Inmate Dies After Being Arrested For Trespassing: State Officials Don’t Bother Contacting Family

Photos by Joe Mahoney, Richmond Times Dispatch

Photos by Joe Mahoney, Richmond Times Dispatch

(7-5-16  A second prisoner with mental illness dies after being held on a minor charge in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail, which already is being sued for negligence in another troubling death. When two investigative reporters learn about this second incident, state officials stonewall, hiding behind HIPAA which they claim prevents them from releasing any information. Meanwhile, the Office of the State Inspector General and the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, which have the authority to investigate inmates deaths, stay mute.

Thankfully, Richmond Times Dispatch Reporters K. Burnell Evans and Sarah Kleiner, who have been doggedly investigating Virginia’s mental health care system, set out to learn the identity and background of this anonymous prisoner. 

Had it not been for them, it is doubtful that anyone would have bothered to learn any information about the deceased.  Their story reveals how easily it is for individuals with mental illnesses to be marginalized in Virginia. It also raises additional questions about the leadership in state agencies that are responsible for caring for Virginians with mental illnesses. 

State fails to notify family after woman dies at Central State Hospital

DINWIDDIE, Valerie Anderson was buried as she died — quietly and alone, in the care of Central State Hospital workers.

Past the winding entrance to the hospital’s grounds near Petersburg, past the payroll building, accounts payable office and garage, her body was laid to rest June 21 in a locked cemetery bounded by shade trees and semitrailers rumbling along the northern terminus of Interstate 85.

A temporary wooden cross marks her grave. It is both peaceful and loud here, where 736 souls are buried.

Although a florist’s card at the grave marked “With deepest sympathy from Central State Hospital” bears her name, state officials at the cemetery on Friday still would not confirm the identity of the woman who died in their care on May 26, the day after she arrived from Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth.

The first denial — June 8 — launched a Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation that ultimately led to the cemetery on the hospital grounds. Through public records requests and court filings, The Times-Dispatch was able to identify Anderson and piece together parts of her life.

The Times-Dispatch also located her family, which had not been told of her death. It was a phone call from a reporter 35 days after Anderson died and 10 days after she was buried that triggered notification of her four adult children, ages 19 to 26.  anderson

It took two Times-Dispatch reporters less than six hours to find the family after a trip to Newport News Circuit Court.

“I was shocked,” Jacquelyne Anderson, 24, said in a phone interview Friday on a cross-state drive to notify her younger brother and sister of their mother’s death. “I would have liked to attend my mother’s funeral.”

A friend of the family said she made four calls to the hospital Friday hoping for answers, but no one picked up. Valerie Anderson’s first name is misspelled in a death notice posted to the website of J.L. Dodson and Sons Funeral Establishment.

“I will keep trying Tuesday,” said Julia Paul, who drove Jacquelyne and her older brother from the Newport News area to Wise County on Friday. “We will find out what happened here.”


At first, no one questioned Valerie Anderson’s weeks-long absence from the gray, vinyl-sided house on 31st Street in Newport News where she had lived off and on for several years, according to court records.

She might have moved out, neighbors said. They recalled seeing some of her belongings piled outside the house, which is owned by Upright Property Services LLC. A company representative did not respond to an interview request.

People sheltering nearby under shaded porches on a muggy afternoon last week all said they knew of her, but none knew her well. Still, they fretted when a police officer climbed the concrete steps to look for her.

No one knew how to find her family. She had two children, they thought. Maybe three. She came and went — sometimes with a boyfriend, and often leaving them with a piece of her mind.

“Miss Valerie,” as she was known, was not shy. She had invited turbulence, at times, to the two-story home across from Highway Christian Church of Christ Inc.

“Sometimes she was iffy,” said Someeka Greene, a former roommate who said she had known Anderson for the past two years.

For example, Anderson became outraged after a man placed a visibly broken television set on the curb. Anderson retrieved it, loudly insisting it was perfectly fine, and then accused another neighbor of having damaged the equipment.

