dropped the ball" with regard to the investigation into her sister's death.

Brenda Lee Rawls.
Brenda Lee Rawls.Courtesy Dorothy Rawls

Washington said she and her sisters went to the Bridgeport Police Department last month and were given the name of a detective to contact. She said she called him four or five times but has never heard from him.

"They treated my sister Brenda like she was a Jane Doe," she said. "Like they found her on the side of the road with no identification. They have no respect."

Smith-Fields was found dead in her apartment after a date with a man she had met on the dating app Bumble. The man, who is 37 and white, called 911 on Dec. 12 to report that he had awakened to find her unresponsive with a nosebleed. The office of the chief medical examiner said Monday that Smith-Fields' death was an accident resulting from "acute intoxication due to the combined effects of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol." Afterward, Bridgeport police said they had opened a criminal investigation as a result of the medical examiner's report. Ganim said Monday that the handling of Smith-Fields' case has been referred to the police department's Office of Internal Affairs for an investigation.

An attorney for Smith-Fields' family, Darnell Crosland, filed a notice of claim Friday notifying the city of his intention to sue over what he described as the police department’s "racially insensitive" handling of the case.

Washington and other Rawls family members attended a rally for Smith-Fields in Bridgeport on Sunday, which would have been her 24th birthday. Both families are calling on the state to investigate the deaths of Smith-Fields and Rawls.

"It will not be a fair or thorough investigation if done by the city," Washington said.

Maria Pereira, a City Council member whose district includes the residences of both women, said it was not until the rally that she learned that both women had died on the same day and that their cases were being handled by the same precinct.

Pereira, a Democrat, said there are an "awful lot of similarities" between the two cases — although she did not suggest that they were linked — among them that both women were Black, that they died unexpectedly at young ages, that they were on dates with men who reported that they had awakened in the morning to find them dead and that neither of their families were notified of their deaths by police.

In addition, Pereira said, both scenes of the deaths were not secured or processed for forensic evidence, and both families said Bridgeport police treated them without any compassion or humanity.

"So now what I see here is a pattern with the Bridgeport PD," she said.