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Case of a Soldier Who Died in a Texas Jail; Suspicious Voicemail Adds To Mystery; Climbing, Jumping Legend Dead In Yosemite Leap. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 18, 2015 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In our buried lead today, those are stories we think should be getting more attention, questions about how a young soldier who survived two tours in Iraq could not make it two days in a Texas jail. That has been an emotionally mystery for one family for more than two years

Now a video just released, one that may be hard for some of you to watch, might answer some of their questions.


TAPPER (voice-over): A jail cell window covered in wet paper and blood, the man inside shouting, thrashing against the walls.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I need you to uncover the window, please. I need to treat you for that cut you got.


TAPPER: A shocking video coming to light just now of an inmate in El Paso County, Texas, an Army sergeant, who had told police before he was locked up that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

It was July 2012 and 26-year-old Sergeant James Brown had just self- reported to the jail for a 48-hour DWI sentence. He would be dead the following morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brown, if you don't comply with what I'm asking here, I'm going to send in a team to extract you.

TAPPER: The video obtained by CNN affiliate KFOX-14 shows 20 minutes of the encounter, which the Brown family lawyer says lasted roughly an hour total.


TAPPER: The video may raise more questions than answers.

The young father was on active duty at Fort Bliss. He had survived two tours of duty in Iraq and had no prior criminal record. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on! Come on!

TAPPER: We don't know what sparked Brown's outburst, but a short time afterwards, officers in riot gear rush in to restrain him. And here is where it gets confusing. Brown repeatedly, desperately, tells the officers he cannot breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't breathe.

TAPPER: A plea he will repeat numerous times before his death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't -- I'm choking on my blood.

TAPPER: Do the officers take his pleas seriously enough?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help me. Help me.

TAPPER: Brown is eventually cuffed and carried out of his cell to the infirmary, where he's give an spit mask, and apparently sedated with two injections of lorazepam. He seems to be having trouble breathing.


TAPPER: And he is refused water until the sedative takes effect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can I please have water?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You going to calm down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. I promise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just wait a little while. OK?

TAPPER: Brown grows more frantic as he continues to tell officers he still cannot breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got to take this mask off, dude, please.

TAPPER: Do the officers give him enough medical attention, given his cries for help?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take it off. Take it off. Oh, man, dude, dude, please, take it off.

TAPPER: He's allowed to wash the pepper spray out of his eyes; 35 minutes after guards first confronted Brown, his condition appears to be getting worse. He's taken back to his cell, nude, unblinking, drinking and still seemingly short of breath.

According to Brown's family attorney, the Army sergeant was limp and unresponsive by the time he was finally taken to an ambulance. He would never regain consciousness. The sheriff's office tells CNN -- quote -- "Mr. Brown's death was an unfortunate tragedy. After a thorough investigation, it was determined that his death was caused by a preexisting medical condition." Officially, Brown's cause of death was listed at natural, the result of a sickle cell crisis that can be triggered by stress. But Brown's widow and mother have taken the case to federal court, where it is pending litigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please. I already told you earlier I have (EXPLETIVE DELETED) problems, dude.

TAPPER: This newly released video could have a big impact if it is allowed into evidence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please take it off.


TAPPER: That's an Army sergeant with post-traumatic stress that you're watching right there.

Joining me now is James Brown's mother, Dinette Robinson-Scott.

First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Our deepest condolences to you and your family.

You said that your son contacted you after he voluntarily turned himself in because of this DWI charge and he contacted you because sheriff's wanted to keep him longer than he was supposed to stay locked up. How did he sound when you talked to him?

DINETTE ROBINSON-SCOTT, MOTHER OF SOLDIER WHO DIED IN JAIL: He sounded a little frustrated that they were not allowing him to leave in the two days, or that they stated he couldn't leave in the two days.

But he thought the issue was resolved once we were going to pay the court fine, so that he could go ahead and leave.

TAPPER: Now, I know you have not watched the entire video. In fact, we did not play the sound for you. We killed the sound out of your ear because it was so painful for you to even hear it. There is one small part that you have watched.

I do want to ask you, though, at the beginning of the video, there seems to be this moment where your son is angry. He's in the cell. He seems to be maybe even hurting himself. Did his post-traumatic stress or any other issues ever cause him to have any displays of anger?


I honestly believe something was done to him to make him upset when he was in that cell alone, because you have to remember, he was in a holding cell with other inmates and was taken out. So, in between that period of time, I believe they really did something to him that upset him, because it took a lot to get him upset.

