Pregnant woman dies in Portsmouth holding cell, $7 million lawsuit filed against police


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – A $7 million wrongful death lawsuit was filed Wednesday against eight Portsmouth Police Department officers after a pregnant woman died while in a holding cell at the city jail.

28-year-old Carmeita Jane VanGilder died while in a holding cell at the Portsmouth City Jail on Dec. 13, 2018.

VanGilder was arrested on an outstanding warrant the same day. When police arrested her they found five aerosol cans in her purse, which are used to “huff” inhalants, according to a lawsuit filed by her parents, Joseph and Michelle VanGilder.

The VanGilder family declined to comment on the lawsuit.

While being transported to the Portsmouth Police Department, VanGilder vomited in the police car. She told officers she was pregnant and complained about being in medical distress. Her vomit contained foam and mucus, but police did not take her to the hospital, the lawsuit alleges.

VanGilder arrived at the Portsmouth Police Department at 8:33 p.m., where she vomited again. She also complained of feeling sick and said that her wrists were hurting while she was in handcuffs. She was put into a lockup cell, where another detainee said she witnessed VanGilder in “observable pain” and heard her “seizing and gargling.” The other detainee said that VanGilder called out to police for help and told officers she was pregnant multiple times, but that the 28-year-old did not receive help, according to the lawsuit.

28-year-old Carmeita VanGilder died while in the custody of the Portsmouth Police Department in December 2018. (Picture courtesy of Michelle VanGilder)

Police allegedly did not respond until the other holding cell detainee called out for help. VanGilder went into cardiac arrest and became unresponsive. She was ultimately pronounced dead at 11:21 p.m. by EMS, the lawsuit states.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did an autopsy on VanGilder and confirmed that she was in the early stage of pregnancy. The autopsy report stated that VanGilder died of “acute myocardial ischemia due to difluoroethane and recent cocaine use.” The report also stated that the 28-year-old had dried “blood-tinged foam” across her face and “superficial blunt trauma” to her right leg and wrist, the lawsuit alleges.

The autopsy report stated that VanGilder was “wheezing and having difficulty breathing” while she was in the holding cell at the Portsmouth Police Department. The medical examiner wrote that police believed VanGilder had huffed inhalants from aerosol cans the day she was arrested, but the autopsy report confirmed that she did not die of a drug overdose, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states that VanGilder’s family believes she would have survived if she had received medical attention before being transported to the Portsmouth Police Department. The family is accusing the department of being negligent by failing to provide her “urgent needed” medical care and not calling 911.

“Prompt medical intervention would have prevented Ms. VanGilder’s injuries and death,” the lawsuit states.

Portsmouth spokeswoman Dana Woodson did not respond for a request for comment before publication.

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