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An American Tragedy

Five months after Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell, her family still searches for resolution. An intimate look at a life interrupted.

An American Tragedy

Five months after Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell, her family still searches for resolution. An intimate look at a life interrupted.

Above: Sandra Bland Photo: Kee Creations

The stretch of boulevard just outside the campus of Prairie View A&M University in Texas lay lonely and quiet one early morning this past November when a woman emerged from her rental car and stepped toward a towering tree, her form shrouded in gray drizzle. She was dressed somberly, in heels and a black-and-white-striped skirt, a string of pearls dangling from her neck. In her left hand, she clutched an umbrella; in her right, a cellophane-wrapped spray of yellow tea roses that she’d bought at a nearby supermarket that morning.

Sharon Cooper had passed this site before. She’d certainly seen enough of it on the jerky cell phone video that circulated on the Internet: the haunting, murky silhouette of a state trooper hovering over her sister as she lay face-down, arms handcuffed behind her. He had pulled her over here for failing to signal a lane change. But things escalated. He arrested her. Three days later, Sandra Bland would be found hanging in her jail cell.

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Such was the media frenzy in the immediate aftermath—as speculation swirled about foul play in the 28-year-old Chicago native’s death—that there had been no time for Sharon, her three surviving sisters, or their mother to steal away to simply, quietly reflect at the spot where everything had gone awry.

Merely coming to town—to retrieve Bland’s body, to pick up her personal effects, to address legal matters—had been a trial for the family each time they made the trip from Chicago. “There is a seismic shift in every individual’s demeanor when we land in Texas,” Sharon says. “And the seismic shift is just a ripping of the Band-Aid.”

There are too many memories. Like of the first time Sharon saw her sister’s lifeless body at the funeral home in nearby Hempstead. “My heart stopped. Time froze,” Sharon recalls. “She was on a table and they had a sheet on her. It was all the way up to her neck. I could not see the [ligature] mark, though I knew it was there from pictures I had seen. They hadn’t put any makeup on her or anything, but she still looked good, which is what gave me some solace. She looked like herself.”

From left: Family attorney Cannon Lambert and Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper; mother, Geneva Reed-Veal; friend Jaime Harris; and sister Shante Needham attend a July memorial service at Prairie View A&M.  Photo: Brett Coomer/©Houston Chronicle

There were no news cameras on this day, as Sharon stepped gingerly off the sidewalk onto the wet grass, where a makeshift memorial had sprung up. She stooped to place the roses. Then she began playing one of her sister’s favorite songs, Tye Tribbett’s “What Can I Do,” on her phone and tidying up the collection of stuffed animals, candles, T-shirts, and ribbons as the gray rain fell.

The national press has largely moved on from the Sandra Bland story, but a family’s grief remains. Fully understanding the depth of their pain—and of the tragedy itself—requires far more than digesting a few sound bites on CNN. It requires a nuanced look at the real woman behind the headlines and at how a heartbreaking combination of factors years in the making—racial, cultural, intimately personal—collided devastatingly in the waning light of a late afternoon on what was once an unremarkable stretch of road in Texas.

 
Mother and daughter in March 2014   Photo: Courtesy of the family

Geneva Reed-Veal lifts her head, closes her eyes, and pulls in a breath so heavy her nostrils flare. “We’re not all right,” she says. “Any mother who has lost a child is not all right. We’re coping.”

Her hands lie flat on a long table. They curl into fists, the knuckles rapping the table with a pop as sharp as gunfire. She snaps her fingers, stabs the air, points. At you. “I don’t care” what’s in your story, she says at having agreed to share the details of her daughter Sandra’s life, the first time she and all of her daughters have been willing to delve so deeply. “If I said it to you the way I said it to you, and it’s there [in your story], I’m OK. But if I absolutely didn’t say that? You’re going to get a call.”

It’s the same tone she took in the days that followed her child’s death on July 13. Leaning on a lectern at the funeral, dressed in all white like her four surviving daughters, she looked out into the crowd of hundreds packed into the family’s longtime place of worship, DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in west suburban Lisle. “I’m the mama,” she said at the culmination of the four-hour visitation and service. “And I’m telling you that my baby did not take herself out. . . . You think you’re mad? I’m mad too.”

