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Warnings preceded Maricella Chairez’s suicide in Racine juvenile jail


Maricella Chairez wanted to keep breathing. 

In her cell at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center, she drew the word “breath” big among clouds and stars on a poster she hung next to the calendar where she crossed off the days. 

The drawing was next to her on the wall when she took her last breath sometime after 10:42 p.m. Dec. 10, 2017. 

Nearby was a crumpled piece of paper. It said: “I’m going crazy in this place.” 

On her desk were journals and poetry. “Everybody got a story that needs to be told,” she wrote. “So here I go with mine. Ready set and go.” 

Maricella was 16. She never had the chance to share her story with the world, grow up with her little brother, frame her photography or fulfill her dream of helping other survivors of trafficking.

Five days after Maricella died by suicide, officials responsible for her care issued a brief news release. 

“The juvenile was found unresponsive in her cell during the night,” they wrote. They said they were devastated. They said children in their care were like family.

They didn’t say what records would later reveal — that jail guards were late to check on Maricella the night she died, that she had been isolated despite national guidance against such a practice, and that her death involved a suicide hazard in her cell that staff knew was dangerous. 

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examination of hundreds of documents, including medical records, police reports and court transcripts, shows authorities repeatedly failed Maricella, not only in her final days but for years before that. County workers often didn’t find her proper mental health care. Police downplayed her reports of sexual assault. A judge ordered her jailed the night she escaped traffickers. 

Throughout this story, click [highlighted] phrases to learn about steps recommended by experts to better serve young people like Maricella.

In jail, Maricella attempted suicide multiple times. During that time, she told officials she needed more help than she was getting in detention. 

Even in death, Maricella didn’t get the full attention of authorities.

State corrections officials did not produce a full report on her death. Instead, a corrections inspector sent a two-page letter to jail officials 464 days after she died, praising them for doing an “excellent job” providing mental health care to jail workers who responded to the suicide. The report said nothing about the lack of mental health services for Maricella.

Maricella’s mother, Cynthia Casillas, shared medical and legal records with the Journal Sentinel, saying she hoped her daughter’s story could help others so that “another parent does not have to go through the tragedy we’re living.”

Nine days before Maricella died, she had almost died the same way. She had tied clothing around her neck and through the holes in her bunk. 

Even though some experts say bunks should be banned from cells because they pose a suicide risk, no one got Maricella a safer bed or removed the unused bed from her cell. She died tied to the upper bunk. 

One of the last entries in her journal said: “I know a lot of people going through a harder struggle then me. So why am I trippin.”

Bright like a diamond

Maricella was never easy to keep track of. As soon as she could walk, she was running. 

“She always had to be moving around,” recalled her aunt, Elisabet Hansen. “Even when she was sleeping — my God — this girl was on the floor, on the bed, on the floor, upside down.”

Casillas was 17 when she gave birth to Maricella. They lived with Casillas’ mother, stepfather and Hansen, sharing a small white shotgun-style house with cherry trimmed windows and an alley to kick a ball around. Maricella never knew her father. 

Maricella’s mother moved out when she turned 18, and Maricella spent the next 10 years moving between her house and her grandmother’s.

Maricella Chairez pictured at age 5.

Maricella Chairez pictured at age 5.
Photo courtesy Cynthia Casillas.

In kindergarten, Maricella took to running off when school let out. Neighbors who were used to the routine would point Hansen, who had the job of walking her home from school, in the right direction.

When Casillas had another baby, Maricella loved to feed him bottles and, as they grew older, would babysit while Casillas waited tables at IHOP. Maricella’s grandma taught her to cook enchiladas and tortas for the family. 

In the third grade, some of Maricella’s energy grew aggressive, leading to fights at school. Doctors said she was dealing with serious mental health issues. They hospitalized her twice for treatment. 

In the sixth grade, administrators with the Racine Unified School District placed Maricella in a program for students with challenging behavior. The superintendent later said the MACK Center program had lacked a “true model” for supporting these students. 

Maricella Chairez, at age 11, hugs her mother, Cynthia Casillas.

Maricella Chairez, at age 11, hugs her mother, Cynthia Casillas.
Provided by Cindy Casillas

The next year, in the district’s new program called Turning Point Academy, Maricella was suspended for “doing something sexual” with another student, records show. In a counseling session the next month, she was trembling, according to medical files. She asked her counselor, “Is it hard for someone to overdose?” 

