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Families hope Indiana State Police investigations will get answers in loved ones' deaths

New law took effect July 1.
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 25, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS — Donna Bell stood sobbing in the lobby of Indiana State Police, clutching a binder of information.

It was a moment she had been waiting for since her daughter, Brittny Bell, was found dead in her Kokomo home in 2017 with cuts and bruises on her body.

"We believe she was murdered,” Donna said. “We have gathered up so much evidence and proof."

Donna Bell hopes to be among the first to take advantage of a new Indiana law, SEA 177, which took effect July 1.

Donna Bell clutches a binder outlining evidence surrounding the death of her daughter Brittny Bell, who was found dead in her Kokomo home at the age of 22 in 2017.
Donna Bell clutches a binder outlining evidence surrounding the death of her daughter Brittny Bell, who was found dead in her Kokomo home at the age of 22 in 2017.

The new law allows families to request Indiana State Police investigate an unsolved, cold or closed death case that has not resulted in criminal charges.

Until now, Indiana State Police could only step in at the request of local law enforcement.

The Kokomo Police Department closed Brittny’s case with no arrests.

Bell reached out to the Michigan group “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” which helped her compile a binder full of documentation which includes autopsy reports, timelines and interviews.

"We have interviews from suspects, from witnesses, there are crime scene photos in there,” Lindsay Brink, founder of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, said. “It’s just fact after fact after fact. When I talk to families, I say 'we are going to stick with you until we get your case into the right hands.'"

Donna and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop say Kokomo police did not interview several people who were at Brittny’s apartment leading up to her death.

Brink said the crime scene photos show signs of foul play.

Brittny’s autopsy lists cardiac dysrhythmia as the cause of death, which is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat, but the coroner could not determine whether it was natural, an accident or a homicide.

Brittny's manner of death was ruled “undetermined,” according to the coroner.

Brittny’s parents are now raising Brittney’s children, who presented the binder to Indiana State Police.

“They are little warriors,” Donna said. “They’ve been beside us the whole time fighting for their mommy.”

The Bells are not the only ones hoping to take advantage of the new law.

Michele Barton’s son Tanner, 19, died at a friend’s Howard County home in 2012.

PREVIOUS | Mom seeks justice in Howard County cold case

The Howard County Sheriff’s Office closed Tanner Barton’s case in 2018 with no arrests.

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, 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 friends at the house that night.

PREVIOUS | Howard County Sheriff closes Tanner Barton case citing enlarged heart

“I've been reading that binder every day since I received it and it's disgusting,” Michele said. “He deserves justice.”

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop submitted Tanner’s binder to Indiana State Police earlier this month.


"It's exhilarating,” Michele said. “It’s what I've been waiting for and wanting for nine years. I want to see those people held accountable.”

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,” Michele said. “You wouldn’t check somebody’s pulse if you didn’t think something was wrong.”

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.

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,” Messmer said. “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.

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop founder Lindsay Brink says Michigan State Police were key in solving her sister-in-law’s murder.

The Bell and Barton families acknowledge this new law is no guarantee charges will be brought.

But it does give them new hope for answers in their loved ones’ deaths.

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.

It’s not clear how long it will take for state police to review the binders of Brittny and Tanner.

WRTV Investigates reached out to the agencies that originally handled their cases.

“Howard County case for Tanner Barton is closed,” Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher said. “Anyone with information can call the Howard County Sheriff Detective Division at (765) 456-2031.”

Kokomo police also confirmed Brittny's case is closed, but the agency said it planned to meet with the family to get additional information.