The anger was real. Coming amid a wave of killings of black people by police under suspicious circumstances—including, three months earlier in Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody—the case detonated in the national media. Sharon told reporters at a press conference that it was “unfathomable” that her sister would kill herself. The district attorney in Waller County, where Bland died, declared that his office would investigate her death as a murder. The Texas Rangers and the FBI announced that they were looking into the case. The Black Lives Matter movement—of which Bland had been a vocal supporter—seized on her death as a cause.

But then, just as abuptly, the story shifted. An autopsy found no signs of a struggle. A video Bland posted on Facebook four months earlier surfaced that showed her talking about experiencing depression. An intake form from the jail indicated that she had tried to kill herself before.

In light of all that, her family members—slowly, grudgingly—have come to accept that Bland may have taken her own life, though doubts gnaw at them still. “Anything is possible,” Reed-Veal says. “I wasn’t there. But as a mother, my inner voice is telling me that she did not do that. Now, I’m the first one to tell you, if the facts show without a doubt that was the case, I’ll have to be prepared to deal with that.”

The portrait of Bland that emerges from talking to those closest to her is that of a smart, driven, occasionally exasperating, deeply Christian woman who passionately wanted to do something meaningful with her talents but struggled to gain traction in her life until, ironically, the very last months of it. She was eclectic in her musical tastes and fashion sense. “I didn’t know anyone else who could rock a Hogwarts T-shirt and somehow make it cool,” says Sharon, the sibling to whom she was closest.

Bland spent her early years on the West Side, near a section of Chicago once known as the Valley, living with her mother and sisters across from a housing project. (Her parents divorced when she was young.) That area, now largely engulfed by a mini-village of hospitals (Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center and the UIC Medical Center) and state agency buildings, was poor but vibrant, troubled but neighborly.

“Geneva’s girls,” as the five daughters were called, laugh about the iron fist with which their mother ruled, an exacting sternness that inspired a nickname that in time even Reed-Veal embraced: “My house was a no-nonsense house. I’m friendly, but I’m not here to be your friend. And, yes, they did call me the Warden. They thought I didn’t know it, but I do. That comes from not wanting to have your child be a statistic.”

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Often working two jobs to raise enough money, Reed-Veal got the family out of the city to the western suburbs in 1996, first to an apartment in Hinsdale and then to a four-bedroom house in Villa Park, where they lived until all the daughters had finished high school. “She was giving us access to better resources and educational opportunities,” Sharon says.

Shante, the oldest, was a second mother. Unflappable, well-groomed, goody two-shoes Sharon was “Martha,” as in Martha Stewart. Shavon was the family comedian as well as the protector when anyone picked on her siblings, which happened more than once to Sandra. Sierra—“Ce Ce”—was the baby: spoiled but beloved.

And Sandra, the second youngest, was the cook, athlete, musician, and brain—the “bookworm,” according to her sisters. “I used to call her the walking encyclopedia,” says Sharon. “Sandra knew random facts you wouldn’t expect people to know.” Jasmine Johnson, Bland’s best friend growing up, says Bland also brandished a gleaming smile and had “the biggest laugh you ever heard. You could hear her cackling down the hall.”

There was time for games and acting goofy. But above all, the sisters heeded the Warden. Television? “Oh my God, Jesus, no!” Sierra says, laughing. Back talk? “Oh no, not at all.” Rap music? “Please. We listened to gospel.” When you lived with Miss Geneva, church was not a place to doze for an hour—it was “our second home,” says Shavon. “Youth choir, Bible study. Sunday to Sunday.”

Strict as she was, their mother was equally devoted to them. As she recalls: “I would go to job interviews and say, ‘Listen, I’m just telling you now: I’ve got five girls at home. I’m not missing a game, I’m not missing a dance.’ ”

At Willowbrook High, Bland seized the opportunities her mother had provided for her. Tall (she eventually reached six feet) and lean, she played basketball and volleyball, ran track, was a cheerleader, played trombone in the marching band, and was elected class president her sophomore year. “She was very popular,” recalls Johnson.

