Shantell Fields had not heard from her daughter all day. “Are you OK?” Fields texted. “Please let me know.”
Her texts and phone calls went unanswered, so on the evening of Dec. 13, she and her son went to her daughter’s apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and found a note on the door.
“If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number,” the note read. Fields called and waited by the car. Soon, the landlord came downstairs.
“I started panicking,” Fields said, choking back tears. “All I could do was just stand there, like if I was frozen. I could not believe what he was telling me, that my baby was gone.”
Fields’ daughter, Lauren Smith-Fields, had been found dead the day before. Fields said the Bridgeport Police Department never informed her family about the death.
The landlord gave them the number for a detective, who told her son in a phone call that Smith-Fields, 23, had been on a Bumble date with an older man before she died. But the detective provided little additional information, Fields said, and hung up abruptly during a subsequent phone call.
The family had to beg the detective to collect evidence found in the apartment, their lawyer said. The detective also told the family not to worry about the man who had been there that night, saying that he was “a really nice guy,” Fields said.
“My daughter’s laying there dead, and he gets to walk away,” she said.
The man, whom The New York Times is not naming because he has not been charged with a crime, spoke to the authorities when they arrived on the scene Dec. 12, the day Smith-Fields was pronounced dead.
Police would not say whether he had been taken in for questioning or if he was considered a person of interest in the case. His lawyer said he cooperated with the police that day and declined to comment further.
Smith-Fields graduated from Stamford High School and was studying physical therapy at Norwalk Community College. She was active on social media, posting about beauty and travel.
Weeks passed after her death, her family said, with few updates provided by the authorities. On Sunday, which would have been her 24th birthday, they were joined by friends, community members and activists as they marched to the Bridgeport mayor’s office, demanding that something be done. They had a cake, sang “Happy Birthday” and released pink and red balloons into the sky.
Following the march, the mayor, Joseph Ganim, made what appeared to be his first substantive remarks about the case. He confirmed an earlier statement by the Police Department that the handling of Smith-Fields’ death was being investigated by the Office of Internal Affairs. A spokesperson for the police said that the detective who had spoken to the family, Kevin Cronin, had been moved off the case.
“Death notifications should be done in a manner that illustrates dignity for the deceased and respect and compassion for the family,” Ganim said.
Smith-Fields’ family has said they plan to sue Ganim, the police chief and several detectives. They filed a notice of intention last week, arguing that the Police Department violated the Civil Rights Act by failing to provide Smith-Fields and her family due process.
As attention increased on the case, galvanized by social media, the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Monday released the cause of Smith-Fields’ death: an overdose of fentanyl combined with prescription medication and alcohol. The office ruled her death an accident.
A day later, in response to the medical examiner’s findings, the Bridgeport Police Department opened a criminal investigation into the death.
More than 1,350 people died from drug overdoses in Connecticut in 2021, according to state data. Fentanyl was the most common drug involved in those deaths.
“The Bridgeport Police Department continues to treat the untimely death of Lauren Smith-Fields as an active investigation,” Rebeca Garcia, the chief of police, said in a statement.
Darnell Crosland, the family’s lawyer, believes the criminal investigation should have been opened as soon as Smith-Fields was found dead.
“We thought from the beginning that there was foul play here,” Crosland said.
He added, “When you launch an investigation, that investigation must start with and include the last living person that reported the death of the other person.”
The slow response from law enforcement and delayed news coverage of the death of Smith-Fields, who was Black, has renewed conversation around “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a phrase, coined by PBS anchor Gwen Ifill nearly two decades ago, that describes the attention paid to white women who appear to be in harm’s way while Black women in similar situations are often ignored.
“After the Gabby Petito case, I felt, just from my perspective, that we were starting to see more equitable coverage,” said Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State University. Petito was a 22-year-old white woman who went missing last September and was later found to have been strangled to death. Her case had the media transfixed.