Maricella’s mother immediately took her to an emergency room, where clinicians said Maricella needed psychiatric hospitalization. But there were no local openings. The 12-year-old had to go two hours away to Oshkosh. Maricella called home crying and scared, saying some other patients were screaming, her mother recalled.  

When she returned home after a brief stay, Maricella’s family tried to help her focus on things she liked to do. She tagged along to work with Hansen at a senior home. Hansen said Maricella had a special bond with a resident there who, like Maricella, had a reputation for having a “behavior issue.”  

“She did beads with her, colored with her, followed her around,” Hansen said. “Maricella loved it. She had a really big heart.” 

Maricella and her aunt had standing dates on Fridays to go to a Chinese buffet. They sang together around the house. “Shine bright like a diamond,” Maricella would croon like Rihanna.

Gone for ‘a few seconds’

Maricella had several sexual encounters when she was 13. In court records detailing her social history, she would be depicted as consenting and, in one case, a perpetrator. 

Maricella Chairez, at age 12, poses with a soccer ball.

Maricella Chairez, at age 12, poses with a soccer ball.
Provided by Cindy Casillas

But a deeper review of these cases casts doubt about those conclusions and raises questions about whether authorities took reports of Maricella’s sexual abuse seriously. 

For instance, the court file states the 13-year-old had “consensual intercourse” and a “sexual history” with an 18-year-old man in the summer of 2014, though state law defined this as sexual assault due to her age. And according to police reports that summer, Casillas told officers she thought an 18-year-old was holding Maricella against her will. 

Police later found Maricella but not the man. They told the man’s mother to tell him not to contact Maricella. The report notes: “Lots of advice given to all parties involved.” 

When Maricella saw a therapist later that month, she said she wanted to kill herself. She was hospitalized at All Saints’ adolescent psychiatric unit in Racine. She was given three kinds of psychotropic medication. 

On Maricella’s third night in the unit, according to hospital records, a 15-year-old patient came into her room at 2:30 a.m. Maricella, then 13, knew him; they had gone to summer school together. He told her to come to his room, and she did. She was supposed to be under close observation, but no one was at the nursing station, according to a staff report. 

The teenage boy closed the door. When a nurse walked in, she swore in exclamation. “Put your clothes on, go to your room,” Maricella recounted being told, according to a staff report. 

Two hours later, staff called Maricella’s mother, telling her a nurse had been “gone for two minutes and Maricella had sexual contact,” according to a hospital report. 

More than four hours after the incident, Maricella got a sexual assault examination. She told the forensic nurse that the teenage boy had used his body weight to restrain her, that she told him “no,” and that he raped her. The nurse documented vaginal tearing and bleeding, and turned her notes over to police, who were dispatched to the hospital.

About 7 a.m., Maricella repeated details of what happened to one police officer, and then another, in separate interviews. She said she had told the teenage boy three or four times to get off her and wasn’t able to get out from under him. 

The second officer pressed her, warning her multiple times to be honest. She asked Maricella if she had wanted the intercourse. Maricella repeated that she had told the teen “no.” The officer asked her what the boy and the nurse who caught them would say. 

“She just shrugged her shoulders and put her head down in her blanket,” the investigator wrote in her report, noting that Maricella seemed “nonchalant.” 

The nurse who was supposed to be stationed outside their doors said she had only been gone for “a few seconds,” which conflicted with Maricella’s story. Maricella said she thought the incident lasted a half-hour. Police noted the nurse “had nervous laughter throughout her interview.”

The teenage boy told police they had consensual sexual contact but couldn’t remember if they had intercourse. While police reports state officers pressed Maricella multiple times about being truthful and forthcoming, nothing in the reports show they did the same with the boy. 

Based on discrepancies between accounts of how long the two teens were alone together, a police investigator concluded it didn’t appear Maricella was being truthful, and therefore the incident seemed to be “mutual sexual activity.” 

Police arrested both Maricella and the teenager for second-degree sexual assault, noting neither were of age to consent. They were fingerprinted and released. 

While police accused Maricella of not being truthful with them, they were not entirely truthful with her: They didn’t tell Maricella she was being arrested for anything, citing her “unstable mood.”

“She was not advised she was being apprehended but was informed that she needed to have her picture and fingerprints taken since she is a chronic runaway,” the police report states. 

Maricella’s court file states she and the boy were charged with sexual assault, and prosecution was declined by the state. The file says she “disclosed that she had sexual intercourse” with no mention of her claim of rape. 