Four of “Geneva’s girls” in the early ’90s (clockwise from lower left: sisters Shavon, Sandra, Sharon, and Sierra  Photo: Courtesy of the family
Bland at a Bears game in September 2014   Photo: Courtesy of the family

When it came time for college, Bland weighed a few options, mostly in the Chicago area, where Sharon was already attending DePaul. But then Prairie View A&M in Texas caught her eye at a recruiting expo. The school intrigued her. For one, it was a historically black university. She liked that. It also offered an agriculture program, and she wanted to be an inspector for the Food and Drug Administration. The clincher, though, was the Marching Storm, the school’s renowned band. The students had performed everywhere from Texas Stadium to Washington, D.C., where they participated in George W. Bush’s inauguration parade.

Texas was an awfully long way away, her mother worried. None of her daughters had ever strayed beyond the Chicago area, much less across the country. But the school was just as smitten with Bland as she was with it. She not only had an ACT score that placed her in the 90th percentile nationally but was a poster child for the well-rounded student. A band scholarship sealed the deal.

 

If Bland had any concerns about attending school in the South, she did not voice them to her family. But racial tensions in the town of Prairie View and surrounding Waller County had been simmering since slave days. Between 1877 and 1950, Waller County had 15 lynchings, among the highest in the state. The university itself sits on the old Alta Vista plantation, which once had a population of 400 slaves. The area was widely known to have had a robust Ku Klux Klan presence at one time.

In more recent years, several pitched battles were waged over the right of the predominately black student body to vote locally. In 2004, the year before Bland arrived, then district attorney Oliver Kitzman threatened to prosecute any student who cast a ballot, despite a Supreme Court ruling granting the right. And in 2008 the police chief of nearby Hempstead, Glenn Smith, was fired following accusations of racism and brutality. He is the same Glenn Smith who a short time later was elected sheriff of Waller County, the position that oversees the jail where Bland died—a position he still holds. By the time Bland started school, race relations between students and the various law enforcement officers who patrolled the area—including campus cops, Prairie View city police, Waller County deputies, and the Texas highway patrol—were such that, according to an assistant communications professor at the university, during orientation freshmen were given a formal lecture on how to interact with police.

But Bland’s time as a student was marked with new adventures rather than racial confrontation. Her sophomore year, she pledged Sigma Gamma Rho, the same sorority to which Sharon belonged, and Sharon flew down to pin her sister. Bland also found a steady boyfriend whom the family would come to love.

When Sharon got married the next year, she paid for her sister’s flight back to Chicago so that she could serve as her maid of honor. As sometimes happened, Bland brought a bit of drama with her. “She was in such a rush that she left her dress in Texas,” Sharon recalls. “Now we’re running around looking for a dress for a six-foot-tall lady. I loved her, but God, she could drive me crazy sometimes.” The dress was overnighted and all was quickly forgiven. “The next day she said some really nice stuff [during a toast] that my husband should take care of me because she loves me so much,” Sharon recalls.

When Bland graduated in 2009, the economy was in recession and she couldn’t find a job as a food inspector. She decided to stick around Prairie View, taking some graduate classes and working on campus. She and her boyfriend lived in Houston for a while, but eventually she grew homesick. In 2012, in part because her relationship was ending and in part because Sharon had just had a daughter, Bland decided to move back to Chicago. There, she bounced around, living with different family members—her mom, Shante, and Sharon.

Sandra Bland had never been shy. Still, the Sandy who returned home was not the Sandy who had left. She was bolder, more confident, more outspoken. “She wasn’t going to take anyone’s mess,” Sharon recalls. “If somebody was disrespectful to her, she didn’t have to find anyone to fight her battles for her. She had evolved into this beautiful black queen.” Sierra was stunned: “We were like, ‘Wait a minute? Who is this?’ ”

Not everyone was thrilled with the new Sandy. Her mother, for one, wasn’t used to getting pushback. Recalls Shavon: “Now when Mom said, ‘Oh, Sandy, I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ Sandy would challenge her, saying, ‘Oh, you don’t? Well, I’m going to try it because this is something that I feel I have to do.’ ” The relationship between the two became strained.

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Bland had other struggles. She loved being close to family in Chicago, particularly her growing collection of nieces and nephews, but she had trouble finding steady work. She temped for a while before Sharon paid her to be a live-in nanny. More worrisome, Bland had several run-ins with the law. Her legal troubles had started in Texas. In 2009, she was charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia; the charge was dismissed. In 2010, she was charged with two misdemeanors: possession of a small amount of marijuana and driving while intoxicated. The more serious DWI charge was dismissed; she pleaded guilty to possession.

