As family and friends gathered earlier this week in Louisville for the funeral of a teenage girl who died in state custody, memories of her life competed for attention with an unanswered question circulating through Kentucky and beyond:
What caused the death of Gynnya Hope McMillen?
“We are simply trying to find out what happened,” her aunt, Felicia Garr, told WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting prior to Tuesday’s funeral at the Fifth Street Baptist Church.
“Why did Gynnya die? What caused her death? We are trusting that our family attorney will find the answers. Any further questions we will direct to our attorney. Today is a day of family grief, pain and sorrow.”
Garr declined to talk further or release the attorney’s name. Other family members were unavailable for comment.
The 16-year-old girl died Jan. 11 in a state-run juvenile-detention center in Hardin County. News and the ensuing mystery surrounding her death have rocketed across the Internet and social media.
Citing their ongoing investigations, the Kentucky State Police and the state Department of Juvenile Justice have said little publicly about Gynnya’s death.
Investigators routinely do not disclose preliminary or incomplete findings in death inquiries, and instead wait until all information from interviews and the results of laboratory testing has been gathered.
Here’s what we know:
Gynnya was taken into custody following a physical altercation at a Shelby County residence shortly before 2 a.m. on Jan. 10, according to Kelly Cable, spokesman for the Shelbyville Police Department. Cable said Gynnya was the “perpetrator,” and that she was charged with misdemeanor assault after the alleged victim incurred what Cable described as “minor injuries.” Gynnya was transported to the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County.
Gynnya was dead less than 24 hours after being detained. Dr. William Lee, the Hardin County coroner, said he pronounced her dead on the morning of Jan. 11 at Lincoln Village after emergency medical services personnel were called to the scene and determined there was no possibility of resuscitating her. The teen was in a cell by herself at Lincoln Village, according to Lee, who said he knew of no report or medical evidence of a physical altercation there.
An autopsy was performed the following day. Lee, who was present, told KyCIR that there were no “outward signs of injury” that might explain Gynnya’s death. Lee said her neck was not broken, there was no head trauma, and there were no severe wounds on her arms or legs. Lee also said there were no visible indications of a drug overdose, such as remnants of chewed-up pills in Gynnya’s esophagus or stomach.
“It’s a complete mystery right now,” Lee said of the cause of death.
A toxicology report could take weeks.
Trooper Jeff Gregory, spokesman for Kentucky State Police Post 4 in Elizabethtown, said “no foul play” is suspected. Gregory declined further comment pending receipt of the autopsy results.
The Department of Juvenile Justice also declined comment beyond two brief statements it issued in the hours immediately following Gynnya’s death. The agency said additional information is forthcoming.
The Detention Center
The Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center sits near Interstate 65 just south of Elizabethtown. It opened in 2005, can house up to 44 youths and is one of eight state-operated “secure” juvenile-detention centers in Kentucky.
These facilities provide programs such as education, counseling, medical and mental health care, behavior management and more, according to the state. The last in-custody death at a Department of Juvenile Justice facility occurred in 1999.
A photo on Facebook page called “Justice for Gynnya McMillen” and purportedly created by her sister, LaChe’ Simms, bore the headline, “I died under your supervision and you can’t tell my family why.” Another post states: “We deserve to know what happened to her! And if there’s nothing to hide, there’s no reason why our questions should be unanswered.”
Inquiries to the page’s owner have not been returned. The page notes that supporters are raising money to “not only bring Gynnya’s case to justice but to also raise awareness” of what takes place in juvenile-detention centers. According to the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, $325 of a $2,500 target amount had been raised as of Wednesday night.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at email@example.com or (502) 814.6533.
This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.