CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — It’s been 9 months since Sarah Wilson committed suicide while in the custody of Chesapeake police, but her mother says she’s no closer to knowing what happened to her 19-year-old daughter than she was in July.
“There’s just so many unanswered questions, and that’s the second hardest part of losing a child – of losing my child,” Dawn Wilson told 10 On Your Side.
Sarah Wilson and her boyfriend, 28-year-old Holden Medlin, were stopped by the Chesapeake Police Department while driving near the intersection of Berkley Avenue Extension and Wilson Road on July 25, 2018.
Sarah Wilson did not leave the scene of that traffic stop alive. The medical examiner wrote in her autopsy that Sarah Wilson shot herself in the mouth with a Taurus Judge handgun while her hands were cuffed behind her back.
10 On Your Side has been investigating Sarah Wilson’s death for months, with little information being released by the Chesapeake police.
Chesapeake police offered a basic narrative of what happened during the traffic stop, but declined multiple requests for them to release a copy of body camera footage captured that day, and the results of their internal investigation.
The Chesapeake city attorney also declined to answer several questions 10 On Your Side asked about Sarah Wilson’s death, citing a criminal investigation and possible civil litigation.
Dawn Wilson and her attorney, Jennifer Langley, said the CPD hasn’t released any information to them, either.
“Police immediately after her death started canvassing the neighborhood and getting everything they could,” Langley said. “Video evidence was gathered by the police, statements with any potential witnesses were taken, and a lot of the information is controlled soley by them.”
Suicide is a crime in Virginia, which allows police to withhold certain investigative records from the public. Police are supposed to release some investigative records to the next of kin – in this case, Dawn – after a death has been ruled a suicide, but because Medlin was charged with crimes during the traffic stop, the CPD is allowed to redact details from those records as well.
Langley did her own investigation into Sarah Wilson’s death and shared those results with 10 On Your Side, including exclusive footage the lawyer obtained of the traffic stop happening.
This is what we know:
The traffic stop
The couple were under surveillance by the CPD at the time of the traffic stop, and there was a warrant out for Sarah Wilson’s arrest because she did not appear in court in June 2018 on a meth possession charge, according to documents obtained by 10 On Your Side.
A search warranted filed in October says police stopped the couple because the white Lexus Medlin was driving had an “illegal window tint.”
Either way, the traffic stop was “not routine,” CPD spokesman Leo Kosinski told 10 On Your Side in August 2018.
Three CPD officers initially stopped the couple at 4:24 p.m., including “members of the vice and narcotics unit,” according to a search warrant. Three additional officers came to the scene “shortly after the stop” and before Sarah Wilson committed suicide, according to city officials.
Court documents say that there were drugs in “plain view” of officers who approached the car with Sarah Wilson and Medlin inside. One document says Sarah Wilson, who was the passenger of the car, had a meth pipe on her lap at the time of the stop. Her autopsy shows that she was “acutely” intoxicated on methamphetamines at the time of her death.
“She was doing it at the moment when they pulled her over,” Langley said.
Langley said the stop wasn’t “typical,” where officers “hit the lights and it’s ‘license and registration.’”
“They came on all sides of the vehicle. They opened the doors and they start dragging you out,” Langley said. “That was what occurred in this case.”
On one side of the car, Medlin struggled with police officers who were trying to put him under arrest. He allegedly swallowed a “golf ball size bag” with an unknown substance in it, according to court documents.
On the other side of the car, Sarah Wilson was also being arrested. Her hands were cuffed behind her back in hinged handcuffs that Langley believes were not secured properly.
“Sarah had a little friendship bracelet – a little yarn bracelet – that she was able to work up to about here (points near her hand), and in the autopsy pictures we can see that,” Langley said. “So that lets us know that the handcuffs weren’t put on correctly.”
The officer who detained Sarah Wilson left her handcuffed outside the car’s passenger side and went to assist in Medlin’s arrest, which involved police using a Taser to subdue him, Kosinski said in August.
Exclusive footage obtained by 10 On Your Side shows an officer run from the passenger side of the car to the driver’s side where Medlin was resisting arrest.
It was during this time that Sarah Wilson got the gun from the couple’s car and shot herself in the mouth while her hands were handcuffed behind her back.
“She should have not had access to a gun,” Langley said. “How did a 19-year-old girl, handcuffed behind her back in hinged handcuffs, get to a weapon, put a gun in her mouth, and pull the trigger in the presence of four to five police officers? How did that happen?”
Chesapeake officials would not confirm how many officers had direct contact with Sarah Wilson before she died. They did confirm that one of the six officers on the scene was wearing a body camera during the traffic stop. The officer activated the camera, but it was knocked off during Medlin’s arrest. After Medlin was arrested, the officer reattached the body camera and turned it back on to record, Kosinski said in August.
After Medlin’s arrest, officers searched him and the car. They found 11 oxycodone, a syringe, and drug paraphernalia, according to court documents.
Police also found a “cut straw” inside a wallet that had Sarah Wilson’s ID in it and a “smoking device” inside a pink laundry basket that had female clothing inside it. Police watched the couple handle the items in the basket before the traffic stop, and watched Sarah Wilson handle the basket itself, according to court documents.
Officers also uncovered a “lock box” that had ammunition, empty baggies, a digital scale and weights” inside of it. Both Sarah Wilson and Medlin were observed by police handling the lock box before the stop, court documents state.
“We know that her boyfriend was a suspected drug dealer. We know he had drug charges in the past,” Langley said. “They knew what they were dealing with when they called in back up.”
