City of Portsmouth pays $550k settlement after pregnant woman dies in police custody

Investigative

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth officials agreed to pay a grieving family $550,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit on Friday. The settlement comes three years after their pregnant daughter died in Portsmouth police custody.

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Carmeita “Carly” VanGilder, 28, died just a few hours after Portsmouth police officers arrested her on Dec. 13, 2018. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy that showed Carly VanGilder died of “acute myocardial ischemia due to difluoroethane and recent cocaine use.”

The VanGilder family filed the wrongful death lawsuit in January 2020. As part of the settlement, Portsmouth officials did not admit liability in Carly VanGilder’s death.

The Portsmouth Police Department did not respond to a request for comment before the time of publication, but city spokesperson Dana Woodson issued the following statement:

The city is pleased that an amicable settlement could be reached in this tragic situation.

Dana Woodson, Portsmouth spokesperson

Her parents, Joe and Michelle VanGilder, said their daughter had a known history of drug addiction. She was scheduled to begin court-ordered drug rehabilitation the Monday after she died. Instead of holding her until her report date, a judge released Carly VanGilder before she entered treatment, her parents said.

“Addiction had a hold on her she just could not shake,” Michelle VanGilder said.

Carly VanGilder was pregnant, sick, and battling that addiction when two Portsmouth police officers arrested her on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court in 2018. They met Carly VanGilder in the parking lot of the Walmart on Frederick Boulevard after a person asked them for assistance in getting her into a homeless shelter for the night. Carly VanGilder had several cans of aerosol in her purse, a drug she’d been known to inhale. She also had medical papers showing she was pregnant and that she was seen at an emergency room the day before she was arrested, according to the VanGilder lawsuit.

Carly VanGilder told the arresting officers that she felt sick. She repeatedly asked them for water and threw up in their squad car on the way to the Portsmouth police station. Officers did not call 911 or take her to the hospital. Instead, they took her to the Portsmouth Police Department and booked her into a holding cell where she continued to vomit and cry out for help, according to the lawsuit.

“If they had taken her to the hospital, and she had passed, we can accept that,” Joe VanGilder said. “That’s all we had wanted and hoped they would do. But to not provide that for her based on the symptoms she was exhibiting over that time, it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow.”

An officer found Carly VanGilder unresponsive in a holding cell around 10:41 p.m. but did not immediately call 911, the lawsuit states. Instead, that officer went to a station garage where their partner was cleaning Carly VanGilder’s vomit from their police car. Officers eventually called EMS and medics tried to revive Carly VanGilder, but it was too late. Medics pronounced her dead at 11:21 p.m., the lawsuit states.

“She called out for medical care. She had blood on her face. She said she wanted medical care, and she wasn’t given it, and she laid on the police station floor and died alone,” Michelle VanGilder said.

The VanGilder family’s disappointment with the Virginia criminal justice system runs deeps in the wake of their daughter’s death. Court records show that Carly VanGilder was arrested more than 50 times between 2011 and 2018 in Newport News, Hampton, York, Williamsburg, and James City County. Many of the charges against her were for drug use, intoxication, and failing to appear in court.

Joe and Michelle VanGilder hoped that a judge would recognize their daughter’s cycle of addiction and force her into treatment, but that help came too late.

“The courts had an opportunity to do that, but they didn’t. They let her walk away time after time after time after time,” Michelle VanGilder said.

“The judges in the highest place to offer that help just wrote her off as a drug addict time and time and time again,” Michelle VanGilder continued. “They just wrote her off as a drug addict, and it’s sad because she was a human being with a daughter, and a mother, and a father, and extended family that loved her, and they just shut the door.”

Joe and Michelle VanGilder adopted Carly VanGilder’s adolescent daughter and are raising her outside of Virginia. They plan to use the settlement money to raise her and fund her education.

Although the close of the civil case marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another for the VanGilder family, her parents say they want to see the Portsmouth Police Department implement policy changes and addiction training that will stop another family from experiencing the intense loss they are now suffering.

“Most people, they get a settlement like this, and they’re very happy,” Joe VanGilder said. “I’m just not happy right now.”

Carly VanGilder’s death is actively being investigated by Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales. No criminal charges have been filed against any of the police officers involved in the case.

“We brought the civil case because we felt that there was neglect,” Joe VanGilder said. “I would hope that if the investigation is completed, and there are findings that there was neglect on the officer’s part, that there would be some sort of reprimand, additional practices and procedures put in place when inmates are sick or displaying sick symptoms. That they’re taken to a hospital to be evaluated.”

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