HOWARD CO. — Families in Indiana now have another option when it comes to investigating the death of a loved one, including unsolved, cold and closed death cases.
A new law, Senate Enrolled Act 177, took effect July 1 that allows families to directly request Indiana State Police investigate.
Until now, Indiana State Police could only step in at the request of local law enforcement.
Two mothers, Michele Barton and Donna Bell, hope to be among the first to take advantage of SEA 177.
Both lost adult children in sudden and tragic circumstances in Howard County.
Donna Bell’s daughter Brittny, 22, died in her Kokomo home in 2017.
"Brittny is my baby girl even though she is in the ground now,” said Donna through tears. “Sorry, I've been choking up really bad."
Kokomo Police closed Brittny Bell’s case with no arrests.
Brittny’s autopsy lists cardiac dysrhythmia as the cause of death, but the coroner could not determine whether it was natural, an accident or a homicide.
Brittny Bell’s manner of death was ruled “underdetermined,” according to the coroner.
"She had bruises and her lacerations on her body,” said Donna Bell. “I believe she was suffocated to death. That's how I believe she was murdered."
Donna wants Indiana State Police to look into Brittny’s death.
"I've got the suspects, I've got a lot of proof and her case is 100 percent solvable,” said Donna. "I want them to arrest the people who murdered Brittny. She deserves justice, her babies deserve justice, we deserve justice."
Michele Barton’s son Tanner, 19, died at a friend’s home in 2012.
PREVIOUS | Mom seeks justice in Howard County cold case
“He'd be having kids by now and in his career,” said Michele. “It's just hard him not being here."
The Howard County Sheriff’s Office closed Tanner Barton’s case in 2018.
Michele Barton plans to ask Indiana State Police to look into Tanner’s death.
"I'm just ready for them to reopen it,” said Michele. “I'm hoping Indiana State Police will pick it up and reopen and actually investigate all the facts that were missed."
The Howard County Sheriff’s Office pointed to an enlarged heart and Adderall use as factors in Tanner’s death and said there was no evidence of foul play.
Autopsy and toxicology reports show Tanner had been drinking but wasn’t legally drunk at a .06% BAC.
Howard County Coroner Steve Seele submitted Tanner’s case to Forensic Pathologist Dr. Thomas J. Sozio of Central Indiana Forensic Associates requesting an independent review of the case.
In his report, Dr. Sozio found the cause of Tanner’s death was positional asphyxia, which means Tanner’s body was positioned in a way that cut off his air supply, and the manner of death was accidental.
This is a change from the original autopsy report which listed the manner of death as “natural.”
Michele said Tanner’s case is plagued with inconsistencies including the statement of his friend at the house that night.
"I believe he was drugged and overdosed,” said Michele.
One friend told detectives she checked Tanner’s pulse after he fell near the bottom of some stairs, but the friend thought Tanner was snoring, so she went to sleep.
“She did not check to see if he was breathing,” according to a report from the Howard County Coroner’s Office.
That morning, the friend found Tanner unresponsive and cold.
“She knew something was wrong with Tanner,” said Michele Barton. “You wouldn’t check somebody’s pulse if you didn’t think something was wrong.”
Tanner also had THC in his system, but at the time, both the coroner and pathologist seemed baffled in their reports.
“This is a very complicated case with many unanswered questions,” wrote Jay Price, the then-Howard County Coroner.
Michele Barton also questioned why no one called 911 until 9:24 am.
The cases of Tanner Barton and Brittny Bell are catching the attention of "Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop," a Michigan group dedicated to helping families get answers.
Founder Lindsay Brink says Michigan State Police were key in solving her sister-in-law’s murder.
"Within one week of State Police having my sister-in-law's case, they knew who one of her killer's were,” said Brink.
While Michigan does not have a law that allows families to request state police investigation, Brink is thrilled Indiana now does.
"It is huge,” said Brink. “It makes my hair stand up and it's so exciting for all these families. It just gets so many fresh, new eyes on a case."
Indiana State Senator Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said he drafted the legislation for SEA 177 after a Southern Indiana family contacted him because they felt the local sheriff mishandled the investigation into their loved one’s death.
"The family felt like they just did not have any options,” said Messmer. “They came to me last year and said ‘we just feel like we’ve exhausted all of our avenues.’”
SEA 177 requires families to submit a request in writing to the superintendent of Indiana State Police explaining why they have a reasonable suspicion why the death was the result of a criminal act.
The family also has to notify local police and the prosecutor that they’re requesting an ISP investigation.
The new law applies only to uncharged deaths and does not apply if the loved one was under the care of a doctor or the death was the result of medical malpractice.
“Whether the local department was just not thorough enough, whether they had outside influence impeding their investigation, it doesn't really matter why— it just gives the family the opportunity to get a fresh set of eyes to look into the death of a loved one and find out what happened,” said Messmer. “It puts a little pressure on the superintendent but that at least gives the family someplace to turn to try to bring closure to the case, to look at the facts they feel would warrant an investigation. Hopefully, it’s going to be a rare occurrence.”
Just because a family requests Indiana State Police do a fresh investigation does not mean they will.
“The superintendent of Indiana State Police has the opportunity to look over those facts and say yes, or no,” said Messmer. “He will have to list in writing why he assigned the state police to investigate or why not.”
Michele Barton and Donna Bell know the new law is no guarantee Indiana State Police will take their case, but it is giving them renewed hope.
“We deserve justice so we can finally start healing,” said Donna. “We can't heal without her justice."
Indiana State Police declined to comment for this story.
If Indiana State Police assisted local police in the original investigation, the new law says ISP should assign a new officer to the case if possible.