“These types of things, she would say them when she wasn’t doing well and they were never true,” Greene said in a telephone interview.

“This is not the kind of neighborhood where you would want to start trouble with people you don’t know,” she added.


It was Valerie Anderson’s third arrest for trespassing on Hampton Roads Transit property that landed her in jail on May 14, the week after her 60th birthday, court records show.

Past citations had resulted in fines and a warning from a judge. This time, she was left with a $1,000 bond she could not afford to pay, records indicate.

The incidents — in 2014, 2015 and 2016 — all occurred at a bus stop near a park 2 miles from her house. She pleaded not guilty at first, then guilty. She asked a judge for consideration, which he granted.

Anderson was born Denice Valerie Pena in New York state on May 8, 1956, according to her marriage license. She had dark hair and hazel eyes and, at age 33, married a man 17 years her senior. Their first son was born five months later, according to court records.

She represented herself in court 13 years and three children later when Leonhardt Weeks Anderson III petitioned for divorce. In articulate legal filings, she said he had abandoned the family and requested proof of his income. Records show they shared custody of the children. Leonhardt Anderson died in 2009.

Jacquelyne Anderson recalled being pulled out of class at Nelson Elementary School in Newport News to a special club for the children of separated and divorced parents.

“I didn’t feel hurt by any of it,” she said. As a small child, “I never thought she wasn’t right.”


Despite neighbors’ accounts, Newport News police spokesman Lou Thurston could not find a record of an outside agency requesting that officers help search for Valerie Anderson’s family. Department detectives likewise did not recall hearing of her death.

It would have been an unusual request, he said. Patrol officers routinely will be asked to help in the notification process. If they knock on the door at a person’s last known address and can’t find anyone, he said, they will mark the request closed and move on.

“I understand this sounds kind of cold,” Thurston said, “but I don’t think there’s anything else we could do.”

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency was aware of the death but was not involved in the case.

A city officer did come by about a month ago, Greene said, but it didn’t do any good. Greene, the former roommate, turned to Valerie’s Facebook page and began sending messages to everyone with the last name Anderson.

“I didn’t say why, but just asked them to please get in touch with me,” Greene said. “Nobody ever did.”

The Facebook application sends messages from people with whom a user is not friends to a folder marked “other” that many users check infrequently, if at all.

The state medical examiner’s office says a cause and manner of death for the person who died at Central State are pending. Toxicology tests have been ordered, but she does not appear to have died of self-harm, state officials have said.

“Valerie was a really nice person when she was doing well,” Greene said. “She deserved for someone to find her people; to put her at rest properly.”


The Times-Dispatch located Paul, who at one point had physical custody of the youngest of Anderson’s children, within hours of scouring public records in hopes of learning more about Valerie Anderson’s life.

She loved classic rock and played the bass guitar — first in bands when her children were small and later at the Greater Joy Church of God In Christ.

She also incurred two dozen citations — mostly for minor traffic offenses and ordinance violations — across Hampton, Portsmouth and Newport News between 2007 and 2016, according to court records.

Among her greatest triumphs was the brief opening of a music shop in 2011, Valerie’s Gallery, on Jefferson Avenue in the Denbigh area of Newport News, Jacquelyne Anderson said.

The grand opening was set for April 1 — “no kidding,” Valerie quipped, in one of several posts to her Facebook page advertising the store. “This has always been a dream of mine,” she wrote.

Her youngest son responded to the post with plans to visit over his spring break. He took the separation hard after the four siblings went to live with their father and stepmother, first in Smithfield and then in Windsor, Jacquelyne said.

As a small child, Jacquelyne said she never saw her mother’s behavior as unreasonable.

“She would scream and yell, but I just assumed it was because we’d done something to make her mad,” she recalled.

Jacquelyne was in eighth grade when the children came home from school one day to a leaking town house and were told they would temporarily relocate — without their mother.

