The family of Lauren Smith-Fields intends to sue Bridgeport, Connecticut over city authorities’ handling of the 23-year-old’s untimely death, the family announced at a news conference Sunday. The family is also asking that an independent agency be brought in to handle the investigation of the death.
Smith-Fields’ body was found in her Bridgeport apartment in the early hours of Dec. 12. More than a month later, even with viral attention on social media, the cause of death remains a mystery, and her family is frustrated and unsatisfied with the manner in which Bridgeport Police continue to conduct the investigation.
For the family and activists across the country, the city’s alleged mishandling is emblematic of a broader failure to value Black lives — particularly the lives of Black women. Many have compared it to the case of Gabby Petito, a white woman who disappeared during an extended road trip with her boyfriend and, after being national news on a daily basis, was subsequently found dead.
“It’s happening all too often with Black girls missing across this world, across this country, and no one says anything,” said Darnell Crosland, the family’s attorney. “When a white woman goes missing, the whole world drops everything. We are done with this valuation.”
“We’re suing the city of Bridgeport for failure to prosecute and failure to protect this family under the 14th Amendment,” Crosland said, invoking the post-Civil War addition to the Constitution that aimed to provide equal protection under the law for all citizens — including Black people who’d previously been enslaved.
Smith-Fields was found dead in her apartment after meeting up with a man named Matthew LaFountain from the dating app Bumble. (LaFountain has not been charged with any crimes, and is not a suspect in the case.)
According to an incident report, obtained by Crosland, Smith-Fields’ body was found by LaFountain, a white man. According to the report, Smith-Fields had asked Lafountain for $40.00 dollars for her nails and to meet her at her Bridgeport residence, where they took “shots of tequila.” The man told police Smith-Fields became ill and went to the bathroom to vomit. Following her illness, she came back, and they continued to drink tequila with mixers. They allegedly played games, ate food, and began to watch a movie when Smith-Fields received a text. The report says she went outside to get something from her brother and upon her return went straight to the bathroom for 10-15 minutes. “He thought it was odd, but didn’t feel it was his place to say anything as he didn’t know her that well,” the officer wrote.
The family has raised multiple questions about the police report. According to Smith-Fields’ mother Shantell Fields and brother Lakeem Jetter, her nails had been done earlier that week and were still so intact that her nails didn’t need to be done for her funeral. The police report also doesn’t match the story of the last relative said to see Smith-Fields alive that night.
“I haven’t texted my sister since December fourth,” Jetter said, recounting the night of December 11th, when he called Smith-Fields to bring out his basket of clothes he was picking up. “I didn’t know that anybody was in there. She came out and she was out there for like 10-15 minutes and she walked back into the house. She looked normal. She didn’t look sick, she didn’t look tired, she didn’t look drunk. I’m her second older brother, if I would have seen her drunk I would’ve said ‘What are you doing?’ … ‘Why do you look like that?’”
Bridgeport police did not return Rolling Stone’s calls for comment but issued a statement to NBC Connecticut: “On December 12, 2021, the Bridgeport Emergency Operations Center received a call for service regarding an untimely death. Upon police arrival, it was found that [Smith Fields] passed away unexpectedly. This incident is currently being investigated by the Bridgeport Police Department’s Detective Bureau. This investigation remains open and active. The Detective Bureau is awaiting the final report from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office for cause and manner of death of Ms. Smith-Fields. The Bridgeport Police Department offers it’s sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Ms. Lauren Smith-Fields. We encourage anyone with information regarding this incident to contact either Detective-Sergeant Joseph Morales at 203-581-5219 or the Bridgeport Police TIPS line at 203-576-8477.”
The police report states that Smith-Fields and the man had continued to watch the movie, finishing the bottle of tequila, when she fell asleep on the couch. The man told officers that he carried her to her bedroom, where they both went to sleep. At 3 a.m., he said, he went to use the restroom, and she was snoring. At 6:30 a.m. he said that she was laying on her right side with blood coming out of her right nostril and was not breathing. He then called 9-1-1.
Following the police’s arrival, Smith-Fields’ landlord was contacted, but he did not have family contact information. It wasn’t until days later when Smith-Fields’ mother, Shantell Fields, went to the apartment to see why Smith-Fields had not been answering the numerous calls and texts from family that she found a note from the landlord that said “If you are looking for Lauren, please contact this number.” This is when Fields was informed of her daughter’s death.
