Suit: Kauai police failed to monitor woman who took an hour to kill herself with blanket

Published: Dec. 11, 2019 at 6:17 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The family of a Kauai woman who killed herself in view of surveillance cameras that were supposed to be monitored by officers is suing the police department, saying a mother and grandmother would still be alive today if someone had stepped in to help her.

The incident happened in June 2017, when Leslie Lutao was arrested for a traffic warrant. Hawaii News Now has obtained the Kauai Police Department video from that day that’s now evidence in the lawsuit.

The video shows the 59-year-old Lutao walking into cell no. 5 of the KPD cellblock just before noon on June 30. By 1:19 p.m., Lutao was dead ― after working for more than an hour to kill herself with a blanket provided to her. Over the course of that hour, no one came to her aid.

The video is difficult to watch and graphic in nature.

But the woman’s family asked that Hawaii News Now air portions of it to underscore its shocking nature and because they fear that others could be in danger, including of violence from a cellmate, if the alleged lax oversight continues.

In the surveillance video, Lutao can first be seen walking into the cell, placing her thin mattress on the bottom bunk and unwrapping a Mylar blanket. Within 10 minutes, the cell mate settles in for a nap.

About half an hour later, Lutao is on the surveillance video wrapping the Mylar blanket over her head and twisting the excess. Six minutes later, at 12:45 p.m., Lutao takes a bite out of the blanket.

And for the five minutes that follow, it’s obvious she is eating the Mylar blanket. At about 12:55 p.m., 15 minutes after first trying to suffocate herself, she stands up. This time, the video shows her twisting the blanket even tighter before she lies back down and wraps it around her neck like a noose.

The attorney for the Lutao family, Michael Green, says the KPD officers who were supposed to be monitoring the cameras should have noticed the bizarre behavior at this point.

“Once you see her twisting this metal sheet there’s only one reason that I can think of, to wrap it around her neck to kill herself by strangulation," he said.

When that doesn’t work, Lutao is clearly seen on video shoving the blanket into her mouth and using several fingers to force the pieces down her throat.

She does this for several minutes but still, no officers come to the cell.

At 1:12 p.m., more than an hour into her suicide struggle, Lutao stands up, grabs onto the side of the bed and hunches over. For more than two minutes, it is obvious on the video that Lutao is in distress.

Then the video from Kauai police suddenly jumps ahead ― five minutes are edited out. When it starts up again, Lutao is passed out on the bottom bunk.

It would be another hour and 15 minutes, before her cell mate wakes up, finds Lutao, and starts banging on the door. Another minute later, an officer finally enters the room. The female KPD officer checks Lutao’s pulse, then leaves and returns with other officers.

Paramedics arrive at 2:41 p.m. and start CPR.

At that point, Green said, “Her airway is blocked. If they had been there earlier, I have no doubt they could have saved her."

Green has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lutao’s husband and her four grown children.

Lutao’s autopsy report shows asphyxia due to foreign body obstruction as the cause of death.

“It’s not like you had somebody that was in jail because she spent most of her life in jail, or she’s better off locked up in a free society, it’s a damn traffic warrant," Green said.

Lutao’s daughter, Jessica Lancaster, said it was difficult to get information in the weeks after the incident.

“I called KPD every day," Lancaster said, "Nothing seemed to make sense, it was hard for me to gather or accumulate facts, a paper trail, proper documents and I felt like they withheld evidence so her death didn’t make any sense to me.”

Lancaster said her mother was a family woman, close to her kids and grandkids. But Lutao struggled with depression.

Lancaster said Kauai police should have been aware of that because officers responded to a prior suicide attempt the year before. Lancaster believes her mother should have been on suicide watch, in which officers consistently monitor the person arrested.

The Kauai Police Department declined Hawaii News Now’s request for comment on the Lutao case, but did say in a statement that two officers are assigned to the cellblock per shift.

The statement also said there are six cells total at KPD.

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