Chapter one from the forthcoming book Widower’s Pose: Fake Yoga Accident, True Story by Lisa Jones (Verbal Construction, November 7, 2018.) To request a review copy, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
A man called 911 from his house in Long Beach, California at 8:51 a.m. on March 3, 2014. He told the emergency dispatcher that his wife “was doing yoga, doing a headstand, fell, and, um, she’s bleeding from behind.” The dispatcher clarified that the back of the woman’s head was bleeding. The man described the bleeding as “massive.” He said that he “just heard a loud crash and came running into the room,” and found his injured wife.
Minutes later, at 8:57 a.m., a Long Beach Fire Department engine company arrived at the house, followed by paramedics at 9:05 a.m.
First responders found a woman supine on the bare concrete floor of the home’s recreation room. She was 50 years old, Caucasian, 5’7″ in height, weighing around 146 pounds. The Los Angeles County Coroner would later describe her as “slightly thin.”
The woman had been mortally wounded by blunt-force head trauma, but the first responders did not recognize the severity of her injuries.
One of the paramedics who treated the woman told the police that he noticed very little blood at the scene—just “20 drops” on the floor. He said that he didn’t remember seeing blood anywhere in the room except under the woman’s head. He said that the woman’s head was at least three feet away from any furniture. Therefore, she could not have hit her head on an object or sharp edge. He noted that there was no yoga mat on the concrete floor.
A firefighter said that the woman was not able to speak to him, but she did respond to his questions by squeezing his hand. He said that the woman had a large hematoma at the base of her skull under her hair. He assumed that the drops of blood on the floor were from this hematoma. The word “hematoma” in this instance suggests that there was a solid swelling of clotted blood within the skin of the woman’s scalp.
First responders said that they didn’t know what was wrong with the woman when they examined her. Due to her vital signs, they knew that she needed to be taken to a trauma center. They removed the woman from the house on a gurney.
In the home-surveillance recordings, the woman appeared to be unconscious as she was wheeled from her house. Her eyes were closed. She was motionless and strapped to the gurney. The woman’s husband held up a phone and took a photograph of his wife as she was being taken to the ambulance.
According to a police report, the paramedics did not look into the woman’s eyes until she was inside the ambulance. At that time, they observed that one of her pupils was fixed and dilated. This can be an ominous sign of heightened pressure within the skull. At 9:18 a.m., with lights flashing, the ambulance drove away from the house.
After the first responders left, the woman’s husband remained at the house. He initiated phone calls. He told people that his wife had fallen and hit her head while doing yoga. Later, he took a shower and changed his clothes. He packed a bag that did not appear to include items for his wife such as toiletries or pajamas. Rather, he packed electronic devices—his iPad and phone along with his wife’s phone—and his wife’s wallet, which he removed from her purse.
The surveillance video showed him driving away from the house at 9:57 a.m.—39 minutes after the departure of the ambulance. By that time, the woman had already been admitted to St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach. According to the limited hospital records provided to the woman’s family, admission blood samples were drawn from the woman at 9:35 a.m.
The emergency-room charge nurse told the police that she remembered seeing the woman when she was admitted to the hospital. She said that she did not recall seeing any visible injuries to the woman’s face or body. Because of the woman’s inability to talk, and her unequally dilated pupils, the emergency room staff initially thought that the woman had suffered a stroke.
A doctor ordered a CT scan. The scan showed a basal skull fracture to the left occipital area, a large occipital hematoma, and a large frontal hematoma. The hematomas identified by the CT scan were inside the woman’s skull. These were severe, acute injuries to the woman’s brain.
It turned out that the presumed hematoma described by the fireman on the woman’s scalp under her hair wasn’t a hematoma at all. Rather, it was an irregular laceration in the shape of a backward or upside-down letter L, almost two inches long. It wasn’t bleeding. This wound was so large and deep that a surgeon had to close it with surgical staples. The surgeon told the police that wherever the injury had happened, there would be a lot of blood.
Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove part of the woman’s skull to make room for her brain to swell. But her brain had swollen too much already. Irreversible damage had been done. Her brain had been crushed by the pressure inside her skull—a phenomenon known as brainstem herniation. As a result, the woman was brain-dead.
According to the woman’s husband, she had fallen to the floor while doing yoga exercises at home. As a result, she sustained severe head injuries—injuries so severe that they more likely would have been found in someone who had been hurt in a car crash. The woman received immediate medical care and prompt surgical intervention. Even so, she was observed to be brain-dead just hours after the “accident.”
A social worker at the hospital telephoned the Long Beach Police on the afternoon of March 4, 2014—the day after the woman was admitted to the hospital. The social worker said that doctors had come to her with concerns about the woman’s injuries.