‘Doesn’t belong in detention’

When Maricella returned to Turning Point Academy to begin her eighth-grade year, she had been diagnosed with major depression and a challenging behavioral condition called oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD. 

Children with ODD often seek attention by misbehaving. General guidance for teachers advises against using intimidation and getting into power struggles. Instead, they emphasize making kids feel safe and asking questions about how they’re feeling. 

That’s not what happened to Maricella in the fall of 2014.

Then 13 years old, she ended up in jail after a conflict that started when she refused to leave a classroom. Rather than summoning a mental health professional, staff called in two Racine police officers assigned to the school 1, according to court records. 

The officers said Maricella wouldn’t listen to their commands. They moved in to handcuff her, and Maricella hit an officer’s shoulder. 

Police said they then used a “vertical stun” against a brick wall, a move in which officers slam a suspect to “create temporary dysfunction of the subject’s respiratory system and/or mental processes,” according to a 2014 state Department of Justice training guide.

When she was being released to her mother at the school, Maricella ran off. Officers chased as she jumped fences and ran through yards. When she was caught, she was locked up at Racine County Juvenile Detention. 

She waited there for three weeks before her hearing. She was found delinquent for battery and resisting or obstructing an officer. 

Racine County Court House.

Racine County Court House.
Rory Linnane

Her sentence was up to Racine County Circuit Judge Gerald Ptacek. He was publicly outspoken about the need to prioritize mental health treatment and avoid “criminalizing people who need care,” as he wrote in a blog post.

Ptacek sent Maricella home on the condition that her social worker place her in a treatment center as soon as possible. 

But Maricella’s social worker wasn’t immediately able to find any openings. The next week, Maricella was accused of punching another student in the back of the head. Ptacek then ordered her back to the detention center while awaiting treatment. 

Two weeks later, the social worker still hadn’t found any openings.

Ptacek was frustrated. In court, he addressed Maricella first. “It’s regrettable that there isn’t a placement that you can go to immediately,” he said. “It’s pretty clear to me you’ve got some serious issues here.”

He turned to address the social worker: “She doesn’t belong in detention. She belongs in a placement.” 

Maricella waited in the youth jail 2 for nearly two months before her social worker secured a spot at a treatment center in Milwaukee. 

But she wasn’t there long. According to her social worker, the 13-year-old said she went “on the run” from the facility within days and was picked up by three men in a car. Maricella later said the men asked her to perform sexual acts for money and she did. 

Maricella turned up three weeks later at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. Hospital staff said she had been sexually assaulted, according to medical records.

Several weeks later, officials sent her to Northwest Passage, a residential care center in northwest Wisconsin. Casillas said it seemed like her daughter was finally getting the help she needed. Maricella’s social worker noted Casillas was playing an active role in her daughter’s treatment, keeping in touch regularly with staff. 

Doctors diagnosed Maricella with five mental health disorders and changed her medication. 

“Staff noted she was motivated to make positive changes in her life,” Maricella’s social worker wrote. 

Casillas brought her daughter home that spring in 2015. Maricella didn’t run.

After getting half her head shaved, Maricella, now 14, asked her grandma to make it a mohawk. “So here comes my mom, and she cuts the whole other half off,” Casillas recalled, laughing. “She decided to let me try to do a design in her hair. So here I am with the eyebrow shavers sitting there trying to do it. It didn’t come out.” 

Maricella Chairez, 14, poses for photos with her brother Alejandro in July 2015.

Maricella Chairez, 14, poses for photos with her brother Alejandro in July 2015.
Photo courtesy Jody Spiegelhoff

But Maricella was happy with it. “She just went with it,” Casillas said. 

Maricella started high school in the fall of 2015 at J.I. Case, where her favorite subject was math. In a September hearing to determine whether she should stay at home, Judge Ptacek said she was doing a “great job” and said she could remain with her mother. 

Maricella showed the judge her photo album, explaining her interest in photography. Court notes from that proceeding stated that Maricella was a “much happier person and thanks the court.” 

But the next spring, she was back at All Saints’ emergency department, where doctors examined her hand after she punched a door. In a suicide screening, Maricella checked the most alarming boxes, including “suicide intent with a specific plan.” 

Staff called Maricella’s mother and said she would have to come to the hospital in order to admit Maricella for psychiatric treatment at the facility. But Casillas didn’t want Maricella going back there — not after what happened last time in the teenage boy’s room. 

