This story has been updated.
Sixteen-year-old Gynnya McMillen’s death earlier this year in a state-run, juvenile-detention center was due to an irregular heartbeat, state officials said Wednesday.
Gynnya died from a “sudden cardiac arrhythmia” while sleeping in her room, according to Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley.
Officials said medical examiners reviewed Gynnya’s autopsy, viewed surveillance footage and consulted test results from the Mayo Clinic, which independently found Gynnya had a rare, genetic condition — Inherited Long QT Syndrome — that can cause irregular heart rhythms.
As part of the internal state probe, investigators found missteps and deficiencies in care, as well as misconduct, by staffers of the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County. Six employees, one of whom was fired last month, failed to do regular bed checks and falsified departmental logs.
Investigators also reviewed a scuffle between Gynnya and staffers upon her entry into the facility and found it played no role in her death, Tilley said. The teen allegedly declined to remove her sweatshirt and comply with the entry process and multiple staffers immobilized her in an aikido restraint. (Read “Gynnya McMillen Restrained In Detention Center Altercation Before Her Death, State Says“)
The mysterious nature of Gynnya’s Jan. 11 death, which occurred amid a national debate over law enforcement abuse and tactics, spurred widespread skepticism and scrutiny.
Officials said that a Kentucky State Police investigation is nearing completion and evidence has been presented to prosecutors for review. That investigation uncovered no evidence of foul play in her death.
Tilley has ordered the detention center to turn over to Gynnya’s family about 60 hours of surveillance camera footage from inside the facility. The Department of Juvenile Justice has never done this before and considers this case an exception, Tilley noted.
The video footage covers here whole time in the facility, except for surveillance of her scuffle with staffers and her time in the shower. The camera that could’ve captured the “restraint” on her by staff was broken and had been reported inoperable earlier that week, Tilley said.
Barney Kinman, head of internal investigations at the Justice Cabinet, said that the restraint used on McMillen was safe and frequently used on juveniles.
The restraint used involved holding McMillen down on the ground, raising one of her arms up in the air while holding the other down on the ground, Kinman said.
“We could see her arm being held up. But we couldn’t see anything else of her,” he said.
Because of the malfunctioning security camera, the details of the restraint is based on accounts of officers present at the scene, Kinman said.
“So a lot of it did come from staff statements and the independent Shelbyville police officer that witnessed it,” he said.
Donna Stewart, a pathologist in the State Medical Examiner’s Office, said there was no way to determine if the restraint used on McMillen exacerbated the irregular heartbeat, leading to her death.
“You could just name off a lot of different factors that could contribute to the beginning stages of cardiac arrest,” she said.
Stewart said stress could cause arrhythmias, “even outside of Long QT syndrome.”
“Emotional stress, physical stress, just any kind of alteration in the physiology where the ability of our body to function as it does can certainly increase the risk of sudden death in any of us,” she said.
However Stewart said through all 60 hours of surveillance tape she reviewed, McMillen “did not exhibit much stress or anxiety that you could see physically.”
Tilley, who was sworn in as Kentucky Justice Secretary in December, said he was troubled by staff misconduct at Lincoln Village.
“Some of the misconduct smacks of outright indifference,” he added. He said evidence showed one employee offered Gynnya a sandwich and when she didn’t respond, the employee ate it himself.
The evidence uncovered as part of this investigation will help shape reforms going forward and the agency will be undergo a review of policy, procedures and employee performance, Tilley said.
Reginald Windham, a Lincoln Village employee, was suspended after Gynnya’s death for failing to follow policy by not conducting the “bed checks” required at 15-minute intervals, and for falsifying documentation of the detention center’s “room observation log.”
Windham had a disciplinary record at Lincoln Village dating back to 2006, including two incidents in which he was found to have used excessive force against a resident, as first reported by BuzzFeed.
Two others staffers are currently on leave and three others are facing suspension.
Gynnya’s death was the first in a state-run juvenile-detention center since 1999.
Her family members have declined repeated requests for comment.
Gynnya’s sister expressed displeasure at the state’s findings in a post Wednesday morning on the “Justice For Gynnya McMillen” Facebook page. “My sister was perfectly healthy up until the point when she was put into that martial arts hold and put in a holding cell for over 24hrs and left there to die. If something was wrong with her heart it was because they caused it. I’m not satisfied with this answer… BUT YOU KNEW THAT!!!”
Since July, Gynnya had lived at Louisville’s Maryhurst, the state’s oldest child-welfare agency, whose programs include residential treatment, two community-based therapeutic group homes and foster care.
In January, as part of her transition from Maryhurst to the outside world, Gynnya made the latest in a series of weekend visits to be with her mother. This one occurred at a Shelbyville apartment complex where, during the early morning hours of Jan. 10, Michelle McMillen and her daughter clashed. McMillen called 911, alleging that Gynnya had assaulted her.
According to a recording of that nearly five-minute call, a copy of which was obtained by KyCIR, an angry McMillen alternately screams at Gynnya and talks to the 911 operator, while the girl periodically cries out in the background.
“You dumb-ass whore, you gonna spend the rest of your goddamn 2½ years in a goddamn insane asylum with the rest of the retarded kids,” McMillen is heard yelling at Gynnya.
Police detained Gynnya and took her to Lincoln Village near Elizabethtown, about 70 miles away. (Read “Gynnya McMillen’s Mysterious Death: Two Months Later“)
The state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet previously provided the following timeline for portions of Gynnya’s approximately 28 hours at Lincoln Village:
Upon arriving at the facility shortly after 6 a.m. on Jan. 10, Gynnya refused to remove her hooded shirt so she could be searched. She was restrained, the garment was removed and she was placed in a room by herself — supposedly under constant surveillance.
Between 6:30 and 8:30 the next morning, Gynnya did not respond to two offers of food or to an invitation to accept a telephone call from her mother. The teen’s silence was consistent with her lack of communication with staff from the time she arrived, state officials have said.
The attempts to convey those offers to Gynnya were strictly verbal, according to the officials. Only when a deputy sheriff arrived shortly before 10 a.m. to take her to court was Gynnya found not to be breathing. Not long after, she was pronounced dead.
Although cabinet officials have said Gynnya “was under constant supervision through video surveillance of her room” during her time in custody, investigators later determined that an employee neglected to check on her, in person, every 15 minutes as required.
Judy Lambeth, president and CEO of Maryhurst, issued the following statement Wednesday afternoon: “All of the circumstances surrounding Gynnya’s death are tragic and very sad. The Maryhurst family mourns the loss of such a beautiful young girl who had such a loving spirit.”
This story was produced by Kentucky Public Radio’s Ryland Barton and R.G. Dunlop of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.