Teen death in van: Family storms out of city hall after councilman 'crossed the line'

Kyle Plush was a sophomore at Seven Hills School, a K-12 private school in Cincinnati's Madisonville neighborhood. (7hills.org)
Kyle Plush was a sophomore at Seven Hills School, a K-12 private school in Cincinnati's Madisonville neighborhood. (7hills.org)
Councilman Wendell Young (FOX19 NOW)
Councilman Wendell Young (FOX19 NOW)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Kyle Plush's family patiently sat in the front row through five hours of testimony at a City Hall meeting Tuesday as Cincinnati leaders sought answers in the death the 16-year-old boy who called 911 twice pleading for help but died without it.

Then, the grieving family stormed out with one of them saying Councilman Wendell Young "crossed the line."

Young said in his closing remarks: "One the day you lost your son, it seems to me everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. "I don't know that any level of finger-pointing or witch-hunting is going to change that."

Then, a few minutes later, he added: "I suspect that there will be attempts to do what the law allows to be done to try to, in some way, to make up for what happened with you. But there's no amount of money that's going to make you happy. There's no amount of..."

Kyle's father, Ron Plush, called out: "This isn't about money!"

He wiped tears off his face.

Young kept talking "I believe that there's no amount of blame that's going to make the situation better. So I think at the end -"

Kyle's uncle jumped up and yelled: "You know what, stop this right here. This is the most insensitive thing I've ever heard! You guys were doing wonderful til this guy started talking. I'm tired. You've crossed the line! You have crossed the line."

Kyle's father, uncle and two other relatives stalked out.

The exchange visibly shook council members.

Councilwoman Amy Murray became emotional, turned her chair away from the audience and cried.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, who called for Tuesday's meeting as chairman of Council's Law & Public Safety Committee and lined up the agenda of speakers, also got tears in his eyes.

"It's painful," he said, "to see the family leave these chambers that way. It's very disheartening. I think the family had it right. I think they left here with the sense that we weren't going to get it right.....Let's get it right."

The sad end to the meeting capped off testimony from several witnesses - former and current city and police employees - who recounted a litany of problems with the city's 911 system.

Council members apologized to the Plush family at the start of the meeting.

On Wednesday, Young said it was not his intent to offend the family.

"Sometimes it's not so much of what you say, it's where you say it. Their feelings are still very, very raw For a moment I forgot to take that into consideration so I am really, really sorry that I hurt them," the councilman said.

Cranley said the city owes Kyle's family an explanation for why police and the city's 911 system failed to save him.

"I feel blame personally, and I think we all should," Mayor John Cranley said. "Regardless of who's at fault. Things didn't go the way they were supposed to go and that is on us. I've said it to the family and let me say it again: 'I'm sorry.'"

Three investigations are underway into the emergency response to Kyle's two 911 phone calls the afternoon of April 10.

The high school sophomore became pinned underneath the third row seat of his family's mini-van, which apparently flipped, trapping him, as he reached for tennis gear, authorities have said.

At the time, the vehicle was parked in one of the lots at Seven Hills School off Red Bank Road in Madisonville.

Kyle's cell phone was in his pocket, but he managed to give it voice commands to call 911 for help, police have said.

His father found his lifeless body about five hours later, still trapped inside the van, after Kyle's mother called 911 when he didn't turn up and the father went to the school.

One of the investigations underway is by Cincinnati police but Chief Eliot Isaac released few details Tuesday amid council questioning even though it has been a week since Kyle's death.

"In your professional opinion chief, was human error a cause of what happened here?" Councilman Jeff Pastor asked the chief.

"We're trying to determine that. Clearly, something has gone wrong." Isaac responded.

The city's top cop did say he wasn't sure if the two District 2 officers who responded to Kyle's first 911 call got out of their cruisers at the school once they arrived to look around for the van Kyle said he was trapped in during his first 911 call.

Kyle got disconnected and called back, this time giving a detailed description of the vehicle, including its color and make, according to a recording of the call.

He pleaded again for help, twice saying: "This is not a joke."

But the dispatcher who answered has told her supervisors she didn't hear him, a police quality review report shows, and a Hamilton County deputy sheriff who also looked for the teen with police indicated he thought the call might be a prank.

"Cincinnati 911, what is the address of your emergency? Anyone there?" she asked Kyle, according to a recording of the call.

"I probably don't have much time left to tell my mom that I love her if I die," he responded, according to a recording of the call. "This is not a joke. This is not a joke. I'm trapped inside my gold Honda Odyssey van in the sophomore parking lot of Seven Hills....Send officers immediately. I'm almost dead....Seven Hills."

Kyle's voice trailed off.

Then, he asked: "Can you hear me?"

The dispatcher, Amber Smith, did not respond.

He gasped as the call ended, repeatedly asking "Hey Suri? Hey Suri? I'm in a gold ....Hey Suri......"

Kyle died from "asphyxiation due to chest compression" after becoming pinned by a folding seat in a 2004 Honda Odyssey minivan, authorities have said

Smith was placed on paid administrative leave for a week after Kyle's death, a customary move in such situations similar to police officers being put on leave following a death on duty.

She is scheduled to return to work Wednesday, the police chief said Tuesday, but she will not be answering 911 calls while the investigation continues and will perform administrative duties.

Smith, who has not publicly spoken yet, was honored last year for helping to track a 9-year-old girl trapped in a car while her parents overdosed on heroin.

Council members questioned why the 911 operator wasn't able to hear Kyle.

Employees current and past explained a long list of ongoing problems with a new CAD (computer aided dispatch) system that has had so many issues the city changed subcontractors last year. They described a "toxic" environment and said staffing at times was down 50 percent.

The mayor said he didn't know the 911 center was understaffed, and he learned from social media posts and media reports that some 911 employees think they are overworked.

But City Manager Harry Black reminded council and the mayor he has sent them several memos over the past two years outlining about efforts to fix issues at the 911 center.

"Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," Black told them. "But we are making progress."

However, Black and Isaac were criticized by a top police official who spoke Tuesday, one Black ousted last month who used to run the 911 center, Dave Bailey.

Bailey, a more than 30-year police department veteran, said the abrupt transfer in early 2017 of the 911 center's then-director, Captain Jeff Butler, as Butler worked to fix issues there was one of the major things that went wrong.

Bailey said Black and Isaac replaced Butler with a captain who was not qualified for the job, one who has since been transferred to another position within the department.

Captain Jim Gramke, another veteran police official, now oversees the 911 center, and began his career as a dispatcher. He was at Tuesday's meeting and gave the Plush family a sincere apology and pledged to do what he could to fix the system.

That appeared to move the family.

The day Kyle died, the dispatch center's CAD was down, forcing dispatchers to use a backup system.

That is nothing new. City and police officials have been working on the problems for the past two years, during which time they've also added new police radios and a new 911 system. Cell phone calls have been dropped at times, and staffing and training has been a ongoing issue, they explained.

It's important, said Jenny King, a computer systems analyst for the 911 center, to make sure that the city has manpower to support all the new technology it's sinking into it.

While council members continue to work with employees to learn exactly what happened the day Kyle died and how the ball was dropped, they all agreed Tuesday nothing like this can ever happen again.

"I'm saying we have a problem. Let's acknowledge it out loud and then we can ultimately put a plan together," Smitherman said.

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