A young woman called Lackawanna police before dawn on Aug. 15, worried that her former boyfriend might harm himself after she received a series of alarming text messages from him.
Police soon after had arrested her boyfriend, and then her worst fears were realized.
He was in critical condition at Erie County Medical Center, after attempting suicide while in the Lackawanna lockup.
Now Stephen Sinwell’s family has questions for Lackawanna police about the events surrounding his arrest, incarceration and suicide attempt:
• How did the subject of a welfare call end up being arrested?
• Why was a man who threatened suicide left alone in a jail cell?
• Why did that jail cell have a pay phone with a cord that he apparently used to hang himself?
“The only answers we have are the ones we received on the first day,” said Valerie Sinwell, Sinwell’s sister.
James T. Kuna, director of public safety for Lackawanna, offered some information on his review of the report shortly after the incident occurred.
When the officers arrived, they questioned Sinwell, 30, about the suicide threat his girlfriend reported, Kuna said.
“He told the officers he was having a disagreement with his girlfriend and wanted to get a rise out of her to get her worried about him,” Kuna said. “The officers questioned him (about his texts) and he denied everything. The officers took it at face value.”
Kuna also described the circumstances of Sinwell’s arrest.
“They went to his house to check on him and they found him hiding in a vehicle,” Kuna saied. “They asked him to get out of the vehicle, and when they were talking to him they saw residue under his nostrils and additional residue in the vehicle.”
Kuna said the substance was cocaine.
Police charged Sinwell with fifth-degree drug possession and took him to Lackawanna Police Headquarters to await arraignment later that day, Kuna said.
Later that morning, he apparently tried to hang himself.
“When they put him in the cell, he was fine,” Kuna said. Then later, someone “found him slouched over with a phone cord around his neck. They make periodic checks.”
He said police in the station initiated CPR to revive the unconscious Sinwell. Resuscitation efforts were continued by paramedics.
It is not known how long Sinwell was without oxygen, but a Lackawanna police officer waiting at the hospital when family arrived indicated it may have been as long as 15 minutes, Valerie said.
As for the pay phones in the cell block, Kuna confirmed that there are phones in a few of the cells.
“Supposedly they were placed back there if the prisoners needed assistance,” said Kuna, adding the phones could only be used to make collect calls.
As for the arraignment, Kuna explained that, considering the circumstances of Sinwell’s condition, police issued an appearance ticket. Sinwell’s sister Valerie signed it when she arrived at the hospital.
Sinwell’s former girlfriend and family members said the incident on August 15 unfolded after a series of text messages from Sinwell to his former girlfriend. Sinwell, who had just turned 30, was depressed over the state of his life, his loved ones said.
Sinwell and his former girlfriend, who asked that her name not be used, had been involved in an “off-again on-again” two-year relationship that ended mutually July 4, said the former girlfriend. Both she and family members noticed Sinwell had appeared despondent recently.
“I was trying to encourage him, telling him he had a good job, a family,” the former girlfriend said. “He asked me to take care of his cat Jack.
“I called the police to protect him, and they did the complete opposite,” she said.
Sinwell’s parents Louie and Diana Sinwell live in Bethlehem, Pa.
Sinwell, who works as a construction foreman, lives in an upper apartment in Lackawanna.
“He’s shown signs of being depressed and unhappy at where he’s at in life,” said his sister. “He was struggling for about two months.”
“He comes over to see my kids,” said Valerie Sinwell, who lives in Williamsville with her four children. “The last time, we had a fire out back and made s’mores. He always attributed his depression to having a bad day. He was struggling bad in his own head.”