Airport Death: Family Keeps Options Open

The politically prominent family of a New York City woman who died in police custody in Phoenix hasn't yet decided if it will pursue legal action. Carol A. Gotbaum, 45, died in handcuffs at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport last Friday afternoon after she missed a flight to reach an alcohol rehab facility. According to authorities, the mother of three grew irate after she was turned away for being too late for her connecting flight to Tucson, U.S. Airways Express flight 2825.

"The flight was closed, the door to the aircraft was closed, the jetway was removed, and she was too late to make that flight," says Paul Skellon, spokesman for Mesa Airlines, which operated the commuter flight for U.S. Airways. Gotbaum became upset and began screaming at the airline workers, according to the Phoenix Police Department. When a pair of officers tried to restrain her, she screamed at them, too. "I'm not a terrorist," she said, according to a New York Daily News account, quoting an unnamed eyewitness. "I'm a sick mom. I need help!"

What could have been a minor travel mishap quickly escalated into a major tragedy after a handcuffed Gotbaum died a short time later in police custody. The stepdaughter-in-law of New York City's public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, (and daughter-in-law of retired labor leader Victor Gotbaum) died in a holding room at the airport, where police put the distraught and still screaming woman after arresting her for disorderly conduct. When police returned to check on Gotbaum, whom they had handcuffed and shackled to a bench, according to a police account, the tall, slight woman was "unconscious and not breathing." The metal links of a shackle that bound her cuffs to the bench were "pulled against the front of her neck area." Paramedics tried to revive her, but Gotbaum was pronounced dead at the scene.

Michael Manning, an Arizona attorney retained by the Gotbaums, tells NEWSWEEK that "the family has not determined whether to file a claim" against the police department. But Manning says that the family suspects that Gotbaum died of "positional asphyxia," which may have been caused by the chain alone or in combination with compression of the diaphragm, which may have begun when the police wrestled her to the floor during the initial encounter on the concourse. Positional asphyxia happens when body position compromises the ability to breathe and can be brought on by factors as disparate as police restraint, drug or alcohol intake, obesity and psychosis.

Manning believes the police erred by putting the obviously distraught woman in restraints that can be harmful. "The family understands the intervention by the police," Manning says. "What they don't understand are the subsequent actions of handcuffing her, shackling her and leaving her alone in the cell." The tall, slight woman weighed less than 110 pounds, he adds. "It's Law Enforcement 101 that you don't use handcuffs behind the back to retrain a distraught person," says Manning, who has won three large judgments against the local sheriff's department in positional asphyxia cases, including a $2 million settlement earlier this year. Manning claims that the police should have cuffed Gotbaum's hands in front and kept an officer in the room with her.

Gotbaum was bound for Tucson from New York to enter the Cottonwoods de Tucson rehabilitation facility for a monthlong voluntary treatment for alcohol dependence, Manning tells NEWSWEEK. When she was bumped from the flight, Gotbaum phoned her husband, Noah Gotbaum, to report that she still planned to make it to the facility, Manning says. "She told him, 'I'm going to get there, and I'm going to do this for us and our kids'," according to Manning. The couple have three children under the age of 10, says Manning.

The Gotbaum family pleaded with reporters to allow them privacy, but Betsy Gotbaum told reporters Monday, "We are not jumping to any conclusions, but the circumstances surrounding Carol's death appear to be unusual enough to raise serious questions and warrant a thorough investigation." As New York City's elected public advocate, Gotbaum would succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg if he were incapacitated.

The Phoenix police suspect that Carol Gotbaum may have choked herself in a futile attempt to get free of the handcuff-and-shackle restraint. The written statement from police spokesman Sgt. Andy Hill says that Gotbaum was placed in handcuffs in the concourse after police were called at 2:27 Friday afternoon. Taken to the holding room in terminal 4, she continued to be "vocally and physically disruptive," so officers chained her to the bench by using a shackle formed by a 16-inch length of chain with a wrist cuff on either end. This was passed around the handcuffs holding Gotbaum's arms behind her back, according to the police account, then placed in an eyehook on the bench.

Departmental policy requires jailers to check on prisoners every 15 minutes, and police say they had checked on Gotbaum within five to 10 minutes when officers "did not hear her voice anymore and went to check on her." Gotbaum may have died when she "possibly tried to manipulate the handcuffs from behind her to the front, got tangled up in the process, and they ended up around her neck area."

An autopsy to be performed Tuesday may not yield a quick announcement of a cause of death, according to Dave Boyer, acting director of the Maricopa County medical examiner's office. (Manning said the medical examiner had agreed to let a Gotbaum family representative—perhaps a hired forensic specialist—view the autopsy.) Dr. Ann Bucholz, a county forensic pathologist, was assigned to perform the procedure but may "pend the case" for a few weeks until toxicology tests can be analyzed, according to Boyer.

Toxicology tests could reveal if Gotbaum had been drinking. Manning says he does not know whether Gotbaum had been drinking in the hours leading to her death. She ate lunch in Phoenix between the arrival of her flight from New York and the scheduled departure of the Tucson flight, but he had not seen the restaurant bill. "If she was drinking, all the more reason once again why you don't shackle her and don't handcuff her behind the back," Manning says. The police declined to answer questions beyond their written statement, which did not include the events that occurred before airport staffers called police.

Those details will certainly be coming. Aside from the medical examiner's investigation, police say they are conducting two probes: a death investigation and an internal investigation to determine whether the officers on duty acted within departmental policy. Manning says the Gotbaum family, which has hired an investigator of its own, will wait until the end of all the investigations before they decide whether to "file a claim" against the Phoenix P.D. For now, the family is mourning a very tragic and very unexpected death.