[16:40:00] TAPPER: Given the amount of time that passed between his calls of

distress, he can't breathe, he can't breathe, take the mask off, he needs some water, I have a problem, you can't do this, and the time when he ultimately finally got some medical attention, given that time, you think the guards are ultimately responsible for your son's death; is that right?


TAPPER: Now, the police department released a statement. We heard part in the piece, but I want to read full the statement.

It says -- quote -- "Mr. Brown's death was an unfortunate tragedy. The sheriff's office has conducted a thorough review of the facts surrounding Mr. Brown's death and based upon all the evidence obtained determined that his death was caused by a preexisting medical condition. The specific evidence cannot be discussed because of pending litigation" -- unquote.

What's your reaction to that?

ROBINSON-SCOTT: It's -- it's absurd.

My son did have the sickle cell trait, but he did not have the disease. Natural causes? There was nothing natural about the way that he died. If he was to have a crisis, he would have had to have been in a stressful, strenuous situation.

You don't have a stressful, strenuous situation sitting in a jail cell. They had to do something to him to put him in that state. There was something done. There was something provoked. You just -- that just does not happen with you sitting there.

TAPPER: And you're now calling for new laws to protect soldiers in police custody. He -- when he checked in to the police for this self- appointed DWI conviction, he told them that he had post-traumatic stress. What do you want to see come of this? What can prevent a tragedy like the one that happened to your son?

ROBINSON-SCOTT: I believe that all county personnel, anybody dealing with a soldier coming back from a combat situation, they need to be trained.

The military, they need to go through this process with their soldiers. They need to be by their side 24/7, never leaving them, always letting them know that they're there to protect them, and medical attention at all times. Had a psychiatrist or somebody been brought in to calm him down, I'm sure the situation could have been avoided.

TAPPER: All right.

Dinette Robinson-Scott, thank you so much, and thank you for your son's service. And our condolences to you and your family.

ROBINSON-SCOTT: Thank you. TAPPER: Coming up next: police looking for this person caught on

video after a family and their housekeeper are murdered in a fairly posh D.C. neighborhood just blocks from the vice president's residence. Now a mysterious voice-mail raising even more questions.

Plus, he tempted fate with each leap and each step on a tightrope, but this time, he went too far. What went wrong during a famous base jumper's final flight?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. A voicemail just uncovered now adds to this tragic mystery of four people killed in a Washington, D.C. mansion. Savvas Savopoulos left a suspicious message about his socialite wife the night before their murder.

Police say someone killed the couple and a housekeeper and 10-year-old son and then set their home on fire. Also inside the house, as I mentioned, the bodies of their 10-year-old son and the housekeeper. The murders, and arson, have rocked the posh D.C. neighborhood which is dotted with embassies and multimillion dollar homes.

The crime scene is literally steps from the vice president's residence at the naval observatory. Bill and Hillary Clinton also bought a home around the corner.

CNN's Joe Johns joins me live in the neighborhood. Joe, there are a lot of questions about the voicemail along with some very grainy surveillance video in this very tragic story.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It is a very tragic story, Jake, and if you look behind me, police are here at the house, the crime scene right now. They've been here all day processing evidence to try to determine if there was anything left that could help the investigation.

One indication police have given us is that the ordeal for this family may well have started the night before the fire was set.


JOHNS (voice-over): When firefighters got to this house in one of Washington's most upscale neighborhoods just blocks from the vice president's residence, the smoke and flames were still shooting out of the second floor.

Now the fire has turned into a case of suspected arson and a murder mystery. Police seeking to talk to this man, caught on surveillance video racing away, wearing a hoodie and carrying a large white object.

Police believe he may have been driving the family's blue Porsche that was found abandoned and torched in a Maryland suburb outside Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obviously the conditions in which is it was found, set a fire shortly thereafter they were discovered we want to know if anybody saw the car and who was in the car.

JOHNS: The victims include the CEO of a buildings materials company along with his wife, Amy a D.C. socialite and fundraiser and a young son, Philip, a student at the famous St. Aubin School

Also found in the house with the family one of their housekeepers, Veralicia Figuroa. Adding to the mystery, another employee of the family told CNN affiliate, WJLA, she received a text from Amy Savopoulos hours before the fire telling her to stay away.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know why god saved my life around 9:56 a.m. saying I want to make sure you do not come today.

JOHNS: As of Monday, the D.C. medical examiner still had not determined whether the cause and manner of death was blunt force trauma, stab wounds, smoke inhalation or something else, but police quickly called it homicide saying the victims had been attacked before the fire started.