After she returned to Chicago, she accumulated a few thousand dollars in fines from two traffic stops. Then, in March 2014, she was pulled over in the western suburb of Lombard. Police charged her with a host of infractions, including speeding, disobeying a traffic signal, and failing to signal a lane change. More serious were two counts of driving under the influence. A court dismissed all the charges but one DUI count.

For the most part, the family plays down those infractions. “Think about those years, a couple of years removed from college,” Sharon says. “You’re still trying to figure out the essence of who you are. There’s a lot of self-discovery going on. I remember my 20s. I was all over the place.” But the 2014 DUI was a wake-up call. “I ripped her a new one when she got it,” Sharon says. “I said, ‘Sandy, sweetie, you are too smart for that. What were you thinking?’ She said, ‘Sharon, you’re absolutely right.’ ”

Then, two months later, Sandra suffered a much more devastating blow: She had a miscarriage. The family rallied around her. “I asked how she was feeling,” Sharon says, “and she said it was sad but that she would be OK. I remember her saying something a couple of months later that echoes an adage a lot of us in this family live by: that things happen for a reason.”

But Bland had not shared with the family the magnitude of her despair. According to her intake form at the Waller County Jail, she cited the miscarriage as the catalyst for a suicide attempt using pills. No family member had been aware of that attempt, but Sharon says it doesn’t shock her that her sister kept a secret from her: “Nobody in a person’s family knows everything. I think that she felt that I would have been hurt, and she didn’t know what my response was going to be.”

From the outside, though, it appeared that Bland had rebounded from the miscarriage, and within months she seemed back to her old self. In fact, in December 2014, she experienced what her family now calls a life-altering moment, one that sent her personal and professional trajectory on an upswing. She had seen the film Selma, and it affected her deeply—so deeply that she began contemplating ways to become active in social justice. The Black Lives Matter movement provided the answer.

 
 

“It’s time, y’all,” Bland says in the eight-minute video she posted on her Facebook page last January. “With the police brutality and all the things that have been going on in the news, a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel. It’s time to do something.” So began Sandy Speaks, a video blog of her musings on life and race.

The family, initially, was concerned. “When I first saw it, I was like, ‘Aw, man! What is she about to do?’ ” Sierra recalls. “Then I listened to it and said, ‘Oh, this does make sense.’ ” Sharon, too, came around: “To see Sandy engaging in self-discovery and self-reflection on a daily basis, for her to have the fortitude to do that and not be deterred by detractors who did not agree with her messaging or her tone—because I do not want to be mistaken: Sandy had a very commanding tone—I think we’re seeing Sandy really figuring out where she wanted to be in the world, where she wanted to etch her mark.”

Even Reed-Veal embraced her daughter’s new direction­—especially when Bland told her it was a call from the Lord. “I am a Christian woman who strongly believes that when you tell me God gave you something, I’m not going to question you about it,” says Reed-Veal.

Bland posted videos several times over the next few months, including the one in which she said she struggled with depression and what she described as posttraumatic stress disorder. (To her family’s knowledge, no doctor ever diagnosed her with the conditions, nor did she ever seek treatment.) The entry’s takeaway, her family points out, was that prayer was providing a path out of her funk.

“I watched my daughter through this entire period of life,” Reed-Veal says. “Sometimes at her lowest low, like we all have done in life, then beginning to soar up to her highest high.” That high, she says, culminated in a road trip to Memphis she and Bland took last Fourth of July. The ostensible purpose was to visit distant relatives Bland had never met. In reality, mother and daughter saw an opportunity to mend fences.

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Bland set the tone before the trip even started. Climbing into her silver Hyundai Azera, she pulled out a stack of CDs—17 in all—for the ride. But they weren’t Kanye West or Maroon 5, two of her favorites. “It was gospel, my preference,” Reed-Veal recalls.

As the music rose, the mother filled with delight. “She went back to some of the old, old stuff,” Reed-Veal says, drawing a breath. “And when the songs would come on, it was so funny. I looked at her and said, ‘Girl, you don’t know anything about that!’ And then she would sing the whole song with me. We just laughed the whole time.”