Casillas took her home shortly after 3 a.m. She ran away the next day. 

It would be weeks before Maricella would see a doctor again — and then, she later told police, it would be in a house on the Miami shore, where the physician would pay for sexual acts from the 15-year-old. 

Seized by traffickers

Over the next two months, Maricella would spend nights in Florida, Minnesota and Texas, held by sex traffickers. The men would elude police for months, and one would play an elaborate ruse on Maricella’s mother.

Maricella Chairez pictured at age 15. Photo courtesy Cynthia Casillas.

Maricella Chairez pictured at age 15. Photo courtesy Cynthia Casillas.
Photo courtesy Cynthia Casillas

It started with someone familiar. Three days after she ran away, Maricella briefly returned to Racine. She told her mother she had been taken to Chicago by a 20-year-old Racine man — the same man Casillas had accused of holding her daughter against her will two years earlier. 

When Maricella went missing again the next week, Casillas called Racine police. Three days later, police interviewed the 20-year-old man. He told them he and Maricella had taken a bus to Milwaukee, where they had planned to live together.

When they stepped off the bus, he said, the two walked to McDonald’s on West Silver Spring Drive and North 61st Street. According to police reports, he said he told her to wait there while he bused back to Racine to get his belongings. When he returned at 10:30 p.m., McDonald’s had closed. He said he couldn’t find her and had no idea where she had gone.  

Maricella later told police that while walking around the night she arrived in Milwaukee, she met two women who invited her to stay with them. They took pictures of her and placed ads online. They told Maricella oral sex was $90, sex for 30 minutes was $100, and sex for an hour was $125, according to a police report. Maricella, 15, brought in $350 that first night, she later told police.

The next day, another man asked her to hang out. After bringing her to a house, he told her they had to have sex, and they did, she told police. She said he then took her to a Planned Parenthood clinic to check for infections. 

The man told Maricella she was going to work for him, according to a criminal complaint against him. When she said no, he grabbed her by the neck and pinned her to the wall, strangling and slapping her.

She started to work for him. He took all the money she made and assaulted her when it wasn’t enough, according to police reports.  

They kept moving. First to Minnesota, then to Miami, where the man shoved her face in cocaine. He made her use the drug to stay awake for more “dates,” including several with doctors, she later told police. Then it was back to Minnesota, then Houston. She estimated they returned to Milwaukee at the end of June. 

Soon after their return, the man took her to a party where she met Benjamin Hooks. Hooks was 23 at the time and had taken over an elderly neighbor’s brick home near West Silver Spring Drive and North Sherman Boulevard. He called himself “Famous Ben.” 

Maricella was reported missing May 31, 2016.

Maricella was reported missing May 31, 2016.
Racine Police Department

Hooks took Maricella back to the house, where he raped her, punching her in the stomach after she fought back, according to a criminal complaint. 

He allegedly set up “dates” for Maricella and kept the money. He carried weapons and pointed a gun to her neck at least once, according to the complaint. She later told police she tried to flee the house multiple times, but Hooks assaulted her. He knocked out one of her teeth. 

Meanwhile, Casillas didn’t know where her daughter had gone. She circulated “missing” posters on Facebook.

She received a message from someone under the name of “Famous Ben,” who said he wanted to help. He said he found Maricella out walking in Milwaukee, took her to buy clothes, and then she left, Casillas said in an interview. 

“He asked for more information about her,” she said. “I didn’t put two and two together.”

Casillas arranged to meet up with “Famous Ben” to find her daughter. He drove her around Milwaukee, acting like he was searching for her, putting up posters. 

Maricella was trafficked for about seven weeks. It came to an end on a July afternoon in 2016. She swallowed five prescription opioid painkiller tablets, five times the starting dose for an adult. Somehow she got to the emergency room at Ascension St. Joseph. 

Maricella was transferred to the Milwaukee County mental health facility for psychiatric care about 10:30 p.m. Staff there noted she was “ambivalent regarding being alive” and an acute danger to herself or others. 

She was not held for inpatient treatment. Less than an hour later, staff turned her over to Racine police, who had been waiting outside the facility with a warrant. 

While being trafficked, Maricella had missed a court hearing about whether she should be considered a “juvenile in need of protection and services” from the county. Judge Ptacek had issued the order for police to hold Maricella at the Racine juvenile jail so she would have to come to court. 

