Family Says Police Mishandled Disturbed Woman

Gotbaum shouldn't have been locked in holding cell unattended, lawyer says.

Oct. 2, 2007 — -- A mother of three who mysteriously died in a Phoenix airport holding cell should not have been shackled and left alone in the cell, a lawyer for her family said Tuesday.

Michael Manning, an attorney for the family of Carol Anne Gotbaum, told ABC News that Gotbaum's family had not decided whether to sue the Phoenix Police Department over the incident, but that they were "mightily disturbed by the preliminary reports of how this woman was treated."

Carol Anne Gotbaum was arrested Friday after witnesses said she was screaming and running through the Sky Harbor International Airport terminal after missing a flight. Her family said she was on her way to an alcohol treatment facility.

She was taken to a holding cell with her hands cuffed behind her back, and shackled to a bench, said Phoenix Police Sgt. Andy Hill. Minutes later, she was found unconscious with the handcuffs in front of her, "pressed up against her neck area," Hill said. Emergency workers were unable to revive her.

The reason for her death is still unknown and an autopsy was underway Tuesday afternoon. Manning said an investigator from his office would attend the autopsy and that an independent pathologist hired by Gotbaum's family would conduct a second autopsy later today.

Was Shackling Appropriate?

Gotbaum was handcuffed behind her back and those handcuffs were attached to a bench with a 16 inch chain shackle, Hill said. When she was found, her hands were in front of her and the chain shackle was pressed up against her neck, he said.

Manning criticized the police for the way they treated Gotbaum.

"You never shackle an emotionally disturbed citizen," Manning said. "And you should never make the mistake of putting them in a locked room by themselves."

"We understand that police intervention was appropriate," Manning said "But the means of intervention seems pretty outrageous."

Hill said Monday it was possible that Gotbaum may have accidentally strangled herself while trying to escape from the handcuffs. He did not immediately return a phone call on Tuesday.

But former law enforcement officers and police tactics trainers said it would be unusual for that to happen. Roy Bedard, a former police officer who now trains officers in defense tactics, including how to use handcuffs and other restraints, said it would be possible, though unusual, for a person to choke on a long chain or rope either accidentally or on purpose.

"It seems very hard to do that unless you're intentionally trying to do it," said Dr. David Bellamy, who is also a part-time police officer in Florida. "It's certainly possible that you could get accidentally wrapped up in the chain, but it would be very hard to do."

Gotbaum, who weighed 105 pounds, was on her way to an alcohol rehabilitation facility when she missed her plane, her stepmother-in-law Betsy Gotbaum said Monday. She said that it appeared that her step-daughter-in-law had been "manhandled" by the Phoenix police. Betsy Gotabaum in the New York City Public Advocate.

Manning said Gotbaum may have been in a "delicate" mental state Friday.

Police Procedures

"We have strong concerns about how this 110-pound woman may have ended up strangling herself, given that she was cuffed behind her back and shackled to a bench," Manning told the Associated Press.

Manning said the police had denied his request to visit and photograph the holding cell and that he had asked the police department for its policies on the treatment of emotionally disturbed citizens. He faulted the police for leaving Gotbaum alone for a few minutes.

Police policy requires officers to check on suspects in holding cells every 15 minutes, Hill said. Officers checked on Gotbaum after five or 10 minutes, he said.

Though the cause of her death remained a mystery, Hill said, "It appeared as though Ms. Gotbaum had possibly tried to manipulate the handcuffs from behind her to the front, got tangled up in the process, and they ended up around her neck area."

But most people whose hands are restrained behind their backs try to slip their hands underneath their legs, said Garrett. It is possible for people who are double jointed to move their arms above their heads, but even then, Bedard said, their arms would usually be extended and not near their necks.

Hill said he had heard of people moving arms from back to front around their head if "extremely agitated."

Airport witnesses told police Friday that Gotbaum was "very loud … yelling and screaming and running around the concourse area," Hill said.

'A Little Not There'

An unidentified airport worker who witnessed the arrest told the New York Daily News that Gotbaum was screaming, "I'm not a terrorist! I'm a sick mom! I need help!" A police officer put his knee in Gotbaum's back to restrain her while other cops handcuffed her, one worker told the Daily News. The police did not use pepper spray or a Taser, Hill said.

"I believe she was a little not there," the worker told the Daily News. "She kept punching. She kept screaming. She kept kicking. She looked really scared, really frightened. I think she was afraid to go to jail."

Gotbaum's father-in-law, Victor Gotbaum, told the Associated Press it was totally out of character for her to be screaming and running around an airport terminal as police said she did.

"She was one of the sweetest people," he said. "Really very quiet."

Hill said Gotbaum continued screaming when she was put into the cell. He said police checked on Gotbaum after five or 10 minutes when she stopped screaming. They found her unconscious and not breathing.

"We are not jumping to any conclusions, but the circumstances surrounding Carol's death appear to be unusual enough to raise serious questions and warrant a thorough investigation," said Betsy Gotbaum. "She cried out for help at the airport, but her pleas appear to have been met by mistreatment."