WALKER COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — As the investigation into the death of Anthony “Tony” Mitchell continues, we’re hearing from his family for the first time.
His family says they are not giving up hope and will keep fighting for Mitchell following his death in police custody.
It’s been nearly a month since video of what his family said could be Mitchell’s final moments surfaced and sparked a federal investigation into his death.
While time keeps marching forward, his family is not giving up.
“We’re without a brother and we have no answers. We don’t know why. This all started out as a an effort to keep him safe,” said Maranda Mitchell-Gutzmer, Tony’s sister.
Mitchell-Gutzmer said that a month since her brother’s death, it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.
“I want to grieve and am not able to because so much stuff is happening, and we don’t have any answers,” she said.
It all began with a welfare check.
“You think that the police are going to be there to help you. That’s what you learn in school, right? Call 911 if something bad is happening. And then your loved one is taken away and you never see them again,” Mitchell-Gutzmer said.
Mitchell-Gutzmer said her brother struggled with addiction for years. After the death of their father last year, Mitchell spiraled.
“One of the things before my father passed away was that, you know, he just wanted me to be there for Tony,” she said. “So, I tried to check in on him and it was hard because I wanted so badly for him to get help.”
The welfare check for Mitchell ended with him being charged with attempted murder. According to a Facebook post from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, Mitchell allegedly pulled a gun and fired at least one shot at deputies before running away and eventually being arrested.
The post included a photo of Mitchell, whose face appeared to be spray-painted black. The publication of that photo drew harsh criticism from many in the community, leading to the sheriff’s office to edit the photo to exclude Mitchell’s face.
“I just see this photo and I absolutely just, I cried so hard. It just didn’t seem fair to exploit someone in this horrific time,” Mitchell-Gutzmer said.
On Jan. 26, two weeks after his arrest, Mitchell died.
“Anyone who’s ever loved someone who struggled with addiction knows that there’s only so much that you can do,” she said. “We thought ‘OK, if he goes to jail maybe he can get himself clean and we can put him into treatment afterword and have a second chance at life’ and unfortunately that’s not gonna happen.”
About a week after Mitchell’s death, Mitchell-Gutzmer got a Facebook message. The message contained video showing her brother being carried out of the jail and put into a patrol vehicle.
“It was horrifying to watch and I know so many people have seen it and I just want to remind people, that’s my brother in that video. It’s really hard to watch it every time,” she said.
Mitchell-Gutzmer said she had no idea of what was coming next.
On Feb. 13, Mitchell’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the WCSO, claiming Mitchell was likely placed in the jail kitchen’s walk-in freezer or “similar frigid environment” for hours.
“How can someone in jail die of hypothermia and no one ever knew it was happening?” Mitchell-Gutzmer said.
Last week, lawyers for the Walker County Sheriff’s Office responded to the lawsuit, where they denied that Mitchell was placed in a freezer. Included in their response was the quote “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth can put on its boots.”
“Well, the lie that he was alert and conscious did get around the world before we even got our boots on,” Mitchell-Gutzmer said. “We never saw the medical records when that was publicized.”
The alleged lie Mitchell-Gutzmer referred to is the statement WCSO Public Information Officer TJ Armstrong made the day Mitchell’s death was reported, alleging that he was “alert and conscious when he left the jail.”
“Once we got the truth of the medical records and saw the video, ‘alert and conscious’ is far from the truth,” she said.
According to medical records, Mitchell arrived at Walker Baptist Medical Center “unresponsive, pulseless and cold to the touch.” Those documents also noted that his body had a core temperature of 72 degrees.
“I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration, but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72° F 22° centigrade while someone is incarcerated in jail,” the doctor’s notes said, according to the federal lawsuit. “The cause of his hypothermia is not clear. It is possible he had an underlying medical condition resulting in hypothermia. I do not know if he could have been exposed to a cold environment. I do believe that hypothermia was the ultimate cause of his death.”
Attorneys for the WCSO say allegations that Mitchell was left in a freezer “are the definition of scandalous.” An official autopsy report is still pending.
“It’s not their job to get to say who gets to live and who gets to die,” Mitchell-Gutzmer said.
New videos recently made public capture moments of Mitchell’s incarceration. One video shows a corrections officers wrestling him to the ground and holding up what appeared to be a stun gun before dragging him out of an office. It’s just one of many videos Mitchell-Gutzmer described as disturbing and pointing to more than just a coincidence.
“It’s astounding that all of this was happening while they’re knowingly being recorded as well,” she said. “That they weren’t worried about this being on video, so that worries me.”
It’s that fear that keeps Mitchell-Gutzmer fighting for justice.
“As hard as it is to see these videos, I’m thankful that they’re out there because we would have never known, and this would have been swept under the rug,” she said. “And they’re trying really hard to keep sweeping it, but we’re not going to let that happen.”
Another candlelit vigil will be held for Mitchell Saturday at the Walker County Courthouse.
Read the full lawsuit filed by Tony Mitchell’s family below and the response from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office lawyers below:
Federal Lawsuit filed against Walker County Sheriff’s Office:
Federal lawsuit filed by Anthony “Tony” Mitchell’s family against Walker County Sheriff’s Office by Austin Franklin on Scribd
Lawyers for the Walker County Sheriff’s Office response: