A memorial set up for Coral Dawn Bernal, a Taos Pueblo woman who suddenly died in July 2020. (Photo by Tere Garcia for Source NM)
Weeks after Coral Dawn Bernal died in July 2020, her father called the lead investigator into her death for an update only to learn that the Taos County Sheriff’s Office closed the case.
Carpio Bernal said when he made the call, he thought he was just following up on a list of names and contact information he gave to the deputy Lee Totman.
The report from the Sheriff’s Office shows that on-scene investigators ruled there was no foul play, meaning they had no grounds to start a criminal investigation.
On top of that, the full autopsy report shows she died of “chronic ethanol toxicity.” Coral’s battle with alcoholism depleted her liver and caused blood issues that may have ultimately killed her.
Still, the Taos Pueblo family was not going to leave any rock unturned. They had questions about the case. They still do.
Why did Indian Health Services send Coral home after blood tests showed she had high enzyme levels that ultimately contributed to her death?
Why didn’t the U.S. Attorney’s Office notify the family that a sexual assault case where she was a victim had been dropped? She only found out when she saw the person she accused of assault in Taos shortly before she died.
Did the Sheriff’s Office contact the list of people the family provided for more information about the events leading up to the day she was found dead, July 18, 2020?
Carpio Bernal’s discovery of the case’s closure not only disturbed him, he said, it also highlighted again the pattern of negligence people routinely see when law enforcement investigates cases involving Native Americans.
“I think one of the underlying bigger issues that all of these things are sitting upon is likely based in historical trauma, racism,” Coral’s mother Rose Bernal (Skwah First Nation) said. “It’s underlying. It’s there.”
The longstanding problem resurfaced in public last week when the Sheriff’s Office issued two false statements about the case to the Taos News that the Bernals said retraumatized them years after their daughter’s death.
First, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe told the paper that the case was closed because Coral’s death was ruled an “accidental drug overdose.”
Second, Undersheriff Steve Miera said his office asked the Bernals for a list of individuals officers wanted to interview as part of the investigation. Miera told the Taos News “They never came forward with that information.”
“I gave (Totman) names of individuals, what witnesses that we have. And after that, I never got contacted again by the Sheriff’s Office,” Carpio Bernal said, while scrolling through phone records showing multiple outgoing calls to the department.
When he did get on the line with Totman, Bernal said the conversations quickly soured. “I never mentioned cocaine,” Bernal said. “And he went right to it and said nobody shoved cocaine up her nose. Nobody forced her to do that, is what he told me. And I got pretty upset by him talking to me like that.”
Coral was working on becoming sober, her family said. She had other health issues, too, that were coming to a head when she went to IHS twice in the days before she died. The second time, she was sent back home with only aspirin, her family said. And tragically, alcohol withdrawal could have also been a factor in her death.
Yes, Coral Bernal did have traces of cocaine in her system when she died. The toxicology screen shows that, and the Office of the Medical Investigator’s report says “toxic effects of cocaine” contributed to her death.
OMI spokesperson Carly Newlands said in a statement to Source New Mexico that the office reviewed the case again on Friday. “The main factors directly resulting in death were the long-term effects of excessive alcohol use, rather than substance overdose.”
Despite what the Sheriff’s Office has repeated to the regional newspaper, the OMI reports that “while cocaine toxicity played an important role in death, the toxic effects on the body from cocaine use contributed, but did not directly result in death alone.”
In short, Bernal had nowhere near the amount of cocaine in her blood that’s typically fatal, according to OMI. In her autopsy, Coral Bernal’s blood results show an insignificant amount of the drug that could not cause an overdose — even if it was enough to trigger a fatal response in her organs that were already failing her.
No alcohol was discovered. Her family said she wasn’t drinking at the time.
These facts offer a view of Coral’s life that contradict the agency responsible for investigating her death, and the Bernals are worried about the inaccurate language and character attack in the statements law enforcement made to the newspaper.
“Even in what they’re saying, that her friends are gonna read, ‘Oh Coral died of an overdose. Oh, this is what happened to her,’ which is not even true. It’s a lie,” Carpio Bernal said.
Sheriff Hogrefe did not return calls for comment about why he misclassified Coral’s cause of death in the newspaper. We will update this story if we hear back.
Undersheriff Miera did take questions about his comments in the paper that indicated somehow the family had failed to provide information to investigators looking for leads. He told Source NM he meant to say the Bernals did not reach back out to him personally, and he was unsure about the correspondence between the family and his deputies. He said he would contact Totman about the communication he had with the Bernals.
He wouldn’t comment on the statement made by Hogrefe because “I will not answer to something, to a statement that I did not make,” he said. “I’ll be accountable for what I say and what I believe and what we generate. But if I didn’t say it, I’m not going to answer it.”
Miera is slated to take over Hogrefe’s position after eeking out a win in June’s Democratic primary with no GOP opponent on the ballot. He said he would have a conversation with his current boss if he determined the statement was inaccurate, and only after he reached out to OMI so he could better understand the autopsy report.
He said he’d also consider an apology to the Bernals for the statements made about their daughter in the newspaper.
The inaccurate public statements lean into stereotypes and excuses that can plague these cases. And the damage is done. Tragically, the responses fall in line with a historic pattern of officials skirting accountability in cases where they are scrutinized by the public, according to Jolen Holgate, training and education director with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
She said law enforcement will release information about a person’s substance use disorder, criminal record or other aspects of their lives to try and diminish victims.
“I think that’s something that’s common that happens especially with Indigenous victims of crimes — more specifically, Indigenous women,” she said. “I understand that law enforcement has to do their due diligence. But at the same time, how are they ensuring that they’re humanizing the process, as well as upholding the dignity of all victims?”
It’s part of the process that leads to the perception that there can be unworthy victims, she said.
“I think they’re trying to find ways that shift some form of blame or responsibility of the person who’s the victim,” Holgate (Diné) said, “or responsibility onto the family. And that’s what I see.”
Holgate said law enforcement should approach people in vulnerable positions — perhaps having a history of enduring violence or coping with a substance use disorder — with a thorough response. Those struggles should not be a means of making anyone “appear less worthy of getting assistance from the system.”
“They’re not going to apply those processes in a comprehensive way. They’ve already made up their mind about her,” Holgate said. “They feel, with those biased feelings, that they have a so-called unworthy victim. They’re not listening to the families, and that’s just the fact of the matter.”
And 99% of the time, families who are going through panic, or loss and grief, wind up having to become their own advocates, she said.
The Bernals are now at that point. After two years of seeking justice through the law enforcement and the courts, they’ve released a 15-point action plan asking for reform of IHS, federal agencies and yes, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office.
“Our only option was to make a public statement,” Rose Bernal said. “To break our silence and inform people wanting to know what had happened to Coral.”
They initially respected the legal avenues and processes available to them, she continued, and they kept silent about the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s death.
But now, she said,
“We are compelled to shine the light on our experiences, tell our truths in our quest to seek accountability, answers and ultimately justice. In our quest, we found many barriers.”
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