At a holiday party last December, Gynnya McMillen and a few other girls, all dressed in black, danced happily to Jessica Reedy’s gospel song, “Better.”
Their performance, part of a child-welfare agency’s dinner program at a Louisville church, provided a bit of lightheartedness at the end of what had been, for many, a long and difficult year.
“You so bitter bitter, bitter, bitter / But you must believe / That it gets better, better, better, better,” the lyrics rang out.
Today, that moment seems more ironic than uplifting, more heartbreaking than hopeful.
On Jan. 11, Gynnya was found dead in her room at a state-run juvenile-detention center in Hardin County.
Since then, despite multiple investigations and in the wake of declarations of outrage, calls for action and unsubstantiated accusations, there remain many more questions than answers about what happened to Gynnya McMillen and her death.
WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting sought, through public records and a series of interviews, to get a fuller portrait of the first teen to die in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility since 1999. Her family declined to comment, as did her mother’s attorney.
The picture that emerged is that of a girl growing up in challenging circumstances, bouncing from home to home before landing in a detention facility that failed to appropriately monitor Gynnya before her death.
Since July, Gynnya had lived at Louisville’s Maryhurst, the state’s oldest child-welfare agency, whose programs include residential treatment, two community-based therapeutic group homes and foster care.
A quiet, slight 16-year-old, she and her mother had undergone counseling sessions with Maryhurst staff. Things seemed to be improving. Gynnya was about to be released, to return to home to her family, where life had been difficult before and where relations were still fragile, according to sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
Maryhurst was at least Gynnya’s second out-of-home placement. Her father, with whom she lived for a time, died in 2014. An older sister, now 27, was convicted of arson in 2011 and had other legal troubles, court records show.
In January, as part of her transition from Maryhurst to the outside world, Gynnya made the latest in a series of weekend visits to be with her mother. This one occurred at a Shelbyville apartment complex where, during the early morning hours of Jan. 10, Michelle McMillen and her daughter clashed. McMillen called 911, alleging that Gynnya had assaulted her.
According to a recording of that nearly five-minute call, a copy of which was obtained by KyCIR, an angry McMillen alternately screams at Gynnya and talks to the 911 operator, while the girl periodically cries out in the background.
“You dumb-ass whore, you gonna spend the rest of your goddamn 2½ years in a goddamn insane asylum with the rest of the retarded kids,” McMillen is heard yelling at Gynnya.
“Get to know them bitches that you live with every day, get to know ‘em, get to know ‘em. ‘Cause you’re gonna love ‘em now… I’m done with you.”
McMillen tells the operator, “She thought she was gonna whoop me.”
“No, I didn’t,” Gynnya wails in response.
“Yes, you did,” McMillen counters.
McMillen also tells the 911 operator that a male “friend” in the apartment held Gynnya down after the girl pulled her mother’s hair and punched her in the mouth, but that McMillen eventually told him to let her go. Then Gynnya left the apartment.
When police arrived, they found her walking in the complex’s parking lot. McMillen’s male friend told an officer that the teen had hit and scratched her mother. Gynnya and her mother, however, refused to talk to police.
An officer took Gynnya into custody and drove her to the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center near Elizabethtown, about 70 miles away.
The state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet has provided the following timeline for portions of Gynnya’s approximately 28 hours at Lincoln Village:
Upon arriving at the facility shortly after 6 a.m. on Jan. 10, Gynnya refused to remove her hooded shirt so she could be searched. She was restrained, the garment was removed and she was placed in a room by herself — supposedly under constant surveillance.
Between 6:30 and 8:30 the next morning, Gynnya did not respond to two offers of food or to an invitation to accept a telephone call from her mother. The teen’s silence was consistent with her lack of communication with staff from the time she arrived, state officials have said.
The attempts to convey those offers to Gynnya were strictly verbal, according to the officials. Only when a deputy sheriff arrived shortly before 10 a.m. to take her to court was Gynnya found not to be breathing. Not long after, she was pronounced dead.
Although cabinet officials have said Gynnya “was under constant supervision through video surveillance of her room” during her time in custody, investigators later determined that an employee neglected to check on her, in person, every 15 minutes as required.
The cabinet initially suspended Reginald Windham, the employee allegedly responsible for that failure. He was fired 10 days later, after Buzzfeed reported that it wasn’t Windham’s first transgression at Lincoln Village. The commissioner of the cabinet’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Bob Hayter, also was terminated.
Preliminary autopsy results disclosed nothing obviously untoward, according to Dr. William Lee, the Hardin County coroner. Lee, who was present for the autopsy, told KyCIR that there were no “outward signs of injury” that might explain Gynnya’s death: 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. Toxicology test results have not yet been released.
The state has disclosed nothing to suggest that Gynnya was injured during the physical restraint at Lincoln Village, or that the staff missed some life-saving opportunity while failing to properly monitor her.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear why Gynnya was taken to Lincoln Village, rather than returned to Maryhurst, in Louisville.
Shelbyville police say they promptly called a court-designated worker, a state employee who processes complaints involving juveniles. Althea Hicks, the court-designated worker who responded, declined to comment.
State guidelines call for the court-designated worker to come to the incident scene and speak to the officer and the child. Whether Gynnya cooperated, and whether officials knew she was living at Maryhurst, are unknown.
The state’s guidelines also direct the worker to contact a judge “for direction” under certain conditions, including when the charge involves domestic violence. The worker’s call went to District Judge Donna Dutton, who ordered that Gynnya be detained, according to a source who saw documents on the matter.
Dutton refused to be interviewed by KyCIR about her decision, or even to discuss juvenile detention procedures in general.
Maryhurst did not learn until the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 11, that Gynnya had been taken into custody — much less that she was dead — according to the two sources. And that news came from a state social worker, not from Michelle McMillen or another member of Gynnya’s family, the sources said.
In the seven-plus weeks since her death, Gynnya’s story has rocketed across the Internet and into national news publications. Meanwhile, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet is expected to announce its findings in the near future.
At the heart of this mystery: How and why does a 16-year-old die, alone, in a secure room?
For now, it remains a question unresolved.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.
This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.