Hooks went on to torture and traffic other victims in the same house for eight months — crimes for which he was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

He and the first man who trafficked Maricella were charged but never convicted for crimes against her. 

She died before she had the opportunity to testify. 

Locked in a cell

Maricella was given her own cell in the mostly empty jail. It was small: 11 feet, 5 inches long by 6 feet, 3 inches wide. It had a toilet, a desk and a bunk bed. 

Maricella Chairez’s cell at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center was 11 feet, 5 inches long by 6 feet, 3 inches wide.

Maricella Chairez’s cell at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center was 11 feet, 5 inches long by 6 feet, 3 inches wide.
Provided by Cynthia Casillas from the Racine County Sheriff’s Office investigation

Maricella was monitored by guards who were paid as little as $14 an hour and weren’t required to have a college education in caring for youth. Mental health care was also lacking, with no specialists dedicated full-time to the facility housing 46 high-needs minors. 

Maricella laid down, her legs still bruised from being kicked and beaten, as noted on her intake paperwork. 

She was back in the hospital about a week later. She had a headache, dizziness and blurred vision, according to hospital notes. 

“She has been witnessed multiple times banging her head against the wall in an attempt to kill herself,” a hospital report states. “It was reiterated to juvenile detention staff that (patient) needs to be in full suicide precautions, including 24/7 sitter, and helmet if necessary.” 

She told hospital staff she didn’t want to go back to detention. 

“I’m going to kill myself and nobody is going to stop me,” Maricella said, according to hospital notes.

She was sent back to the juvenile jail after less than two hours at the hospital.

Judge Ptacek, who had advocated for treatment over jail time, continued to hold Maricella in detention on the grounds that she was “in need of protection and services” from the county. He continued to ask her social worker to find somewhere else for her to go.

After 41 days in jail, Maricella was sent to a residential care center in central Wisconsin. But after she got in trouble with two other teens for breaking windows, she was sent back to jail in Racine — this time with a charge of criminal damage to property. 

As a survivor of sex trafficking, Maricella had two major triggers, according to medical records: being isolated and being touched against her will. When guards restrained her, she would sometimes black out and not remember what happened next. 

In March 2017, five days after her 16th birthday, staff reported Maricella refused to put a blanket back inside her cell. Staff told her to go back to her cell for a 15-minute “time out,” and she resisted. Staff then decided to force her into her cell as she flailed and punched. She was charged with battery by prisoners and disorderly conduct.

After that, there was little talk in court about finding a treatment center for Maricella.

She continued racking up charges. The time she was facing in jail kept stretching further ahead.

‘This is why I want to kill myself’

Four months before she died, Maricella was having frequent nightmares and flashbacks. She had been asked to testify against Hooks, which she was willing to do, but she was anxious about seeing him in court. 

When staff forced her into her cell after an argument with another inmate, she slid under the bottom bunk and wrapped material around her neck. Staff found her unconscious. They cut the material, and Maricella awoke, gagging and coughing.

Maricella told a responding sheriff’s deputy at the hospital she needed “extra help and support that Juvenile Detention is unable to provide,” records show. 

At the emergency room at All Saints, Maricella told staff that “she felt her meds aren’t helping and that she is sedated all the time,” hospital notes state.

Hospital staff decided to admit her for a week of psychiatric treatment. They noted Maricella lacked role models in detention who could help her envision her recovery. She worried she would never get out or “really do anything with her life,” according to the notes. 

In her week at the hospital, staff noted her symptoms improved. She started participating more in group sessions, staff noted, and “provided good feedback to younger members of the group who are in a similar situation.”

Casillas said her daughter aspired to open her own center to help kids who had been trafficked. “She wanted to be the one to sit there and talk to them,” she said. “She wanted to change their life.”

But, clinicians noted, Maricella worried she would try to hurt herself again when she went back to her jail cell. In a workbook, asked to identify an important choice coming up, she wrote: “killing myself.” 

Maricella was sent back to juvenile detention after one week.

The day she returned, she attempted suicide. Two weeks later, other teens were yelling across the unit about her past, saying, “She’s in here because of prostitution,” according to staff notes. Maricella told staff she felt suicidal when people mentioned her sexual history. “This is why I want to kill myself,” she said.

A staff member notified a supervisor, who said he would contact county crisis workers, according to jail records. But the supervisor talked to Maricella himself.