Along the way, the two did something that did not come easily for either: They apologized to each other. “All I can see now is my baby in the passenger seat singing these songs,” Reed-Veal says. “And how we just had an opportunity to talk. To talk and talk, the entire trip.” The tension between them dissolved. “This whole big burden lifted,” Reed-Veal says. “And it was like”—she snaps her fingers—“it never happened.”

And then the reverie vanishes. Her face twists into a grimace. She turns her head, as if she cannot otherwise say the words. “If you had told me one week later that my daughter would be gone . . . ,” she says, her voice trailing off. “Never in a million years.”

 

The morning of July 10 dawned with promise. Bland had arrived in Prairie View the day before, having made the 16-hour drive from Chicago by herself. In a few days, she would be starting a new job, working in student outreach at her alma mater. She hadn’t told her family that she was returning to Texas. She likely knew they would have tried to talk her out of it.

Shante, for one, dearly wishes she’d had that chance: “I always felt that Texas was not the state for her. With everything that’s been going on in the world, I just wanted her to be here with us, so if anything was to happen, we could get to her in an instant.”

That afternoon, Bland dropped by the office of Kyal Webster, an administrative assistant in the financial aid office at Prairie View A&M. Webster had become a mentor when Bland, as a grad student, worked part-time for her. “She was a fireball, and I was a fireball,” Webster says. “We had a few heart-to-hearts about what it meant to act as a professional.” On this day, Bland had come to share the news about her job. “She was ecstatic,” Webster says. The pair chatted for about 45 minutes before Bland left. She had to make a stop at Wal-Mart.

At about 4:30 p.m., Bland drove across campus, turning right onto University Drive, still on school grounds. Coming from the opposite direction, 30-year-old Texas state trooper Brian Encinia immediately made a U-turn and began to follow. (He has never publicly explained why.) A former ice-cream factory supervisor and volunteer fireman, he had been a trooper for only a year.

After stopping for a red light at the mouth of campus, Bland drove a few hundred yards more when Encinia accelerated closer to her. She switched to the right lane. When Encinia flipped on his lights, Bland pulled over, just past the parking lot of a small African Methodist Episcopal church. Encinia swung in behind. The trooper’s dashboard camera captured what happened next.

The Waller County Sheriff’s Department posted the dashcam video of the entire stop, here cued up shortly before trooper Brian Encinia tells Bland to exit her car.

“Hello ma’am,” Encinia says. “We’re the Texas highway patrol, and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change.”

After Bland hands over her license, Encinia takes it back to his cruiser, then returns about five minutes later. “OK, ma’am.” When Bland doesn’t respond, he pointedly asks, “You OK?”

“I’m waiting on you,” Bland replies. “This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?”

“I don’t know. You seem very irritated.”

“I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so . . .”

“Are you done?”

“You asked me what was wrong, and I told you. So now I’m done, yeah.”

“You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind.”

“I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

Encinia’s tone grows tenser: “Well, you can step on out now.” He opens her door.

“I don’t have to step out of my car.”

Encinia’s volume increases: “Step out of the car.”

While the trooper repeatedly orders her to get out, Bland continues to insist she doesn’t have to.

“I’m going to yank you out of here,” he finally says, reaching in.

“OK, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK. All right. Let’s do this.”

“Yeah, we’re going to,” Encinia says, trying to grab her.

“Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest. You don’t have the right to take me out of the car.”

“You are under arrest!”

“I’m under arrest? For what?”

He never says as the two continue to go back and forth about Bland getting out of the car. Eventually, he unholsters his Taser and points it at her.

“Get out of the car!” he screams. “I will light you up! Get out!”

“Wow,” she says, getting out of the car. “For a failure to signal. You’re doing all this for a failure to signal?”

Pointing the Taser at her back, he walks her to the side of the road, out of view of the dashcam, where he handcuffs her.

Clearly agitated now, she chides him. “Ooh, I swear on my life, y’all are some pussies,” she says at one point. “A pussy-ass cop. For a fucking signal, you’re taking me to jail.”

Moments later, as Encinia tells her to “stop moving,” Bland can be heard shouting, “You’re about to fucking break my wrist. Stop!”

