Mystery surrounds death of former Guam resident who died in Vegas police custody

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Guam – A former Guam resident has died in Las Vegas police custody and authorities there have refused to give her family any answers.

Athena Copeland, 42, is a mother of five, a sister, aunt and grandmother–she is a human being. But when she died while under Henderson Police Department custody, her son Elijah Sanchez says that their family was not given the decency of being informed that she was in police custody or worse–that she died. Henderson is a suburb of the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area.

“I just found that out last week. You know we haven’t had contact with my mother for about three months and me personally, I have been having some thoughts just a gut feeling that something was wrong,” says Sanchez.

Her death certificate indicates her date of death as August 21, 2018. All her family knows is that sometime in the less than 24 hours of her being arrested she was found dead in the detoxification holding cell at Henderson Detention Center. But what happened during that time remains a mystery.

“Past years my mom has had some medical issues. She has gone through a lot and she has been taking quite a bit of medications, the ones that get people into deep situations where they’re addicted to the stuff,” notes Sanchez.

Copeland was in Las Vegas trying to start a new life. She had been living there for about five years. A victim of domestic violence, she suffered from medical issues and a drug addiction.

Her son says that on the day she was arrested it was for drug possession. He was told that when she was brought into custody, she might have been going through withdrawals as she was combative, refused medical treatment and was placed in a detoxification cell where surveillance video captured her allegedly wrapping herself in toilet paper like a mummy, suggesting that this may have led to her death.

“That’s really stupid because we all know how easily toilet paper can break. You want to give a dumb excuse on how someone actually died, okay wrap yourself in toilet paper,” says Sanchez, who says that what authorities have suggested may have been the cause of his mother’s untimely death.

But the family still does not know how she died, as it has been nearly three months since her death and the cause of death is still pending. What makes the story even more questionable is that no one from the Henderson Detention Center or Henderson Police Department contacted Copeland’s family after she died, despite her not being listed as a Jane Doe.

Instead her family shares that they found out about her death by chance in early November. Copeland’s ex-husband had bumped into her social worker who casually mentioned that Copeland had died, raising the question, are Las Vegas authorities attempting to cover up her death? Was there foul play involved? To this day Las Vegas authorities have dodged every question posed by her family.

“If you look at what’s on the table right now, it does seem like they are trying to hide something because in the autopsy, she died 24 hours after being brought in. Why haven’t they done it yet? It’s been three months, close to four. Like my uncle said why are they stone walling,” questions Sanchez. “Maybe it was foul play and they are just trying to cover it up.”

Copeland is not the first former resident to die while in police custody in Las Vegas. Glenn Ybanez, 37, died in 2012, also while in custody of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

While his death was ruled an accident, the coroner had indicated that Ybanez died of “a heart condition” called “dilated cardiomyopathy.” His family members however, noted bruising and lumps around Ybanez’s face and body, raising concerns that his death may have been caused by police.

As for Copeland, her body remains at a mortuary in Las Vegas. And while the family continues to seek answer, for now they are just trying to bring her home to Guam.

To help bring Copeland home you can visit www.gofundme.com/return-a-mother-home-to-be-seen-one-last-time.

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Jolene Toves
Jolene joined the PNC team in 2017, as a producer, co-anchor and investigative reporter covering law enforcement, courts and crimes. Notable coverage includes the Ehlert case, the Mark Torre Jr. trial, the Allan Agababa trial, exclusive pieces on the Life of a Drug Dealer/Addict, and Life behind bars...the story of Honofre Chargualaf and Kevin Cruz. In 2019, she was promoted to Assistant News Director and Lead Anchor. From 2015 to 2017 she served as Public Relations and Promotions Manager, for the Hotel Nikko Guam handling local radio and advertorial promotions, as well as produced and directed tv commercials for the hotel. Prior to this she worked with KUAM for three years as a reporter and segment host. She began her journalism career in 2012, working with Glimpses of Guam contributing to the Guam Business Magazine, R&R magazine, MDM magazine and the Marianas Business Journal.