“We thought we were just going to live with Dad for the summer,” Jacquelyne said. “We stayed.”

Valerie would call nightly and asked to speak with her youngest son. Then the calls stopped.

What followed remains somewhat of a mystery even to her children, who knew she struggled with mental illness but were at times not aware of where she was staying or what level of care she was receiving.

“She was prescribed medicine, but I never remember seeing her take it,” Jacquelyne said. “There was no one who could make her.”

She said she explored the possibility of seeking a legal designation that would help her oversee her mother’s affairs several years ago, but became overwhelmed.

“I wanted so badly to help her, but it was just too much,” Jacquelyne said.


Mental illness often puts a significant strain on families, advocates said last week. It’s not unusual for loved ones to lose track of family members who are suffering from psychiatric illnesses.

Anderson’s court paperwork noted that she struggled with bipolar disorder, an illness that often results in extreme mood shifts marked by manic highs and depressive lows. Bipolar disorder is considered chronic but treatable.

“Quite frankly, a lot of times, bridges have been burned because the mental illness can be so difficult and has created so many challenges and posed so many barriers,” said Mira Signer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia.

Valerie Anderson popped in and out of her children’s lives in recent years, Jacquelyne Anderson said.

One time, she appeared unannounced at the home Jacquelyne and her older brother were sharing and asked if they could all go out to dinner. Another time, she surprised her family by showing up at a court hearing.

“She sounded exactly the way you would want someone who takes care of children to sound,” Jacquelyne said. “She was articulate and extremely smart.”

Then, another bout of silence.

Paul recalled placing phone calls to mental health workers and the city’s police department asking for updates or for an officer to go check on Anderson if the children had not heard from her, which was not uncommon.

“People with mental illness have rights as human beings and as patients to decide what information is released,” Paul said. “But the response we received when we reached out for help was not always what it should have been.”

Mentally ill people often fall through the cracks because there are not enough community-based programs to keep them on top of their medical needs and out of crisis, said Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia. There’s still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness, and lawmakers historically have lacked the political will to improve the system.

“If they’re under state care and they die, then someone should be able to contact the next of kin, as you would want for your own family member,” Cruser said. Failing to do so “sends the message that we don’t care.”

Jacquelyne said she received calls in recent years from a hospital worker in Portsmouth who had questions about her mother’s diet.

“If they could find me to ask about her diet, why couldn’t they find me to tell me she was dead?” Jacquelyne said.


The search for answers in Valerie Anderson’s death was launched in earnest last month after the spokeswoman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and other state officials declined to provide any details related to the transfer of an inmate from Hampton Roads Regional Jail to Central State Hospital.

The jail in Portsmouth has come under increased scrutiny following the Aug. 19, 2015, death of a mentally ill 24-year-old man while incarcerated. He died of heart problems and extreme weight loss after losing 46 pounds over 101 days at the jail, according to the state medical examiner’s office in Norfolk.

Among the information officials initially would not provide about the Central State Hospital death: the patient’s name, gender and age; when he or she was transferred to the hospital; when exactly he or she died; and when and why the person had been incarcerated.

Officials at first said the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, prevented them from providing any of the aforementioned details.

Later, they told The Times-Dispatch that the patient was female; had been arrested for trespassing; was evaluated and medically cleared on May 24 for admission to a state hospital following a mental health crisis at the Portsmouth jail; and was transported to Central State the following day. She was found dead the morning of May 26 by a hospital worker.

The HIPAA law, designed in part to protect patient privacy in the digital age, often is interpreted too broadly, experts have said.

A Freedom of Information Act request for admissions paperwork from the medical examiner’s office yielded the name of the funeral home that took remains from Central State to Richmond. The office redacted the person’s name and date of death, citing HIPAA, but a notice posted to the J.L. Dodson funeral home said a “Valarie Anderson” died May 26 and was laid to rest June 21 in a ceremony officiated by Mary Cosby.