The trooper orders her to the ground. Not long after, cell phone video recorded by a bystander shows Bland face-down, Encinia over her, as a second officer who has arrived on the scene presses a knee in Bland’s back.

“Don’t it make you feel real good, Officer Encinia?” Bland says. “You’re a real man now. You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground. I got epilepsy, you motherfucker.”

“Good,” Encinia responds.

He would eventually take to her to the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, booking her for assaulting an officer. In his arrest affidavit, Encinia claimed Bland had kicked him during their struggle.

 

LaVaughn Mosley wasn’t expecting any calls when his cell phone buzzed that Friday night. Not after 10, anyway. His curiosity grew when he glimpsed the name on the screen: Waller County Sheriff. Someone was calling from jail. But who? When he heard the voice, Mosley felt his heart sink. “It’s Sandy,” the caller said.

Mosley had known Bland for years—ever since he’d hired her as a summer camp counselor at Prairie View A&M while she was a student. He’d seen her just that morning. She’d taken him up on his offer to let her stash a few things at his place until she got settled. She visited for only a few minutes, but Mosley was struck by her elation over her new position. The pay wasn’t great, she told him, but the school was going to foot the tuition bill for her to get her master’s in political science. “She said she couldn’t wait to get started,” he recalls.

Which made her tone now, a mix of anger and bewilderment, all the more disturbing. She recounted in detail how she’d been pulled over, shoved to the ground, then taken to jail.

Sandra Bland mugshot
An undated photo of Bland in custody  Photo: Waller County Sheriff’s Department/Associated press

When Mosley asked why she hadn’t been released on a PR bond—personal recognizance—she had no idea. She knew this, though: She couldn’t wait to get out and sue. A bystander had recorded the arrest, she said. Mosley could probably track down the guy by asking at the barbershop across the street from where it had happened, where people had stood and gawked. “Find him,” she said. “That’s my evidence.”

She had to go. “I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Good night, good luck, and hang in there,” Mosley responded. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

But when she called the next day, she got Mosley’s voicemail. She left him a 22-second message: “I’m still just at a loss for words, honestly, about this whole process,” she says, her voice sounding flat and tired. “How switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this, I don’t even know. But I’m still here, so I guess call me back when you can.”

On Saturday, after a magistrate set her bond at $5,000, Bland talked briefly by phone with Shante, who vowed to help raise the $500 bail—10 percent of the bond—needed to get her out of jail. Shante says she told Bland she had $100 for her.

“All right, just do what you can,” Bland replied. “I love you.”

According to the family’s attorney, Cannon Lambert, Shante immediately sent out a group text to family members. Reed-Veal was at a religious retreat, but when she found out her daughter was in jail, she phoned a bail bondsman in Texas to see if she could put up her house as collateral. She couldn’t because she lived out of state, but no matter: The family raised the money in short order, Lambert says, but they assumed they would have to wait until Monday to get Bland out.

Meanwhile, Mosley had raised $300. He called the jail on Saturday, found out the bail amount, and was told he’d need to contact a bondsman. He tried to phone Bland on Sunday, he says. “We called all day and never got an answer. It kept going to voicemail.”

He finally got through Monday morning, but he says when he asked for Bland, the person who answered said, “All I can tell you is, she’s not here any longer” and hung up. “Damn,” Mosley said to himself. “What does that mean?” A few hours later, he found out.

 
Emergency personnel near Bland’s jail cell the morning she was found dead  Waller County Sheriff’s Department/Associated Press

When jail officials found Sandra Bland in her cell Monday morning, she had a noose around her neck fashioned from a clear trash bag. It had been twisted and meticulously knotted, then attached to a bar over a privacy partition, according to the autopsy report.

It is easy to understand how people might jump to a conclusion that something nefarious led to Bland’s death. History is rife with cases of black men and women found dead in police custody under suspicious circumstances. Still, as of early December, no concrete information has surfaced that shows Bland died by any hand other than her own. (Waller County has not finished its grand jury investigation.)

It’s a hard thing to grasp: How could someone who was so ecstatic about starting a new job, who was so passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement and had every incentive to share her own experience, who, just hours earlier, seemed primed for a legal battle—how could this person so quickly reach such depths of despair?

