A man is found dead in the Winooski River. Three days later, police announce his death to local news media. The man’s family says: they should have been told first.
On Saturday, Nov. 3, just after 9 p.m., the Winooski Police Department got a call. A technician at the Winooski One Hydroelectric Plant had pulled a body out of the water while cleaning debris near the dam. The body was male and had no identifying information. At the scene, Interim Sergeant Shawna Crump took photos before the medical examiner took custody of the body.
Early the next morning, Crump entered the deceased man’s physical description into a police database and found a photo of a 39-year-old Sudanese Vermonter named Silic Yial Nai. “The male appears to be Nai,” Crump wrote in the incident report.
A few hours later, just one and a half miles from the station, Nai’s first cousin Alex Pial got his kids ready for church. Pial and Nai had, at 7 and 8 years old, fled war in South Sudan as a group of boys. Pial recalled telling bedtime stories with Nai on their thousand-mile trek to Ethiopia.
Now, after nearly 20 years in Vermont, Pial had no idea his closest relative here had died. He would remain uninformed of his cousin’s death for two more days. When he did find out, it was from friends who had seen the news on television.
The Winooski Police Department had issued a press release about Nai’s death to local media.
“That’s what shock me,” Pial said. “I was not happy with it.”
Pial and his wife, Victoria, say the Winooski Police Department should have notified their family and community before issuing the press release.
“In our culture, back home, if something happened like that you have to approach the elders and the elders have to come and talk to the family. The closest family, whoever’s here, it would be an elder in the community to come and inform me,” Pial said. “Not a phone call, not on the news like the way I saw it and the way I learned about it.”
Americans have similar expectations around notifying next of kin when someone dies, except instead of elders, law enforcement usually makes an effort to deliver news of a death to the closest relative in person before notifying the public.
Cindy Taylor-Patch is the director of training at the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. She trains officers to make death notifications in person and in pairs.
“Your attempts to identify someone to notify should be right away,” she said, “I mean, 48 hours is too late.”
Taylor-Patch said the goal is to stop onlookers who post to social media or the press from sharing the news first. She said she trains officers only to issue a press release after notifying family, or after an effort to find family has failed. Taylor-Patch said her training does not specify how comprehensive that effort should be.
In this case, Winooski Police didn’t find Nai’s cousins even though they’d lived in the area for nearly 20 years.
“Hindsight being 2020 and knowing that Alex and that group were very close, I would obviously like to notify them first,” said James Charkalis, the Winooski Police lieutenant in charge of the investigation. "But as far as our procedures go and what our expectations for next of kin are, I wouldn't do anything differently.”
So what led the department to conclude Nai had no family in the United States?
The body was found on Saturday night at 9 p.m. Early Sunday morning, Interim Sergeant Crump had identified Nai using an internal database shared by multiple police departments.
The database listed Nai as “transient,” likely because he had recently had a run-in with Burlington Police at a homeless shelter. Nai, who Pial says suffered from paranoia and other mental health problems, had recently stopped sleeping at his Burlington apartment, although he still had access to it.
Later that Sunday, Charkalis made two calls to try to find relatives. He said he called the office of the nonprofit Association Of Africans Living In Vermont a couple times, but nobody picked up. He also called the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. They informed him Nai was not a client and said they did not know him. Charkalis did not mention a man had died.
Charkalis and the department did not reach out to any personal contacts in the New American community, nor was he aware of the nonprofit Sudanese Foundation of Vermont, the organization most likely to be familiar with Nai. He made no additional calls.
By Tuesday, three days after Nai’s body was found, Alex Pial still did not know his cousin had died. That day, an outreach worker with the Winooski Police Department got in touch with the Howard Center, where Nai was client. The Howard Center also didn’t have any leads.
Charkalis concluded that Nai had no living family in the United States.
“The last thing I wanted to do was disseminate information such as the death of someone and not personally have done the death notification,” Charkalis later said. But, Charkalis explained, he was conscious members of the public had observed the body being retrieved from the river and he was concerned about withholding the details from the public any longer. “You know my thought at the time was let's let's get this out. It's time,” he said.
For Pial and his community, this hurt.
First, Pial is a first cousin of Nai, as is another man who also lives nearby, and other relatives live in North Dakota.
Second, many of today’s 160 or so Sudanese Vermonters fled their homes as children in Sudan and don’t have “immediate family,” at least not in the United States. They consider their fellow Sudanese to be their immediate family, regardless of chromosomes.
And finally, Pial and his community had lived in Burlington for nearly 20 years. How was it possible the Winooski Police Department didn’t have the contacts it needed to find him?
“I think we can, you know, look at this as a learning experience,” said Charkalis, a month after Nai’s body was found. While he said department policies are adequate and were followed properly, the lesson may be “just to be better partners in our community.”
After Pial heard the news about his cousin, he and Charkalis met. Pial said since then, Charkalis has done his best to be helpful — but it still stings.
“Vermont is very cold. I would have run away to Arizona, or go to other state. But people have a warm heart, that’s what kept me to stay in Vermont," Pial said. "I kept saying it, 'this is my home, I'm not going anywhere.' I want my kids to give back to the community. They belong here, and we all belong here. That’s why you could have reached out to somebody else.”
Charkalis said the Winooski Police Department has made strides in recent years, working with the city’s multicultural community.
“For us to police effectively and be a member of this community, we have to be very in tune with people of other cultures,” he said.
Last week, the Winooski Police Department concluded its investigation into Nai’s death. While the autopsy report shows he drowned, whether it was an accident or suicide remains unknown.