[16:50:01] JOHNS: In that last call, the father said on the recording that his wife was not feeling well. Authorities have said there's no sign of forced entry at this house. So the investigation continues -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Joe Johns, with a very tragic murder mystery. Joe, thank you so much.

He was known for death defying stunts, wing suits jumps, tightrope walk, climbing cliffs without ropes, but this time those risks came with a very steep price. Did he foreshadow his own death -- next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. National news, he lived life on the edge, literally on the edge, and he was well aware of the risks that go with professionally leaping off very high cliffs and buildings and coming closer to being Batman than most of us, pushing the limits of human experience.

And sadly, eventually, he pushed too far. Well-known base climber and jumper Dean Potter was found dead on the ground in Yosemite National Park over the weekend after something went horribly wrong.

[16:55:12] Our Stephanie Elam is following the story live from our L.A. Newsroom -- Stephanie.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it was something that he feared as a child, that he would fall to his death, but believe it or not it was that fear that actually drove him to take on the feats that he did.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one -- see you. ELAM (voice-over): From jumping off cliffs in wing suits to high lining, Dean Potter, was an extreme sports legend and pioneer. Potter died doing what he was known for, base jumping, leaping from fixed points instead of from an aircraft.

Base stands for building antenna span and earth. In Yosemite, base jumping is illegal, but that doesn't stop people from doing it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are doing it because they love it.

ELAM: On Saturday, shortly before sunset, Potter and 29-year-old Graham Hunt attempted a base jump from Tapped Point in Yosemite, a cliff with about a 3,500 drop to the valley floor. Friends reported the two were missing that night.

Then on Sunday, a helicopter spotted the bodies of the two men. They reportedly jumped together, but were found at different locations. Neither man had deployed his parachute. Photographer Sean Rieder knew both men and says Hunt was like a brother to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Graham and Dean both were two of the best wing suit jumpers in the world. And while I think both of them never had a death wish, I think they both truly were honestly choosing to live life to the fullest, they were also both aware that what they were doing, it brought the chance of death.

ELAM: Ken Yeager, president of Yosemite Climbing Association says their community is heartbroken and devastated at the loss of both of these humble men.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Both of these guys were kind enough to take the time to talk -- to the kids around here, and they all looked up to them.

ELAM: According to his web site, Potter wanted to safely fly and land the human body unaided and the 43-year-old pushed those limits traveling around the world for his pursuits, even rock climbing without a rope or tether just a small emergency parachute on his back.

Potter recently posted a picture on Instagram, with the tag first ever free base solo. I innovated this new form of rock climbing in 2008 on the north buttress of the Igor in Switzerland. For many of his endeavors, he was known to take along a companion, his dog, Whisper. In 2014, he talked to CNN about their adventures together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like to bring my dog and my best friend with me. I want to bring my best friend with me everywhere.


ELAM: However, this was one adventure that Whisper was not a part of. I talked to one of the supervisors in Yosemite today and he said he saw Whisper walking around yesterday, but for this close-knit community, Jake, a huge tragedy to have lost both of these men.

TAPPER: All right, Stephanie Elam, thank you so much. Our World Lead now, an ice shelf at least 10,000 years old is likely to disappear by the end of this decade. This is a warning sign that scientists say is nothing but bad news for the planet. Larsen B, part of a series of ice shelves along northwest an Antarctica is likely to, quote, "disintegrate completely by 2020."

According to a new NASA study, ice shelves function as barriers. As the shelves disappear, glaciers are more likely to diminish as well potentially raising sea levels across the earth.

Two decades ago, Larsen B was about as big as Connecticut. Now it's less than half the size of Rhode Island. Scientists say a streak of warm summers likely cause the collapse.

And in Pop Culture Lead, "Pitch Perfect 2" pretty perfect to moviegoers that went to theaters that's past weekend, Anna Kendrick and company raked in a big opening weekend that's sure to have producers singing all the way to the bank.

The film topped the $70 million mark. Though I'm sure it has everything to do with a certain cable anchorman, perhaps, having a cameo in the film.

One man will dominate the pop lead later this week. David Letterman calling it quits from "Late Night" TV after 33 years. I will take your questions about this living legend. Join me for a Twitter Q&A tomorrow afternoon at 12:15 p.m. Eastern, use the #askjake.

And then if you want, watch my CNN special report "David Letterman Says Good Night." That is tomorrow night at 9:00 Eastern, here on CNN. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper and also @theleadcnn.

Check out our show page at for video and extras. You can also subscribe to our magazine on Flipboard, if you like. That's it for THE LEAD today. I am Jake Tapper. Turning you over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer, who is in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.