“But then Lauren’s case happened and I saw that really it was the family and social media that were keeping this case going, that were keeping the interest going, and it was disappointing,” Slakoff said. “The family deserves the space to grieve, and instead they are, in this story, trying to get justice for her.”
A Bumble date that ended in a death
The bulk of the information the family has received about the death of Smith-Fields comes from an incident report by the Bridgeport Police Department.
According to those records, her date, who is 37 and white, told investigators that he had first connected with Smith-Fields on Bumble, a popular dating app. She invited him over to her apartment after three days of chatting. On the evening of Dec. 11, they ate food, drank tequila with mixers, played games and began to watch a movie.
At one point, he told investigators, she went outside to meet with her brother, and when she returned, she went to the bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes.
Her date told investigators that they continued to watch the movie, and Smith-Fields then fell asleep on the couch. He carried her to her bedroom and fell asleep beside her, he said, adding that when he woke up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom, she was asleep and snoring.
But when he woke up again at 6:30 a.m., “she was lying on her right side, blood was coming out of her right nostril onto the bed, and she was not breathing,” he told investigators. He called 911.
“He was trembling and visibly shaken,” the responding officer, Carla Remele, said in the report. She found Smith-Fields lying on her back on the bedroom floor. Smith-Fields wasn’t breathing, and she had dried blood in and around her right nostril, according to the police report, which also noted that $1,345 in cash was found in the apartment.
In the apartment, a pill and bloody bedsheets
When Fields arrived at her daughter’s apartment Dec. 13, the landlord put the family in touch with Cronin.
“My son talked to him, and he was asking him what happened,” said Fields. “Cronin said that she met a white guy on Bumble, ‘but don’t worry about that, he’s a really nice guy.’”
The family waited for Cronin to arrive, but after repeated calls, they went inside the apartment to pack up Smith-Fields’ belongings. They found a used condom, a pill and bloody bedsheets.
“I looked, and I just broke down,” Fields said. The family asked the Police Department to collect the evidence and begin an investigation, starting with the man Smith-Fields was on a date with.
Bumble does not initiate investigations; it only works alongside the authorities. A spokesperson for the company said law enforcement had not requested data in the case as of Thursday afternoon.
“As the circumstances around Lauren’s untimely death are still under investigation, our team has offered our full support to Lauren’s family as well as the Bridgeport police,” Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd wrote in an Instagram post.
Maria Pereira, a City Council member who represents Smith-Fields’ district, wondered how the Police Department would treat a wealthy white mother and father who had lost their 23-year-old daughter, particularly if the last person she had been with was a 37-year-old Black man she had met on a dating app.
“I believe wholeheartedly this would have never happened if it was an affluent white family’s daughter,” said Pereira.
The hashtag #laurensmithfields has been viewed more than 27 million times on TikTok. In videos about the case, amateur sleuths have tried using the police report to piece together what happened and have encouraged viewers to call both the Bridgeport mayor’s office and the Police Department. They lambasted national media outlets for not covering Smith-Fields’ death sooner.
Her friends have used the platform to post videos of Smith-Fields, showing her smiling, dancing and joking around. “Sometimes when things get reported, you forget that a person had a whole life beyond what happened to them,” a user commented on one of the videos.
Rapper Cardi B tweeted about Smith-Fields too, writing, “Connecticut you have failed that young lady!!”
Smith-Fields’ family hopes that the investigation will provide some clarity about what happened to her. In the meantime, they’re replaying their memories. Fields recalled the “mommy-daughter” days when they would get their nails done, with Smith-Fields opting for acrylic nails with intricate designs.
“The nail salon we go to, everybody loves her,” Fields said, adding that her daughter was “very bubbly” and a “hugger.” She loved traveling, working out regularly at a nearby LA Fitness, and ordering matcha tea.
She had notes around her mirror, her mother said, spelling out what she wanted to do with her life: finish college, become a physical therapist.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.