[What you need to know to start the day: Get New York Today in your inbox.]
The only certainty the family of Everett Palmer Jr. has — after months of demanding answers — is that he was alive when he was sent to York County Prison and that he was dead 48 hours later.
But what happened to Mr. Palmer during two days in solitary confinement at the Pennsylvania lockup remains a mystery.
When his body arrived at a funeral home, it showed troubling signs: Mr. Palmer’s head had been badly damaged and a ring of black and purple bruises ran around his neck, according to the funeral director, who was the first to see the remains.
“I think he was murdered,” Mr. Palmer’s mother, Rose Palmer, said as she choked back tears last week at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Queens Village, near the family’s home.
The Pennsylvania State Police and the York County district attorney will say only that the death, first reported by NY1, is still under investigation.
After 14 months, Mr. Palmer’s family has not been given permission to see video footage of his detention. The York County Coroner’s Office concluded in an autopsy report, obtained by The New York Times, that the manner of Mr. Palmer’s death was “undetermined.”
Adding to the Palmer family’s grief and confusion, the former soldier’s brain, heart and throat — perhaps holding clues that could shed light on how he died — still have not been returned after the autopsy.
On Monday, his mother and six siblings filed a motion in a Pennsylvania court seeking to compel testimony from the guards and others involved, as well as to gain access to evidence, including a video of Mr. Palmer’s final moments.
“There has been no explanation of what happened to Everett Palmer,” said Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing the family. “We believe that an in-custody death demands a certain level of transparency that has been lacking.”
Mr. Palmer’s case received nationwide attention recently over the family’s claims that his organs had gone missing. (They had not; they are being retained in a lab for investigation, the York County Coroner’s Office said.)
But how he died in custody and why the authorities seem reluctant to release their findings remain the bigger mystery.
Though the York County Coroner’s Office has said it could not say for sure how Mr. Palmer died, an independent forensic expert hired by Mr. Palmer’s family offered a different verdict: homicide, involving physical restraint under police custody.
One contributing factor in his death was methamphetamine intoxication, pathologists for the family and the coroner’s office agree, raising questions about how he obtained drugs while confined alone and stripped of his belongings.
The official autopsy report’s inconclusive findings help “law enforcement avoid the appropriate scrutiny of their actions,” Mr. Merritt said.
David Sunday, the York County district attorney, said he could not provide information about “ongoing investigations.” Ryan Tarkowski, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police, also declined to comment, saying the investigation is open.
Mark Walters, a spokesman for York County, said that evidence in the case has not been made public because investigators have not completed their work.
“I don’t understand why people don’t take a step back,” he said in an interview. “This is the way investigations work. You want to make sure that everything is right, and done with integrity. Do you want to have an investigation that lasts five minutes? It’s going to take time.”
Pamela Gay, who leads the York County Coroner’s Office, said that Mr. Palmer’s organs would be released to the family once the inquiry is over.
“Things aren’t evident right away,” she said. “We’ve done everything by the book. We want to do this with the utmost integrity and professionalism.”
Mr. Palmer, a 41-year-old father of two, was a brawny paratrooper turned fitness trainer who most recently lived in Seaford, Del. He had been taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder, his relatives said.
Mr. Palmer’s family said he was on his way to New York on April 7, 2018, to see his mother, who was about to have an operation. He had been hoping to stop in Lancaster, Pa., to resolve an outstanding warrant. A year and a half earlier, he been arrested in rural York County on charges of drunken driving.
But instead of resolving the case and continuing with his trip, he was arrested by the Lancaster police and detained on $5,000 bail, the family said.
When Mr. Palmer arrived at the York County jail, he was agitated and “rambling,” and talked about having suicidal thoughts, the autopsy report said. He was placed on suicide watch in a single-person cell and medical staff checked on him multiple times.
Two days later, at around 4 a.m., Mr. Palmer was seen striking his head on his cell room door, the autopsy report said, cutting and puncturing the back of his head and leaving bloody traces on the door, the report said.
An officer ordered him to lie down and put his arms behind his back, the report said. When Mr. Palmer failed to comply, an officer used a Taser on him — twice. Five officers then entered his cell, and a 23-minute scuffle ensued. Mr. Palmer kicked and bit the officers who tried to pin him down.
“The officers secured the decedent by various physical control techniques including securing his midsection and lower extremities, securing his hand by applying handcuffs to his wrists,” the report read.
A hood intended to stop him from biting was placed over his head. “The officers lifted him out of the cell and into the restraint chair and applied the lap belt, leg restraints and hand restraints,” the report said.
The report confirmed the existence of security camera video of the incident. But the coroner wrote that the “video footage of events inside the decedent’s cell did not give a clear picture” of everything the officers did to restrain Mr. Palmer.
Mr. Palmer was taken first to the jail infirmary, then to York Hospital, where he was pronounced dead before 6 a.m. on April 9, the report said.
The coroner’s office concluded that Mr. Palmer died of “complications following an excited state, associated with methamphetamine toxicity, during physical restraint.”
The doctor who performed the autopsy, Ramon Starling-Roney, noted in the report that Mr. Palmer had “multiple bruises along the head, extremities, left hip and left side of the torso” and said that sickle cell disease was a contributing factor to his death. (Mr. Palmer’s family maintains he did not have that illness.)
Zhongxue Hua, the forensic pathologist hired by the family, came to a similar conclusion about the cause of death, but said Mr. Palmer would not have died had he not been violently restrained.
“It should be changed to ‘homicide’, instead of ‘undetermined,’” he said in an interview. “I agree with the cause of death, but I have a real issue with the manner of death.”
Ephraim George, a funeral director in New York City, was the first person to look at Mr. Palmer’s body after the an autopsy. “You could definitely see the bruising around the neck,” Mr. George said. “It went around his neck, on both sides. I told the family, ‘You need to look further into it.’”
Mrs. Palmer, the mother, said she had not slept well for over a year.
“All I do is think about my child. What happened, how it happened,” she said. “And because I don’t know, I have all kinds of scenarios going around in my brain.”
She added, “It’s torture.”