Medlin was arrested and charged with possession of oxycodone, suboxone and paraphernalia, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of a firearm with schedule I or II drugs, and fleeing from police.
Teased and tormented
Before Sarah Wilson was a name in headlines, she was a daughter, a student, and a friend, her mother said.
“She would come in the room and start singing and dancing, and I would be in a bad mood, and it would be gone,” Dawn Wilson said. “She was a light. She was a bright shining star that impacted positively everyone but herself.”
Sarah Wilson was very close to her mother growing up. Dawn Wilson said her daughter was very sheltered, in part because she went to a private Christian school on the Peninsula until 6th grade.
“My situation changed and I had to put her in public school,” Dawn Wilson said. “It proved to be a very difficult transition.”
Dawn Wilson said the public school kids did not accept her daughter and bullied the young girl relentlessly over her weight.
“I ended up having to take her out of school and home school her,” Dawn Wilson said. “We even had the police involved at one point.”
Sarah Wilson “cried every day” as she struggled with the loneliness of middle school. But when she turned 15 everything changed. She made friends on the Southside who liked her regardless of her weight and other insecurities. She started spending less time at home with her mom, and more time with her friends. She also started doing drugs.
“She was so lonely … I think she would have befriended anybody, and I think she did,” Dawn Wilson said. “They were living out of tents … I’m pretty sure all of them were doing drugs. It was a real mess. And she would get wore out and hungry and tired, and she’d come home for a few days. We’d try again, and then she would disappear again.”
Sarah Wilson’s new found friendships and her drug use started to transform her – mentally and physically. She began shedding weight and started getting attention from males, which she’d never had before.
But the changes in her daughter terrified Dawn Wilson.
“She didn’t want that life anymore. She just didn’t want to do drugs anymore. She wanted to finish up her schooling,” Dawn Wilson said. “Three days later she was gone again.”
Dawn Wilson started looking for a bed in a drug rehabilitation center for her daughter and found one when Sarah Wilson was 17. That facility required that Sarah Wilson go to a hospital to have her physical health checked before she could check in for rehabilitation.
“They said ‘come back the next day,’ and I took her home, Dawn Wilson said. “We talked all night, and she assured me over and over again she was fine, she was fine, she was fine, she was fine. So we didn’t accept that bed. Huge mistake on my part.”
Sarah Wilson’s drug use accelerated over the next year-and-a-half. Six months before she committed suicide, she overdosed on heroin in Williamsburg and had to be resuscitated by first responders. Three months before the traffic stop, she was charged with meth possession in Chesapeake. At the time of her death, she was “acutely” intoxicated on meth.
Sarah Wilson and Medlin began dating about a year before she died. Although Medlin was a convicted felon who was about eight years older than her, he was very respectful to her mother and other members of her family, Dawn Wilson said.
“He seemed like a great guy, and I believe that he is,” Dawn Wilson said. “She loved him, and when your kid’s in love it’s kind of hard to say that that’s a bad person because that’s my daughter. That was her first love. It’s an exciting time – or it was.”
A mother’s anguish
Sarah Wilson had decided she was “ready to adult” the day before she took her own life.
“The day before she passed away I had sent an Uber for her because she had been calling very upset and wanting to come home,” Dawn Wilson said. “She did not get in that Uber that day.”
Instead, Sarah Wilson told her mom that she’d pack her bags and come home the next day. She was going to handle her court case and get clean so she could have a future and a family of her own some day.
July 25, 2018 came and went, and Dawn Wilson didn’t hear from her daughter. At first the mother wasn’t overly concerned – she figured her daughter and Medlin were spending some extra time together before he drove her home.
But when her daughter still hadn’t called or messaged her by the following day, Dawn Wilson knew something wasn’t right.
“I sent her another text. We talked every day. I knew something wasn’t right,” she said.
Chesapeake police contacted Dawn Wilson and shared the news of her daughter’s suicide. But that’s where the information flow from the city ends.
“There were people there when my daughter passed,” Dawn Wilson said. “At first I was told there was no video and then I was told there was video, it’s not being released. I want to see it. That information. Not that it’s ever going to take this pain away, but maybe then I could focus on healing instead of wondering what happened to my baby that day.”
Suicide is a crime in Virginia, meaning that police don’t have to release certain investigative records to the public. But legislation proposed by Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, and passed by the Virginia Assembly, says that police departments are supposed to release “unattended death” investigation records to a person’s next of kin after a death has been ruled a suicide.
Initially the city of Chesapeake told 10 On Your Side that they would not release any records to Dawn Wilson because “the suicide is part of the case report that also contains the investigation and arrest of Holden Medlin.”
10 On Your Side replied to the city of Chesapeake by pointing out another law – also championed by Surovell – that says that agencies cannot withhold entire records that would otherwise be released based just because part of the record is exempt. The law mandates agencies to redact exempt information and release the record.
When asked if the city of Chesapeake planned to release a copy of Sarah Wilson’s unattended death investigation to Dawn Wilson with exempt portions redacted, officials responded that they would; however, as of the date of publication no records have been released, according to Langley.
Dawn Wilson would also like to have back some of her daughter’s belongings. The city of Chesapeake says that they’re working to return some of Sarah Wilson’s items back to her mother – but so far she hasn’t received anything.
“Every day I wake up with no answers, none of her belongings. I would just like to have a shirt or a blanket where I could smell her one last time. I haven’t been allowed that. It’s torture,” Dawn Wilson said.