On Jan. 20, Brenda Sewell, 58, and her sister had just crossed into Kansas on Interstate 70 after spending a weekend in Colorado.
They were doing about nine miles over the speed limit when a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper pulled them over near Goodland.
It was just weeks after Colorado had legalized the sale of marijuana, and during the stop, Sewell acknowledged she had about an ounce of it — for medicinal purposes, she said. The trooper arrested both Sewell, of Kansas City., Mo., and her sister, Joy Biggs. They were taken to Sherman County’s jail, known as the Bastille.
A few hours later Sewell began vomiting, and about 36 hours later she was dead.
Controversy has swirled since about whether Sewell received proper medical care, and the case became a regional news story, in part because law enforcement had refused to release records surrounding the death and the investigation of it.
This month, for the first time, Sherman County Attorney Charles Moser released the police investigative file exclusively to the Journal-World. Among the findings in the report: Douglas County Attorney Charles Branson was brought in to review the case to see whether criminal charges against the county were warranted in relation to Sewell’s death.
Branson found that the correctional officers overseeing Sewell did not commit a crime.
“I will make no comment with regard to civil liability,” Branson wrote in the review that was completed in May.
The file describes Sewell’s downward spiral as her health deteriorated over about 36 hours: a video recorder documented the women’s activities in the cell.
While Moser would not release the video, he did release a log describing what it recorded.
Sewell vomited more than two dozen times over 15 hours. After being taken to a medical center and given intravenous fluids and anti-nausea medicine, she was returned to her cell. The next morning she was sick again, began having seizures and quit breathing.
Sewell suffered abdominal hemorrhaging when her spleen ruptured, according to an autopsy report. Contributing factors to the rupture included vomiting and abdominal retching, the autopsy found.
Sewell’s family doesn’t understand why she wasn’t provided better, faster medical treatment.
“I firmly believe she would be alive today if they had just listened instead of treating (her and his aunt) like hardened criminals,” said Sewell’s son, Aaron Ray. “Everything about this was absurd.”
Sewell’s sister Biggs found the investigative file lacking in information.
For example, Biggs tried to use the telephone in the cell to call family members so she could get help for Sewell. But the phone was broken — she could hear the person she called, but they couldn’t hear her.
“They wouldn’t give me access to a phone so I could call my family,” Biggs said. “The report never mentions how many times we tried to call home and we asked them to let us make a phone call. This report is really deficient.”
The family says it plans to file a lawsuit over Sewell’s treatment.
Sherman County Sheriff Burton Pianalto did not respond to a request for an interview and has not commented since Sewell’s death.
Neither Sewell nor Biggs had criminal backgrounds.