Family struggling with anger after woman’s death at North Lawrence campsite

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Post updated at 12:45 p.m. Sunday, March 26:

Ashley Sawyer’s family members learned that she died this week, but rather than sit with their loss, they are processing feelings of anger and confusion resulting from the police department’s failure to notify them properly. 

They are also disillusioned by the city’s lack of engagement with camp residents and a city staff member’s decision Tuesday night to order a Lawrence Times reporter to leave the North Lawrence campsite for people experiencing homelessness, when camp residents were the ones who had notified a reporter that Ashley had died. 

Camp residents found Ashley in her tent in North Lawrence just after 8 p.m. Tuesday night. Police knew her identity that night, but failed to inform her family over the course of the next two days. Ashley’s parents did eventually find out — but not from police. 

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Ashley’s last night

The last time anyone saw Ashley was either Friday or Saturday night, March 17 or 18. She stayed up until midnight waiting on a propane refill from camp leader Vance Swallow. Swallow and Ashley had shared a romantic relationship for six months, but had stopped seeing each other. 

That day, they’d argued, and Ashley had said she’d planned to head to Burcham Park. The spat resolved itself, but Swallow and others would remember Ashley’s claim that she planned to leave the site when they didn’t see her over the next couple of days. 

Waiting on the propane, Ashley took refuge with her friend Connie Oldman, who also stays at the support site. 

“I had heat in my tent, so she was in my tent with me,” Oldman said. “We all covered up and then I have this big speaker. We were playing music, like old ‘90s, 2000s … I’m so happy about that because she had a good night. She was warm. We were laying in my bed together.” 

Ashley struggled with substance use disorder. She drank alcohol with such regularity that going without sent her into seizures and triggered hallucinations, her family said. That night she swigged on a bottle of vodka, not her usual beer. She ate little. 

Oldman was struck by how thin her friend had become. Ashley had worn layers through winter. With the shift into warmer temperatures Ashley jettisoned the sweatshirts for a mere T-shirt and jeans, revealing a sharp collarbone and thin arms. 

“She was … malnourished,” Oldman said. 

Ashley was back in her layers because of the cold snap that night. 

At about midnight, Ashley shuffled off to her tent, and another friend set her up with a heater. She zipped up her tent and eventually curled up into a ball on the floor, under her cot. The floor in Ashley’s tent hadn’t been placed properly and gusts of wind blasted through when it was cold. 

Over the next couple of days, a camp resident or two would pop their heads in to check on Ashley, but they wouldn’t see her and they assumed she’d left for Burcham. The tents are not well lit, even in the daytime. 

On Tuesday night, a new person came to the support site needing a place to stay. He came to Swallow, saying the city workers were not able to provide him a tent. Swallow suggested he stay in Ashley’s tent, since he’d thought Ashley had left for Burcham Park. 

When that person went into Ashley’s tent, he moved some clothing that had been obscuring Ashley’s body. Seeing her foot, he left. 

“Please come check in Ashley’s tent. There’s someone curled up under the (cot),” he said. 

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A camp resident named Devan jumped up and darted to the tent to check. A commotion followed as the news spread across the camp. 

Swallow went into Ashley’s tent, saw her, and retreated. He collapsed onto the gravel and sobbed. 

A camp resident called the police, and officers arrived. Oldman said she told a police officer she had found Ashley’s (step) mother on Facebook. She asked if she should contact the family to let them know. 

A police officer told her not to, that they needed to make sure it was done properly. 

“When reasonably practicable, notification to the next of kin of the deceased person should be made, in person, by the on-scene supervisor,” the Lawrence Police Department’s death notification policy states. 

To ensure that happened, officers would find and notify the family themselves. Only they never located Ashley’s family. Instead, the family found out organically and contacted the police with questions. 

Telling the family

Greg Sawyer read an article about a woman who had died at the support site online, but police had told media the woman was 36. 

He immediately started to convince himself the age was wrong, that Ashley wasn’t 36. That it couldn’t be her. Ashley was 35, he thought; she would have turned 36 in April. 

“I knew when I saw it in the paper that that could have been Ashley. I knew that. But (it) said 36, and I knew she wasn’t 36, so it wouldn’t match,” he said. 

Worried the article had gotten the age wrong, the Sawyers braced themselves Tuesday night, dreading the sound of a knock or the ring of a phone. But no one knocked. No one called. The next day passed; still no news. 

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Lawrence police patrol vehicles sit at the North Lawrence camp for people experiencing homelessness, March 21, 2023.

Assured that it wasn’t Ashley, Greg went to see his daughter at the support site on Thursday morning. He knew right where her tent was, but there had been a few more tents thrown up and he didn’t want to knock on the wrong one. 

So he asked another camp resident to identify her tent — the tents were no longer numbered, as they had been when Jennifer Adams and Swallow had been overseeing the camp. 

“You know Ashley?” he asked. “I know one of these is her tent, can you tell me?” 

Instead of showing him where his daughter slept, the woman told him his daughter was dead. 

“I wasn’t going to get back in the truck and try to drive,” he said. 

He sat at the picnic table. 

“I couldn’t find the police number on my phone, so I just dialed 911. I got the dispatcher on there. I don’t know. I started yelling. I wanted to know where my daughter was.” 

The dispatcher said she would send an officer to the site. So Greg stayed at the table and waited. And waited. 

Around noon, an officer showed up, but he didn’t come into the camp. Greg walked to him. 

And a police officer finally confirmed that Greg’s daughter was dead.

