Yulma Violette with her children Lauren (left) and Sarah.
Yulma Violette with her children Lauren (left) and Sarah.

How Did a Phoenix Mom Hang Herself in the Back of a Police Van? Suicide Detailed in Newly Released Report

Phoenix police were aware that 39-year-old mother of four Yulma Violette was distraught, had been drinking, and had attempted suicide previously, when she hung herself in police custody during the early morning hours of October 12.

But officers didn't search her properly, according to a recently released Phoenix police report, failing to discover and confiscate a shoestring that Violette tied around her neck in a police van during a 17-minute ride to the Phoenix Police Department's central booking facility.

The slight woman, 5'8" and 110 pounds, had been arrested earlier in the evening for criminal damage and aggravated assault at the home of her ex-husband.

She was handcuffed behind her back on the ride to central booking, but police believe that she somehow freed her right hand, threaded the shoelace through a grate near the front of the vehicle and tied it around her neck.

That's how officers found her, the report says.

They cut her down and performed CPR. She was transported to St. Luke's Medical Center in Phoenix, where she died a few days later.

Portions of the Phoenix Police Department's investigative report were released this week along with several crime scene photographs. The report lacks conclusions, and does not include the medical examiner's findings, which have yet to be released.

A crime scene photo of the aftermath of Violette's attempted suicide.
A crime scene photo of the aftermath of Violette's attempted suicide.
Phoenix Police Department

Phoenix police spokesman Vincent Lewis told New Times that an internal investigation into the incident remains open. He confirmed that Phoenix police regard this as an "attempted suicide," because Violette died later at the hospital, not at the scene.

Interestingly, according to a supplement to the report, one officer visited St. Luke's on the afternoon of October 12 to check on Violette's status, stating that he spoke with nursing staff and learned that "Violette was showing limited brain activity and was not expected to survive her injury."

The Phoenix mom's death recalls the 2007 death of New Yorker Carol Gotbaum in Phoenix police custody after she was arrested at Sky Harbor Airport for causing a ruckus when she was not allowed to board her plane

Gotbaum was left in a holding cell, handcuffed and restrained by a leg iron.  She was found non-responsive. Somehow, she strangled herself with her restraints.

The Medical examiner's verdict? Accidental hanging.

Gotbaum's family ultimately settled a wrongful death suit with the City of Phoenix for $250,000.

A spokesman for the city told me that as of press time, Phoenix has no record of receiving a notice of claim regarding Yulma Violette's death. A notice of claim is a demand letter, a precursor to a lawsuit, which must be received by a municipality within 180 days following the incident involved.

Despite similarities with the Gotbaum case, there seems nothing accidental about Violette's death.

The final hours of Violette's life began on the evening of October 11, when Phoenix police responded to a call at the residence of Violette's ex-husband, Lawrence.

Lawrence said his ex-wife came to his house and at some point, grabbed the keys to his car and tried to take off, damaging sago palms on his property in the process.

He the told police that he reached into the car and grabbed her hands to keep her from driving away. He said she picked up a screwdriver in the vehicle and tried to stab him.

The cops initially seemed skeptical of Lawrence, according to the report, because there was a big size difference between him and his wife, but Lawrence had cellphone video to support his claims.

The inside of the van Violette was found hanging in after a 17-minute trip.
The inside of the van Violette was found hanging in after a 17-minute trip.
Phoenix Police Department

When police tried to detain Violette, she ran toward the residence, saying she wanted to see her kids. She ended up slamming a door on one of the officers, racking up another charge: aggravated assault on an officer.

While the police were taking Violette into custody, the report states, Lawrence served Violette with an order of protection he had obtained from Maricopa County Superior Court on September 26, ordering her to stay away from him and their children.

The petition for the order cites three separate incidents involving his ex-wife's drinking, including an arrest for DUI. It also gives examples of physical and verbal abuse by Violette, and makes allegations of drug abuse.

Lawrence told the police about the couple's contentious history, according to the report, relating that their arguments had "turned physical" before.

"About two weeks ago, they got into an argument," the report states, paraphrasing Lawrence. "Yulma bit him on his left arm and you could still see the mark. Lawrence also stated Yulma had just gotten out of the hospital last week where she was being treated for an overdose."

That's not the only part of the report that indicates Violette may have had suicidal tendencies.

One of the arresting officers, Dallas Morris, told investigators that Violette "made no suicidal comments" to Phoenix police officers. But Morris said she did hear Violette make a comment about suicide to Phoenix Fire Department officers, who had arrived at the scene of Violette's arrest to examine her shoulder for injury.

"Fire asked [Violette] if she had any past medical problems and she said suicide attempt," Morris told investigators.

Morris and other officers saw that Violette had resisted arrest, demanding to see her children.

Phoenix cops also say they smelled alcohol on Violette and she admitted that she had been drinking. Lawrence's girlfriend told police the evening had started out with her, Lawrence, and Violette "having drinks together inside of the house."

A police photograph of Violette's property, confiscated at the Phoenix police northern command station.
A police photograph of Violette's property, confiscated at the Phoenix police northern command station.
Phoenix Police Department

After her arrest, Violette was taken to the police department's northern command station at 302 East Union Hills Drive. Though Lawrence informally served his ex-wife at his house, Morris then formally served the order of protection on Violette, telling her that her daughters were on the order and that it covered several addresses.

Morris asked Violette for her personal property and the shoestrings from her black Converse sneakers. He told investigators that she did not take the laces out of Violette's shoes herself. Rather, Violette placed her jewelry and shoestrings in Morris' hand.

The officer acknowledged  to investigators that she did not separate out the property and could not be sure if there had been one or two shoestrings, but she did recall that there had been no laces in Violette's sneakers.

Officer Benjamin Searles, who also responded to the domestic violence call at Lawrence's home, remembered seeing and separating out two shoestrings  in Violette's property bag.

After northern command was finished with Violette, Officers Vincent Cole and Katrina Morales  drove her in a white police van to the department's central booking facility at 3445 South Central Avenue, about 21 miles south.

Morales told investigators that she never searched Violette because Cole told her someone already had at northern command. She recalled Violette's Converse being without laces.

Cole said that he never searched the prisoner, noting that department policy prevented him from searching a female.

When they arrived, Cole and Morales found Violette with her back against the grate near the front of the van, her hands no longer cuffed. When they cut her down, they realized the thin, white string around her neck was a shoelace.

A couple of days after Violette's death, a crime scene specialist who had been photographing the contents of Violette's property bag noticed a shoelace cut into two pieces.

"The cut ends were frayed, possibly by grinding it against the concrete bench in the holding cell," the report states. "Then the ends were tied in a knot."

Photos of Violette's property show the errant shoelace as described in the report. 

Violette had been arrested more than once according to court records. Did she know enough to fake out her captors by going to the trouble of making it seem as if she had turned over two shoelaces, when she had only handed over one?

The report never directly makes this assertion, though. And Lewis declined to speculate on it.

A message left for Lawrence at his work was not returned by press time. However, a website memorial in his ex-wife's honor, mommyviolette.com, indicates that she was loved and is missed by family and friends.

The site is filled with photos of Violette and her children in happier times, and with tributes from those who knew her, such as her ex-husband.

"[S]he was a loving and charming person whom everyone adored, active mother, active community member," reads one remembrance, adding, "She had a smile that would make anyone feel as though they didn’t have a care in the world."

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