“They’re saying that it looks like it may have been someone assaulting her,” the social worker told the police dispatcher. “All the doctors are saying that the nature of the injuries suggests that it may have been foul play. They’re saying, like, that it sounds like if she’s doing yoga, and she fell and hit her head, it wouldn’t have fractured it that severely.”
Long Beach Police detectives launched an investigation into possible homicide involving assault with a deadly weapon. On the night of March 4th, officers executed a search warrant at the couple’s house.
Detectives saw that the home was covered by a video surveillance system equipped with twelve cameras. The cameras were activated by motion detectors. The police believed that the cameras had recorded all activity at the house without interruption.
According to the woman’s husband, he took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood on the morning of March 3rd. On the surveillance video, he can be seen walking out the front door with the dog at 8:12 a.m. He can be seen returning to the house with the dog at 8:38 a.m.
The man claimed that when he entered the house, he could hear his wife’s iPad playing a yoga video behind the closed door of the recreation room. In the surveillance video, the man can be seen wearing earbuds as he entered the house. His ears remained covered for several minutes as he prepared a bed for the dog on a sofa. The man told the police that he heard a loud crash minutes after returning with the dog. He said that “it sounded like wood being hit.”
On the surveillance video, the dog on the sofa appeared to react to a noise at 8:48 a.m. The man was not on camera at this time. The man dialed 911 at 8:51 a.m. He did not reappear on camera until 8:56 a.m., when he exited the exterior door of the yoga room and opened the front gate.
Detectives seized the woman’s iPad and the digital video recorder (DVR) from the home’s video surveillance system. One investigator remarked to a member of the dead woman’s family that a guy would have to be crazy to kill his wife with so many video cameras around his house.
The video system was installed by the woman’s husband, however, and he was the only person who managed and monitored the system. Nevertheless, the detectives presumed that the video files on the DVR gave an authentic, complete account of activities in and around the house.
A forensic examination of the woman’s iPad showed that it had been used to make a purchase from Levenger.com at 8:28 a.m. on March 3rd while the man was away from the house. Minutes later at 8:33 a.m., the iPad was used to log in to a yoga instruction video on Gaia.com. The iPad played an episode of Rod Stryker’s Peak Performance Yoga.
Reportedly, the police did not conduct a forensic examination of the DVR. Rather, detectives downloaded and watched some of the video files.
According to the surveillance video, the man was not in the house at the times when the woman’s iPad was used. Therefore, the detectives assumed that the woman was alive and well somewhere in the house using her iPad—even though she did not appear in the surveillance recordings that morning.
Investigators concluded that the man could not have bludgeoned his wife and cleaned up the scene in just the nine minutes between the alleged “loud crash” that caused the dog to startle at 8:48 a.m., and the arrival of first responders at 8:57 a.m. Investigators presumed that, as the man had claimed, the woman was alive and well in the house when he left to walk the dog. Therefore, it seemed impossible that the man could have assaulted his wife that morning.
The Los Angeles County Coroner found that the woman had not had a stroke. In fact, the medical examiner identified no medical condition that accounted for how or why this healthy, experienced yoga practitioner fell, cracked her head, and never regained consciousness.
The autopsy report stated: “The decedent experienced a falling episode one year ago while in Hawaii. She reportedly fell and struck the back of her head. She was evaluated and was reported to be fine. During the past three months, the decedent was reported to be moving in slow manner while having difficulty getting up in the morning.”
The woman’s parents and siblings disputed these claims—she had not been to Hawaii in years, they said, and she had not been “moving in a slow manner while having difficulty getting up in the morning.” These claims had been made by the woman’s husband. The family wondered why the police and the coroner’s office had accepted them as truthful, and had included them in the autopsy report.
They also wondered why an alleged yoga fall that resulted in no injury was cited in the autopsy report as if to suggest that an identical, alleged yoga fall might logically result in lethal injury. It was especially implausible considering that blunt-force head trauma had never been cited as a yoga-related hazard—sprains and strains, yes; skull fractures, no. Further, studies have shown that yoga practice improves a person’s balance and self-perception of falling—a fact which made the “deadly yoga fall” story all the more questionable.
Seeming to discount the autopsy report’s comments about a previous fall, the medical examiner’s neuropathology report clarified that the woman had no pre-existing injury that might have caused her to lose her balance, or to lose consciousness. Rather, the medical examiner concluded that the woman’s death was caused by blunt-force head trauma. She had sustained a severe blow to her head, and this was what had killed her.
And yet the autopsy report stated that the manner of her death was accidental.
The woman’s parents and siblings were stunned by the coroner’s finding. They noticed several glaring inaccuracies in the autopsy report. For example, in his description of the injury, the examiner wrote: “On the back of the head 5 inches below the buttocks and located in the midline is an irregular laceration measuring 1-3/4 inches. The underlying occipital skull has a linear fracture extending from the midline to the left near the foramen magnum. The fracture measures about 4-1/2 inches.” [sic]
On the back of her head, five inches below the buttocks? Even if the word “buttocks” was intended as an archaic reference to a midbrain structure, the examiner’s description of the injury’s location made no sense to the woman’s family.
