Police in Elizabeth, N.J., claimed this week that the family of a Western North Carolina woman found dead at a motel there in August 2015 never contacted them with doubts about their conclusion that she took her own life, according to a report from the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
But that assertion is at odds with what members of Felicia Reeves‘ family and a Star-Ledger reporter previously told Carolina Public Press.
“I am unaware of any inquiries received from Ms. Reeves’ family regarding any new suspicions in this case,” police Lt. Daniel Geddes said, according to the Star-Ledger. “Ms. Reeves death was ruled a suicide by hanging by the Union County Medical Examiner’s Office.”
However, Reeves’ sister, Suzan Bayorgeon of Wisconsin, traveled to New Jersey in November and met with police to discuss her doubts about their findings, she has consistently told CPP since shortly after her trip. A journalist working for the Star-Ledger who was considering writing about the case, but ultimately did not do so, accompanied Bayorgeon and confirmed aspects of her account during a phone conversation with CPP in January.
CPP published a detailed investigative report on Feb. 29 regarding the disappearance of 40-year-old Reeves from Hendersonville and her death in New Jersey a few days later.
Elizabeth Police have still not responded to phone calls from CPP.
Bayorgeon and the Star-Ledger writer both told CPP that a police detective claimed he had watched surveillance footage supplied by the motel that indicated Reeves never left her room and had no visitors after she checked in on Aug. 21. But CPP’s investigation has identified doubts about this, including the presence in the room of a train ticket purchased on Aug. 23 in New York City.
Responding to the New Jersey newspaper’s article on Tuesday, Bayorgeon expressed outrage at the police statements.
“Why did I go to New Jersey?” she asked in a text to CPP. “I went to get reports and her things, but I specifically told that (Elizabeth Police) detective that I wanted things looked into. I may not have used precise wording ‘to reopen,’ but I stated to him many times that none of it made sense.”
The reporter who wrote this week’s Star-Ledger story, Tom Haydon, talked briefly with CPP by phone on Tuesday. He said he was surprised that police responded to his publication’s inquiries in this case, though their statements were limited. They did not address any of the many questionable issues about the case that were identified in CPP’s report, he said.
Bayorgeon said police were dismissive of her when she talked to them in November.
“I asked them about reopening the case,” she recalled. “The cop I talked to said it was out of his hands and (there) was no need to reopen. Why would they say I didn’t?”
Towel, sheet or curtain?
In Haydon’s article, he writes that Reeves was found hanging by a towel. But the police report, autopsy report and CPP’s original article all described her having been found with a bed sheet tied around her neck.
Asked about this discrepancy, Haydon told CPP he was unsure where he had gotten this apparently inaccurate detail. He thought it might have been just a simple mistake.
But the detail is curious because it’s not the first time family members have heard it, they told CPP prior to the publication of any articles.
When police called Reeves’ parents to describe how their daughter was found, family members said, officers offered several versions of the story that differed from the one that appeared in the written reports, which said she had been found hanging by a sheet from the motel bathroom shower rod. The first phone calls her parents received said she was hanging by a towel from a hook on the inside of the bathroom door. During at least one conversation, the parents say they were told she was hanging by the shower curtain.
The version of the account that has Reeves hanging by a sheet has also raised questions. According to the police report, a maid said she discovered the body only after cleaning the bedroom, which had been littered with beer bottles. She did not report noticing that a sheet was missing from the bed.
The family has also questioned where many of Reeves’ belongings from the room went, including large amounts of cash, jewelry and clothes. They also do not believe the mismatched clothing items in which she was found were something she would have worn, even if she was planning to take her own life.
A woman identifying herself as a manager at the Royal Motel briefly talked with CPP by phone last month. After CPP asked if she was aware that Reeves had claimed to be working as a police informant in North Carolina, the motel employee said the motel owner would have to handle any further questions. He has not responded to a request for an interview about the case. The Star-Ledger reported that motel staff told a reporter that only the police could discuss the case.
Far from recognizing the case as settled because of the autopsy’s ruling that Reeves’ died by hanging and committed suicide, the family has pointed to unexplained discrepancies with the autopsy, including inflating Reeves’ weight by 35 pounds and describing a nonexistent ovary as normal in appearance.
Editor’s note: This story was the second installment of CPP’s ongoing investigation. A third article appeared in August 2016.
CPP continues to investigate the death and disappearance of Felicia Reeves. Thanks to those who have contacted CPP already with information that may help answer some of the questions about her case. Contact Frank Taylor by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have some information related to the case that you would like to share.