Suicide isn’t always logical, says psychiatrist Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who is vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “When you’re in the throes of a mental health condition, your thinking changes from how it normally might be,” she says. Harkavy-Friedman, who stresses that she can’t possibly know what was going through Bland’s mind, does identify several common risk factors that were present during her incarceration, including being isolated in a cell and facing intense stress. “It’s interesting that most people who die by suicide in jail have engaged in minor infractions,” Harkavy-Friedman says. It’s also possible that Bland feared that the felony count she faced might cost her the very job she was so excited about.

One of Bland’s friends, who asked that her name not be used, says she has struggled to come to terms with what might have happened in that jail. “I’ve thought about this long and hard,” the friend says. If Bland did take her own life, “it doesn’t mean she wasn’t the person we thought she was. It just means she was broken. You don’t know how much pressure it takes to break a strong oak until the right lightning strike hits it. That’s life.”

Even Sharon, who was so adamant initially that her sister would never kill herself, has come around to being “open” to the possibility. And from a legal perspective, Reed-Veal has conceded the point: The premise of suicide forms the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit she filed in August against Waller County, the county sheriff’s office, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, Encinia’s employer. Bland, the suit claims, “was exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress and hopelessness,” including “bouts of uncontrollable crying,” and “should have been placed in a mental health high-risk status, provided medical care,” and not left unobserved “for long periods.” In the wake of Bland’s death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards gave the 110-bed Waller County lockup a notice of noncompliance for failing to provide proof that its staff had gone through state-mandated suicide-prevention training. In addition, the jail was cited for not having someone observe inmates in person at least once every hour.

Reed-Veal’s lawsuit also names Encinia as a defendant, alleging that he violated Bland’s rights during the stop and used “excessive force” in making a “false arrest” that, the suit contends, ultimately led to her death. (Encinia kept his job but was put on desk duty; the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement that he had violated its traffic-stop procedures and courtesy policy.) After reviewing the dashcam footage, state representative Helen Giddings told reporters, “This young woman should be alive today.”

Encinia and Texas Department of Public Safety officials declined to comment for this story, but their attorneys filed a motion in September to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming immunity under legal provisions protecting the government. Attorneys for Waller County also declined to comment. In a November motion to dismiss the case, the county denied the lawsuit’s claims and contended that Bland was not put on suicide watch because, among other things, she “confirmed she was not currently suicidal” during two separate screenings at the jail.

The county also claimed in the court filing that one of Bland’s sisters “advised [her that] she would not bail Bland out of jail” and that it was “apparent” Bland took her own life because she was distraught over her “family and friends’ refusal” to post bond.

Shante flatly denies any suggestion that the sisters rebuffed Bland: “I don’t know how Waller County could have come up with that. I would have never refused to bond my sister out.” To Sharon, the county’s strategy is clear: “Blame the decedent and her family.”

An ABC station in Houston interviewed a woman named Alexandria Pyle, who had been an inmate at the jail when Bland was there. Pyle was in a cell across from Bland, who was alone. “She was crying, and I could barely understand her,” Pyle told the TV station. Bland was upset, Pyle said, that no one had come to the jail to post bond. “She was like, ‘They’re not answering. It’s going straight to voicemail. I don’t know why.’ ”

It’s one of the incident’s most tragic twists: Bland’s family members and Mosley say they were scrambling to get Bland out of jail; she just may not have known it.

 

After her visit to the memorial on University Drive—a stretch of which has been renamed Sandra Bland Parkway—Sharon Cooper shared the family’s story on campus at a special meeting called by Bland’s sorority sisters. They offered hugs and shed tears. Now on the way to the airport, Sharon had to make a last stop. One of the women had given her a box with some of Bland’s belongings, mostly sweaters and slacks and other clothes. Sharon wanted to mail them back to Chicago rather than carry them on the plane. At the post office, before she pushed the box across the counter to the clerk, she took a peek at the contents. On top sat an ornate Mardi Gras–style mask, with gold ribbon dangling.

Sharon held it up and beamed, then turned to me. “Well, you said you wanted to know who the real Sandy was,” she said. Then she carefully placed the mask back in the box and closed the lid.

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