A diagram drawn by the examiner suggested that the injury to the woman’s scalp was in the middle of the back of her head. However, while the woman was in the hospital, her family had been told that the injury was to the lower part of her head, and to one side—to the right side, they thought, with a fracture running from dual points of impact to the left. The autopsy report did not seem to accord with what the family had been told by hospital staff. Citing healthcare privacy laws, the hospital declined to release the woman’s medical records to the family.
The autopsy report stated: “The 50 years old Caucasian female fell to the floor and sustained blunt force head trauma while doing yoga exercises at her residence. CT scan of head revealed skull fracture and subdural hemorrhage. She died 3 days later.” [sic]
The statement that the woman died three days after her injury was obviously false, the woman’s family knew. The woman was admitted to the hospital on March 3rd. When her family arrived at the hospital that evening, they were told by nurses that the woman had sustained irreversible brain damage. Meaning, she was already brain-dead. Homicide detectives were assigned to her case on March 4th. Unless it was common practice to launch a homicide investigation prior to a person’s death, the statement in the autopsy report was nonsensical.
Because the woman was an organ donor, medical staff worked to keep her heart beating until March 8th when her organs were harvested. Nonetheless, she was brain-dead on March 3rd.
The family protested other statements in the autopsy report. For example, the woman’s husband claimed that she had been doing yoga at the time of her injury. The report cited this claim as factual but offered no evidence to support it.
The family strongly doubted that the woman had been watching a yoga video on the morning of March 3rd. She always did a brief yoga routine when she got out of bed. She didn’t need to follow a video. The yoga video that she was allegedly watching was a slow, simple instructional program for beginners. After years of daily yoga practice, she was well beyond it.
Later, the family learned from a private investigator that the woman’s streaming-video account at Gaia.com continued to be used months after the woman’s death. Obviously, someone other than the deceased woman was able to access her video account.
The family also doubted that the woman would have been shopping online at 8:28 a.m. on a Monday prior to doing yoga. The woman was a happily self-employed kitchen designer with a waiting list of clients. She was too busy to shop for a purse first thing in the morning at the start of a work week.
According to the home surveillance video, the woman disappeared into her house on the night of March 2nd for a period of eleven hours before the paramedics were called on the morning of March 3rd. Over the course of eleven hours, the woman never walked to the kitchen for a beverage. She never went to the kitchen hutch to get her iPad, or her iPhone, or her wallet. Yet supposedly she was somewhere in the house, alive and well on the morning of March 3rd, making an online purchase and watching a video with this same iPad.
The last thing that the woman did in her life that was recorded by the home surveillance system contradicted her husband’s claims: she used her iPad at the kitchen hutch on the night of March 2nd. She walked away from the device at around 10:21 p.m., never to be seen alive and well again on camera. Later, on March 4th, the police found and photographed her iPad on the hutch exactly where she had left it on the night of March 2nd. If the device had ever been in the yoga room on March 3rd, who put it there—and who returned it to the hutch after the woman’s injury?
The husband’s story did not ring true, and yet the police refused to consider the possibility that the woman had been assaulted sometime during the eleven-hour period between 10:21 p.m. on March 2nd and 8:51 a.m. on March 3rd. They refused to consider the possibility that the woman’s husband had fabricated his own alibi by using the iPad himself. He gave the police the four-digit code to unlock the woman’s iPad for the purpose of conducting a forensic exam of the device—meaning, the husband had access to the device himself.
The family wondered why the police and the coroner’s office accepted the husband’s claims at face value. Judging from the husband’s statements and behavior—and based on 14 years of knowing the man—the woman’s parents and siblings were confident that this was not a case of accidental death. They urged Long Beach homicide detectives to investigate further. The detectives refused, saying that the woman had died from a fall while doing yoga. According to one of the detectives, the medical examiner had taken one look at the woman’s head and knew instantly that it was an accident.
If it was so obviously an accidental injury, why had doctors at the hospital expressed serious concerns about it, prompting a social worker to call the police?
In February 2015, the woman’s family retained a well-known Los Angeles attorney to conduct a private investigation. The attorney brought in a former Long Beach homicide detective who had become a private investigator, and who still worked on cold cases for LBPD. This detective had been involved with the woman’s case while it was being investigated by the police. According to him, the home-surveillance video proved that no murder could have been committed. He insisted that the woman’s death was a freak accident. He even provided the woman’s family with copies of the video that had been seized by the police, photos taken at the scene, and several police reports related to the case. Far from demonstrating the husband’s innocence, these documents raised more questions about the police investigation.