Nowhere in the police report did officers mention detaining LaFountain for questioning despite him being the last person who saw Smith-Fields before her death. During the press conference. Smith-Fields’ brother, Jetter, told Rolling Stone that police told him that the reason they didn’t bring the man into questioning was because he seemed like a “nice guy.” In the police report, the patrol officer notes that the man was “frantic.”
On December 12th, the police reports indicate that officers confiscated Smith-Fields’ phone, $1,345.00 in cash, keys and her passport. On December 29th, three days following Smith-Fields’ funeral, as the family cleaned out her apartment, they found a used condom with semen in the trash, lubrication, bloody sheets and an unidentified pill.
The family also has several complaints about the performance and professionalism of Bridgeport police officers following Smith-Field’s death.
According to the family, when they learned of Smith-Fields death on December 13th, they phoned Detective Cronin, who said he would arrive in 30 minutes. After waiting over an hour, they said, they called again and the family was told to stop calling. “How they spoke to us was disgusting,” said Shantell Fields, Lauren Smith-Fields’ mother. “Hanging up the phone and telling us to stop calling him. Officer Cronin needs to lose his job.”
Crosland said Cronin is being investigated by the department’s internal affairs division and that the case has been reassigned to Detective Garcia. Later that week, the family said, they also received a visit from Garcia. His visit was the first time, the family said, that police came to conduct a crime scene investigation, but the majority of the evidence had been packed, such as the dishes and bloody sheets.
“The first night we saw cups there, flipped plates and the lube. The cops didn’t take any of the cups to test the liquor,” said Jetter. “There was a big stain of blood in the middle of her bed, with streaks going to the right side.”
During Garcia’s visit, the family described him as “unprofessional.”
“He said, ‘fuck Cronin. He got kicked off the case, he’s a fucking asshole,” recalled Fields. “He then called himself, reassuring me saying that he was Puerto Rican, so he was on my side and telling me how he has daughters.”
When the family was finally able to speak to Bridgeport law enforcement, they had to do so in an interrogation room and saw a different side to Garcia that made them uncomfortable. “When I mentioned that [‘Fuck Cronin’] in the interrogation room he turned into a maniac. He said ,‘I would never talk bad about another colleague,’ and I said ‘you’re lying’,” said Fields.
Crosland said that, to date, the evidence has not been submitted to the proper channels or the Forensic Science Lab.
The app Bumble has reached out to CroslandLawGroup to show their support to the family and offered to create a charity in Smith-Field’s name. Crosland said he and his team will be meeting with the CEO of Bumble later this week.
“We are deeply saddened by news of Lauren Smith-Fields’ death and have reached out directly to the family to offer support,” a spokesperson for Bumble told Rolling Stone. “We stand ready to provide appropriate assistance and information as requested by law enforcement. The safety of our community is our priority and we will continue to work day in and day out to keep our members safe. We have a dedicated team who responds to requests for information from law enforcement authorities around the world.”
For the past few years, the Bridgeport police department has been under scrutiny for corruption within the department. Former Chief of Police Armando J. Perez was sentenced to a 12-month prison sentence last April for his participation in a scheme to defraud the city by rigging the 2018 police chief examination to solidify his position as chief.
“As somebody who was born and raised here, Bridgeport is incredibly corrupt. Most people know we had a police chief who went to prison, we’ve had five public officials indicted by the feds, and we had a mayor who went to federal prison,” said City Council Member Maria Pereira, who spoke at the press conference. The police department has been in shambles for four or five years. We have over 100 vacancies in the Bridgeport police department right now.”
Next Sunday, Jan. 23, would have been Smith-Fields’ 24th birthday, where she would have been getting ready to board the plane to Greece with her grandmother. Instead, her family is planning a march from the Bridgeport police department to Bridgeport City Hall, to commemorate her death and demand the city to act. In the meantime, the family continues to raise money via GoFundMe to be able to pay for Smith-Fields’ private investigation, such as the independent autopsy that the family has to come out of pocket for.
“It doesn’t take but a little humanity for the city of Bridgeport to say ‘wow, that should not have happened,’” Crosland said. “No one has called. Their inaction is action, and we are not going to stop until justice is served.”
Wed., Jan. 19, 2022: This story has been updated to include comment from Bumble.