A search of Newport News court records yielded a trespassing charge for Valerie Anderson. There were two sticky notes marked “Important” in her file: one, dated May 25, said she had been transported to Central State; a second, dated May 26, noted that she had died. The charge has since been dismissed.

“If I were her kids, I would be dismayed,” said Signer, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia. “‘Why didn’t somebody tell me this? Why didn’t somebody find me?’ because there’s a burden on the state to figure that out and, from what I’m understanding, from what I’m hearing, it doesn’t sound like that happened.”

Anderson had a personal Facebook page and was online friends with her four children. But social media sites and internet search engines are not part of the process state workers use to locate family members when someone dies in custody, according to Maria Reppas, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

“The facility does not take steps such as conducting Google searches or looking through Facebook sites to locate next-of-kin nor is it required to do so,” Reppas said in an email. “There is no way to ensure that anyone identified as being a relative on a website or on a social media site is related to the deceased individual.”

Reppas would not comment on a specific case but said typically a social worker assigned to a patient’s treatment team is designated as a state hospital’s point of contact with family members.

If the hospital does not receive a response from the next-of-kin within 10 days of notification about the disposition of the body, the state assumes responsibility for funeral expenses, Reppas said.

Signer said she was surprised to learn that patients are still buried at state hospitals.

“To have a person buried on the grounds of Central State, in my mind, it defines this person as being no more than her psychiatric illness,” Signer said. “It just feels like it’s removing the dignity of this person’s life.”


Signs of Valerie Anderson’s illness were never evident when she stepped foot behind the red doors of the Greater Joy Church of God In Christ sanctuary on Walnut Avenue in Newport News, said pastor Ronald Hardy, who recalled her as a pleasant woman who loved playing in the church band.

He said an elder in the church heard a rumor recently that she had died, but no one had any information about how it happened. They never saw any of Anderson’s children attend church with her and had no way to reach them, Hardy said.

At first, church members heard she had been found dead at home. Then they heard she died in jail. The elder called a number where he thought he could find out information about people who had died, but reached an automated message instead of a person, Hardy said. He was not sure which agency the elder had called.

Hardy did not know Anderson had died at Central State Hospital or that she was buried there until a reporter shared the information with him.

“We would have liked to have an opportunity to have something to say” when she was laid to rest, Hardy said.

Dr. Rebecca Vauter, the director of Central State Hospital, said she could not answer questions about the ceremony performed when the hospital buries deceased patients.

Large wooden crosses flank the field. A marker dedicated May 30, 1991, reads: “in remembrance of those persons who were served and buried in the campus cemetery during the early years and are known only to God. May they rest in peace.”

Vauter likewise would not confirm whether the Mary Cosby listed as the officiant in the J.L. Dodson obituary for Anderson was a hospital employee.

The Times-Dispatch’s salary database of state employees lists a Mary E. Cosby as an employee of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which operates Central State Hospital. Cosby also works in Dinwiddie, where the hospital is located.

Vauter would not discuss anything related to the death, such as whether anyone was listed as an emergency contact or what efforts were made to locate her family, citing HIPAA.

But typically, she said, when someone dies at Central State, the social worker or psychologist assigned to the patient is responsible for calling next of kin or an “authorized representative.”

Vauter said it’s rare for a patient to die at the hospital, and rarer still that someone dies without anyone listed as a contact in case of emergency. She said she had attended one funeral since coming to helm the facility in late 2014; it was not performed in the past month.


A wreath of yellow and orange flowers is perched on the fresh dirt on Valerie Anderson’s grave.

Large wooden crosses flank the field. Lines of crumbling markers bearing numbers, not names, jut out of the older portion of the cemetery. Newer graves have headstones.

“Is it open to the public?” asked Paul, on the drive to Wise County to notify Valerie’s youngest children.

Jacquelyne said she wants to visit. She will have to make an appointment.

(804) 649-6922

Twitter: @kburnellevans

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About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.