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Fieger alleges coverup in woman's Harper Woods jail death

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger said Harper Woods police allowed an African-American woman found dead in the department's jail to suffer for "hours and hours" and later concealed and destroyed evidence related to her death.

Priscilla Slater

Fieger, who is representing the family of 37-year-old Priscilla Slater, said Thursday during a news conference that the cause of the woman's death has not been released by the Wayne County Medical Examiner but that the circumstances were covered up.

Slater was taken into custody by Harper Woods police June 9 following a report of shots fired at the Parkcrest Inn in the 20000 block of Harper.

The next day, she was found dead in her holding cell at a police precinct. Authorities have released few details about her death or arrest.

Fieger said the woman died around 12:30 p.m. June 10 but that her family was not notified until six hours later.

Harper Woods' acting city manager announced Wednesday evening that a police deputy chief and patrol officer have been fired in connection with Slater's death.

 Deputy Chief John Vorgitch and Officer Michael Pineau were "immediately terminated" as a result of an investigation by the Michigan State Police, John Szymanski said.

"Unfortunately, our city has discovered that members of its Police Department attempted to conceal and manipulate evidence in the 'in custody death investigation' of" Priscilla Slater," the acting city manager said in a statement.

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger

First Lt. Mike Shaw, a spokesman for Michigan State Police, confirmed the investigation is continuing but could not provide further details on when it would be completed.

Fieger said he hopes the pair will be criminally prosecuted.

"We're hoping that the prosecutor will bring charges for obstruction of justice and concealing evidence against these two individuals and more," he said. "It's obvious from our investigation that Slater was in need of medical care ... was denied medical care ... was ignored until her death. And when she did die, the people at the Harper Woods lockup tried to cover up the facts and circumstances of her death."

The union that represents Harper Woods patrol officers has filed a grievance on Pineau's behalf, said Dave Willis, director of labor services for the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council.  

“We don't believe that he has done anything wrong," Willis said. "Mike has been totally cooperative with the department, as well as the investigation with the Michigan State Police. He spoke freely with the State Police and provided them with a statement during their investigation and we think that once all of the facts and everything comes out, Mike will be vindicated.”

Willis said Pinenau is distraught because he was “truthful, cooperative and forthcoming” and did not expect to be terminated.

“He does not feel he has done anything wrong. There was no coverup. He was doing his job and what he was instructed to do” Willis told The Detroit News.

Fieger said he has met with the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office and is still awaiting results on the cause and circumstances of Slater's death. He said he also has met with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. 

"People don't conceal this type of evidence unless they've done something wrong. It's clear that they did something wrong with regard to Priscilla Slater," he said. "I suspect what they did was deny her medical care and treatment for hours and hours and let her suffer for hours and hours. I suspect it's so bad that they were willing to conceal, and destroy and hide evidence, and that's pretty bad."

Fieger said the evidence "may have something to do with the positioning of her body ... with the condition of her body."

Slater's death has prompted numerous protests in Harper Woods by community groups.

Shaqualla Johnson holds up a sign during a march for Priscilla Slater, who was found unresponsive in her cell while in Harper Woods Police Department custody and later pronounced dead, throughout the streets of Harper Woods, Michigan  July 15, 2020.

Fieger said he plans to file a lawsuit in the matter.

"They were concealing something that had been done wrong," he said. "I think when light is finally shown on this, we'll see that Priscilla was in need of medical care. We'll see that she could have been saved had she gotten to a hospital. I'll bet you ... they ignored her to death, literally let her suffer and die in the  cell and provided no care and treatment.That's torture. Maybe they didn't kneel on her neck. ... You're done exactly what the people who have been accused in the George Floyd case of doing."

Fieger said Slater's family was not surprised at the firings of the police officers because "they knew something was wrong."

Jasmin Barmore contributed.