“Before I entered the room to speak with her I witnessed her laughing at something on the tv,” he wrote in an incident report. “It gave me a good indication of her state of mind. I then asked her if she wanted to speak with someone and she stated that she was fine. I have nothing further to report.”

That fall, records show, staff stopped including Maricella in many group classes and activities, citing her challenging behavior. 

In an October hearing to review her placement, Judge Wynne Laufenberg, who replaced the retired Judge Ptacek, expressed concern about Maricella being excluded from activities. She asked the county services representatives how many hours a day Maricella was spending in programming. The representative said he didn’t know. 

The judge asked Maricella for any comments. Maricella said she knew she was “messing up” and tried to explain her behaviors. 

“When I get restrained I get more mad because it makes me have flashbacks of like when people did that to me,” Maricella said.

Laufenberg said Maricella’s behaviors were putting her in “quicksand” and urged her to pull herself back “in check.”

“Every time I’ve seen you I’ve been impressed with the fact that I do think you have some smarts,” she said. “And they’re just going to waste because you’re letting your behaviors rule your mind. All right?”

Maricella had been assigned a therapist, but many appointments weren’t kept. Monthly memos to Judge Laufenberg note only one therapy appointment in September and none in October. Her therapist noted Maricella had opted not to meet at least twice, and at other appointment times she was “in the midst of a crisis” or in court.  

In November, Maricella had three scheduled appointments, but records do not indicate whether they happened. Unlike previous memos, the therapist’s notes section is blank. 

During those three months, she hurt herself or tried to at least nine times. 

A journal entry by Maricella Chairez, left, describes her last visit with her family, Dec. 7, 2017, pictured right, at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center.
A journal entry by Maricella Chairez, left, describes her last visit with her family, Dec. 7, 2017, pictured right, at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center.
A journal entry by Maricella Chairez, left, describes her last visit with her family, Dec. 7, 2017, pictured right, at the Racine County Juvenile Detention Center.
Racine County Sheriff’s Office; Family photo

On Dec. 2, 2017, Maricella wrapped clothing through the holes in her bunk 4 and around her neck, according to jail records. Guards didn’t find her until another inmate started banging and yelling for staff. When staff cut the clothing around her neck, Maricella wasn’t breathing. They slapped her back until she wheezed, and they called an ambulance 15 minutes later. 

She was taken to All Saints’ emergency room but was sent back to jail less than four hours later, medical records show. 

Maricella saw her brother and mother five days later, on Dec. 7, their last visit. She called it a good day in her journal: “When I seen my brother Alex he got so big almost as tall as Me. WOW. I just want to go home so I can be with my family.” 

“I’m going crazy being in here not doing nothing I’m really missing a lot of things being in here. … But hopefully I get out soon ASAP. Well bye for now,” she wrote, drawing a heart and signing her name. 

Last breaths

Dec. 10 was tense. For three hours, an inmate had been yelling across the unit, calling Maricella a prostitute.

At 6 p.m., Maricella started yelling back. Staff warned them to stop. Around 7 p.m., after the yelling continued, both were ordered to their cells. 

Maricella was to serve one and half hours of “cell time,” according to staff reports. But investigators found she was never let out, despite isolation being a common risk factor 3 for suicides in jail.

Records show Maricella was given her medication at 9:21 p.m. At some point, she reached above her desk to cross the day off her hand-drawn calendar, hanging next to her “breath” poster. 

Posters on Maricella's wall at Racine County Juvenile Detention Center.

Posters on Maricella’s wall at Racine County Juvenile Detention Center.
Provided by Cynthia Casillas from the Racine County Sheriff Office’s investigation

At night, detention officers are required by state law to check on inmates at least every 30 minutes, at irregular intervals. They press buttons around the facility to prove it. The button by Maricella’s room was pressed at 9:34 p.m. Then 24 minutes later at 9:58. Then 44 minutes later at 10:42. 

Sometime after that, Maricella called out to her neighbors in nearby cells. She thanked them for being her friend, the inmates later told investigators. She told them she liked them. 

The next check should have been made by 11:12 p.m. But detention officers Keith Weidner and Darius Malone later told investigators they didn’t arrive until 11:38 p.m. — 26 minutes late, according to county records.

Weidner opened the door to the dayroom outside Maricella’s cell. He took one step inside the dayroom and saw Maricella in her cell. He later told an investigator he “noticed out of the corner of his eye that there was a person unclothed.”

The investigator didn’t make note of whether Weidner could tell she was dying. 