For example, the police claimed that they found no traces of blood in the home. A police report noted: “Detectives requested the assistance of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Bureau to perform a Luminol test in the room to see if there was any type of blood stained evidence remaining from the incident. The preliminary Luminol test was inconclusive.”
However, this search for blood was conducted nine days after the first search warrant had been served. When the police first searched the house on March 4th, they did not test anywhere for blood. They searched the house a second time—after the autopsy on March 13th—and restricted their search to just the yoga room.
And yet, when the woman’s family examined police photos taken at the scene on March 4th, they saw blood spatter clearly visible on a dining room chair. Brownish-red stains on the master bathroom floor looked suspiciously like blood stains.
The woman’s family brought these and other details to the attention of their attorney and the police. Still, the family could not persuade the police to reopen the investigation. The police seemed incurious about the case, and dismissive of the family’s concerns. The family wondered why.
The attorney whom they had retained seemed interested in the case at first, but later dropped the ball. He gave the family no status updates on the case for an entire year, even though the family repeatedly requested information. More than one private investigator initially expressed enthusiasm about working on the case, only to abandon it without explanation.
Friends and relatives wondered aloud when the family would let it go. When would they accept the hard truth that nothing could be done to challenge the official story of the woman’s death? Move on, well-meaning friends counseled.
At last, three years after the woman’s death, a retired homicide detective from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department agreed to investigate the case. During his career, he had investigated high-profile murders involving celebrities. He himself had become a law-enforcement celebrity. He was the family’s last hope of making sense of the bizarre case.
He, too, stopped returning the family’s calls and messages.
Eventually, the family learned that the lead homicide detective on the case had been accused of misconduct in a different case, and that his supervisors in the Long Beach Police Department had covered up his lapses for years. Gradually, a picture began to emerge of systemic corruption in Southern California law enforcement.
The dead woman’s name was Dana Kathleen Jones, and she was my sister. As I write this, I’m waiting (in vain, it will turn out) to hear a status update from our “celebrity detective” who would probably bristle at that moniker. In a message to him, I wrote regarding my family: “We look forward to hearing from you not because we think you’re going to have ‘good news’ for us. There is no good news in this situation. We look forward to hearing from you because it’s like we’ve been sitting in a hospital waiting room for almost four years hoping to hear something factual about what happened to Dana, anything at all.”
We want facts, but it turns out that facts are subject to opinion. For instance, it’s a matter of opinion whether facts amount to evidence of a crime. Police, prosecutors, judges, and juries—in good faith, and in their best efforts to be objective and impartial—decide which facts matter more than others and, guided by applicable laws, arrive at opinions. “Guilty” and “not guilty” are ultimately statements of professional (or personal) opinion backed by institutional power, not cosmic truths or “justice.”
I’m at odds with this power. I question the official analysis of the facts in my sister’s case. I question the completeness of the facts that have been made available for consideration. I’m disturbed that, as in the case of the autopsy report, officials have represented demonstrably false information as factual.
Never in the past four years did it occur to me that public officials might not be working in good faith. Why would they lie to the grieving family of a dead woman? Their dishonestly seemed even less likely to me than death by yoga.
I desperately wanted to believe that the police were way ahead of us all, working a brilliant stratagem and quietly assembling an undeniable case for murder. If they were failing, I wanted to believe that they were failing in good faith. They were overworked, perhaps, and disinclined to reopen a seemingly complicated case. They didn’t have the resources to take another look at a matter that they’d resolved to their satisfaction.
In 2014, one of the Long Beach homicide sergeants told me that if Dana’s death was a crime, it was a perfect crime. I wondered why he’d said that. Was he expressing resignation, or admiration? Was he being sarcastic? Was he hoping to flatter and embolden my sister’s husband into boasting about the incident? A “perfect crime” depends on an imperfect investigation, doesn’t it?
Now, I see parallels. My sister wanted to believe the best about her husband, even though others recognized him as a sly manipulator. I wanted to believe the best about law enforcement, and made excuses for their missteps. She was conned, and so was I—by turbulent men who drank too much booze.
Notably, the City of Long Beach announced that there were 23 homicides in Long Beach in 2014. At the time, this was the lowest number of killings in the city since 1968. Why dull the sparkle of civic pride by acknowledging one more murder? It wouldn’t do anything to “bring back” my sister. What has been done can’t be undone, people remind me. Let her rest in peace, they say, as if my sister is the person most vexed by my ongoing concern. She’s in a better place now, people assert, as if her death was a huge favor to her.
I honestly disagree. I believe that she was murdered. I believe that the crime was covered up twice—by her killer, and by the police—and whitewashed all the way up the chain of command. Somewhere in all of this, there’s a true story that she would want you to know.
Next: Massive head injuries
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Todd Johnson LBPD police corruption misconduct Long Beach California Dana Jones