LARAMIE — In September, an inmate at the Newcastle prison died at 22 years old.
At the time, the Department of Corrections gave no indication of what killed the prisoner, Tyler Lane.
Lane had been a student at the University of Wyoming in March 2017 when he drunkenly wrecked his Ford Mustang in Laramie, killing a passenger after a high-speed pursuit with local law enforcement.
Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken sentenced Lane to a 14- to 20-year sentence for aggravated homicide by vehicle.
After the Laramie Boomerang printed a story announcing Lane’s death, the deceased’s brother told the newspaper in an email “you should have looked into the fact that somehow they can’t tell us why a perfectly healthy 22-year-old man dropped dead for no reason at all.”
The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation began an investigation into Lane’s death.
DCI Director Steve Woodson said last week that, 10 months later, Lane’s death is still an open investigation and he refused to provide any explanation of what killed Lane.
In June, a judge in Weston County approved Lane’s mother, Susan, to pursue a wrongful death action against the state of Wyoming, meaning she can “execute releases” for medical records, coroner’s records, DCI records and local law enforcement records regarding Lane.
Court filings made on behalf of Lane’s family allege Lane died by “medical malpractice” on the part of the state.
Weston County Coroner Cynthia Crabtree was responsible for an investigation — separate from DCI’s — into Lane’s death. Coroner’s investigations typically take 1-2 months to complete.
Once the investigation is completed, coroners are required to “make a written docket giving an accurate description of the deceased person, his name if it can be determined, cause and manner of death, including relevant toxicological factors, age of decedent, date and time of death and the description of money and other property found with the body.”
Under Wyoming Statute 7-4-105, that docket is explicitly a public record as soon as it’s complete. Statute requires coroners to complete a docket in a “reasonable time,” defined as “that time period necessary to complete and collect data and information from toxicology, autopsy, or other investigation procedures.”
Twenty-five days after Lane’s death, the Boomerang made a formal request to have the coroner’s docket released.
The Weston County Attorney’s Office finally released the docket to the Boomerang on July 10.
The one-page document provides no information about the manner or cause of death except to state Lane died from “an undetermined cause.”
For almost six months, Crabtree ignored the Boomerang’s request, leading the newspaper to make a second formal request for the docket March 20.
Crabtree responded by saying the “case is still under investigation” and asking if the inquiring reporter (Daniel Bendtsen) was related to Lane. Wyoming law requires coroner’s dockets to be released to any member of the public, not just family members of the deceased.
When the newspaper expressed concern about Crabtree withholding the public record, Crabtree told the Boomerang she “forwarded your concerns to DCI.”
“It is their investigation,” she said.
In reality, a coroner’s investigation is independent from other police investigations.
As elected officials, coroners in Wyoming are given legal authority that can allow them to act as a check on other governmental agencies.
For example, a coroner is allowed to convene an inquest, a judicial inquiry that allows a coroner to impanel a jury to hear evidence in a case to determine the cause of death. Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen has made it a practice to convene an inquest for all police-involved deaths.
Bruce Moats, a Wyoming attorney who specializes in Wyoming’s open records laws, told the Boomerang he knows of no statutory authority that would allow DCI to prevent a coroner from releasing a docket.
Nor does Crabtree, as custodian of the docket, have the authority to withhold the public record because a separate investigation is ongoing, Moats said.
Moats said he believes a court order would be the only legal way of preventing the docket’s release.
When the Boomerang asked Crabtree in April to clarify whether her own investigation and coroner’s docket were completed, the coroner demurred.
“As soon as I receive the OK to release information, I will send to you,” she said April 11. “DCI was presenting it to their attorney. I am waiting for their release.”
After the Boomerang emailed Weston County Attorney Alex Berger on July 3 regarding the coroner’s docket, Berger responded immediately and promised to provide the docket promptly.
Berger emailed the one-page docket to the Boomerang July 10.
The document reveals little about Lane’s death. It notes that he died at Weston County Health Services medical facility in Newcastle and the relevant toxicological information states that Lane had an insignificant amount of ibuprofen in his system at the time of his death.
Crabtree’s docket is not dated and doesn’t indicate when it was completed.
While Lane had been sentenced to 14-20 years in prison for the DUI wreck, he was serving his sentence in Newcastle as part of the Wyoming Boot Camp Program. The labor-intensive program run for young male inmates allows convicts to reduce their sentences after completing 180 days of physical activity and “work ethic” instruction.