According to facility policy, guards are expected to check on inmates “regardless of whether inmates are clothed,” though male guards should announce that they are coming in before entering a female inmate’s space. Investigative reports don’t say whether Weidner tried to communicate with Maricella or ask her to put on clothes. 

Over his radio, Weidner said an inmate was unclothed and proceeded to check on others. Buttons were pressed at neighboring cells at 11:39, 11:40 and 11:41. 

After Weidner checked the last group, he left the unit so a female detention officer, Sarah Stewart, could check on Maricella’s room.

When Stewart entered the dayroom, she immediately radioed for backup. Maricella had threaded clothing through the holes in the empty bunk above her head and around her neck, as she had done before. 

Weidner grabbed the facility’s hook-shaped “911 knife” and ran to the cell, followed by Malone. Weidner cut the clothing around Maricella’s neck as Stewart held her. Maricella’s lips were blue.

Weidner smacked Maricella’s back. He searched for a pulse and listened for her breath, but he couldn’t detect either. He started CPR.

Stewart said she gave Weidner the automated external defibrillator, a machine that can sometimes shock a heart back into a regular rhythm, and she left to call 911. Weidner said Malone didn’t know how to set up the defibrillator so Weidner stopped CPR to do so. 

A reading on the machine told Weidner a shock wouldn’t be effective and that he should continue CPR. He continued until Racine fire and rescue personnel arrived and took over about 11:56 p.m., 18 minutes after Weidner first checked on her. 

Responders officially gave up at 12:16 a.m. The medical examiner arrived at 1 a.m. and pronounced her dead. 

The medical examiner drove to Maricella’s mother’s house along with four personnel from the Racine County Sheriff’s Department. He and two investigators walked up her front steps sometime after 1 a.m. Casillas let them inside. 

The three men told her Maricella had died in an apparent suicide. Casillas would later tell the Journal Sentinel that they left out key details, like the delay in checking her cell. 

“They never told me about them being late,” she recalled. 

Unanswered questions

Five days after Maricella’s death, Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave’s office issued a news release stating that a death occurred in the juvenile jail on Dec. 10. 

The release quoted Hope Otto, director of human services: 

“We are devastated. We consider kids in our juvenile detention program like family. … The Human Services Department is committed to using the most robust review process to ensure that we are doing everything we can to learn from this event and prevent tragedies like this from happening again.”

Later, Racine officials would tell the Journal Sentinel that they made some changes after Maricella’s death, including increased staffing. They removed bunk beds from some rooms that were designated for inmates on suicide watch or close observation but did not remove bunks from other rooms. Maricella wasn’t on suicide watch when she died. 

Officials have not allowed the Journal Sentinel inside the facility. They would not tell the newspaper whether anyone was disciplined after Maricella’s death, did not acknowledge failures that were revealed in records, and did not answer questions about her care, citing privacy concerns. 

At one point, M.T. Boyle, Delagrave’s chief of staff, said the questions were “reaching to the point where it feels more like a deposition than an interview.” 

The Racine County Sheriff’s Department investigated 5 the death, but its report left crucial questions unanswered, such as why guards were late to check on Maricella. Racine officials also paid a private company in Tennessee, Collaborative Safety, to review the case but has not disclosed some key findings in that report.

Racine officials will soon oversee more young inmates from across the state. Wisconsin lawmakers recently gave them more than $40 million to build a large facility as part of a replacement plan for Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, the state’s troubled youth prisons.  

After Maricella died, Casillas went to Burlington Coat Factory, Maricella’s favorite store.

“Having to look for an outfit to get buried in was the worst feeling ever,” Casillas said. 

Casillas picked a red lace dress. She added a gold necklace and gold crown. Stuffed animals and a letter from Maricella’s brother accompanied her in a pink casket. 

“I was better off looking for my runaway child,” Casillas said, “instead of burying my child.” 

Shortly after Maricella died, another teen at the jail picked up a book at the facility’s library. Inside was a piece of paper with a message from Maricella, addressed to no one in particular.

“Don’t listen to what you hear or see about me,” she wrote. “Just know I’ve have scars no one can see.”

This note, written by Maricella, was found in a book at the Racine County Juvenile Detention library shortly after she died.

This note, written by Maricella, was found in a book at the Racine County Juvenile Detention library shortly after she died.
Photo courtesy Amanda Eckblad

Rory Linnane reports on public health. Contact her at (414) 801-1525 or Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane


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