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When he asked why no one had notified him, the police said “they hadn’t identified her yet, something to that effect, so they didn’t know who to notify,” Greg said.

Greg called the coroner from a number the police provided and discovered that the police had known his daughter’s name for two days. When he brought that up to the police later, he said, they told him that an officer had thought that a woman at the support site was Ashley’s sister, so he’d considered that notification enough. (She was not.)

Had the police asked for this woman’s ID? And why wouldn’t they also have notified the parents? The Sawyers had a slew of questions, but no answers. 

Even though Greg had to call the police himself, LPD still technically followed policy by notifying him in person.

“The call to respond to Ms. Sawyer’s death at the support site came in Tuesday night and officers talked with Ms. Sawyer’s parents, in person, at the support site Thursday just before noon,” Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for the police department, said in an email Friday night. “There are several steps we take to confirm a person’s identity and notify the appropriate next of kin before releasing a person’s name to the media, as we did in this case.” 

Police posted Ashley’s name to social media just before 5:30 p.m. Thursday. 

Ashley’s family is devastated by her death but devastated further by the police’s failure to try to contact them at their home. After learning how the Sawyers found out, we tried to see if the police had had trouble finding Ashley’s family. A quick Google search found the Lawrence address to Ashley’s family home, where the family sat and talked with a reporter Friday about their experience, within minutes. 

“I don’t think anybody in this town wants that happening in their family,” Greg said. “No matter where you find a body at, whether it’s a tent in North Lawrence or a car on Mass Street, procedure should be the same. … I think you would still notify the parents or next of kin.” 

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‘Claiming that space’

On top of the police’s failure to notify Ashley’s family, there was the reality that city workers didn’t know Ashley was dead, or for how long. 

Camp residents and family members found this disturbing. Oldman speculated that city workers had walked by Ashley’s body dozens of times without realizing. They never checked her tent or asked about her, she said. And even if they wouldn’t have seen her, the important part to her friends and family is that they didn’t even try. 

“Vance used to go to each and every camp every day and look for (people), check on people, make sure they have any water, food, blankets, anything,” Oldman said. 

The city told Swallow that staff members were taking on the role of managing the camp back in February, he said. So he stepped down, and some camp residents, including Oldman, wish the city hadn’t asked him to. 

“There’s some workers who just walk around. They don’t do anything,” Oldman said. “They don’t check on people, say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Everything OK?’ They just walk around, which I don’t know what that’s about.”

The level of engagement the city has provided at the campsite has evolved since the camp’s inception. At its launch in the fall, Jenn Wolsey, former homeless programs coordinator, ordered tents numerically. And “camp mom” Adams documented everyone’s location on the program agreements she kept in an accordion folder in her tent. When someone left, she knew. 

Adams and Swallow also kept track of camp discord and would arrange the tents with intention, to reduce conflict. Now city staff allow people to set tents wherever they want. 

Staff probably didn’t even know which tent was Ashley’s, some camp residents said. Although some staff members make an effort to connect to camp residents, others clean the showers, do a cursory walkthrough, and go sit in the heated office to “play on their phones,” residents said. 

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The level of responsibility the city has claimed for people experiencing homelessness has changed over time, even since the city started the support site in September.

In February, the city would continue to strengthen its role and responsibility for camping and emergency shelter, City Manager Craig Owens said at a city commission meeting. Sanctuary camping and emergency shelter would be a long-term part of the city’s operations, he said. 

“We’re claiming that space,” Owens told commissioners last month. “We’re committing our leadership in that space, our funding in that space and we’re supporting the other pieces that institutional players will do to ensure everybody’s needs are met.” 

People who knew Ashley wonder whether the city’s decision to claim the responsibility of sanctuary camping means there should be a protocol in place requiring staff to check on camp residents — not in a draconian, authoritarian way, but in an “is everything OK?” sort of way. 

“You created this area and I’m not telling you this area is a good idea or a bad idea,” Greg said. “I’m saying you created it as the city. You took responsibility for these people. And I’m still not saying that you should have or you shouldn’t, but you did. You decided that these people are here and (your) responsibility. So are you checking to make sure they’re not laying there dead for three days or two days or what? And to me that’s a huge issue.” 

Greg and the rest of Ashley’s family have speculated on how Ashley could have died — hypothermia, alcohol poisoning, liver failure, overdose — but they won’t know the cause of death for another 10 to 12 weeks. They also want to know how long she was dead and how long she lay there without being found, and Greg is confused and angry at the city for removing the reporter who came to ask people those very questions. 

“What irritates me so much is the people getting the police to chase reporters off are the ones most likely to come out looking bad in this situation,” Greg said. “(The reporter was) asking questions. And I don’t have a police report or anything. I don’t know if they asked questions. Did they ask anybody when was the last time you seen her? Has anybody here seen her in the last day, in the last two days?”

What would motivate the city to remove a journalist from the public square where the camp residents who had last seen his daughter congregated? Greg wonders. 

“‘Get the reporter out of here, she’s asking questions’ — I don’t like that. And I’m perfectly willing to be on record saying that, but is the mayor or anybody else responsible for these people going to say, ‘Let’s not chase the reporters away and use the cops to do it?’”

We reached out to Mayor Lisa Larsen with questions for this article. She forwarded the questions to McCabe, who wrote that “The city would like to send sincere condolences to the family for their loss.” 

We reached out to Brandon McGuire, assistant city manager, with questions on staff training and whether they are expected to interact with and check on camp residents. We will follow up as we hear more. 

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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