Her headstone at Cemetery Ridge Memorial Park is in Amherst.
More than four years after the blonde, outgoing, 17 year old died in her bedroom, inside her family’s Amherst home.
Her mother Jennifer still doesn’t have the answer to the most basic question.
“It’s a struggle, I still feel I need to know why,” said Jennifer Stewart.
Stewart doesn’t know how and why her daughter died because before a full and complete autopsy was done, the teenager’s heart and other organs and tissue were removed for donation.
That is despite police classifying Vanessa’s death as “suspicious” from the start.
Just minutes after talking to her daughter, Stewart arrived home, called out her name and heard nothing.
“So, I went to her room. And that’s where I discovered her. I was the last person she spoke with. She must have passed away immediately after our phone conversation,” Stewart told 19 News.
Within hours, Vanessa’s distraught mother was dealing with a dizzying string of phone calls.
Starting with Lifebanc, the Cleveland based organ and tissue recovery organization, and from the Lorain County Coroner’s office.
“He said he would do a full autopsy,” Stewart said.
In a recorded conversation obtained by 19 News, Dr. Frank Miller, Lorain County’s Chief Deputy Coroner seemingly outsources his job to Lifebanc.
“Take lots of pictures. You probably could even have the heart,”
“I need the chest plate removed autopsy style. Not your way,” Dr. Miller told a Lifebanc donation coordinator.
The donation coordinator reminded Miller, at the moment Vanessa’s death it was undetermined and suspicious.
“Do you want to restrict that? I don’t want to interfere with anything that you got going on,” the donation coordinator said.
“I’m going to autopsy her following donation,” Lorain County Chief Deputy Coroner Frank Miller said.
The Lifebanc representative goes on to say, “Okay. And with that being, I don’t know, there is a rumor, you know, yeah, an unusual case,”
“Yeah, it’s basically, it’s either a natural or suicidal overdose, okay,” Miller replied. “Not a big deal.”
“Oh, okay okay. The hospital was making it sound like, like, like it was a possible homicide then,” the donor coordinator said.
“Oh, no no no. It’s a suicidal overdose versus natural causes,” said Miller.
Dr. Miller, at that moment, hadn’t examined Vanessa’s body himself, or found out whether there were drugs in her system.
It was Lifebanc that recorded the conversation and turned it over to attorneys for Jennifer Stewart, Vanessa’s mother, who is now suing the coroner’s office.
Some believe the coroner thought once we got the toxicology back and we determined she overdosed the autopsy wouldn’t be necessary.
“Well, what happened is the toxicology report came back completely negative,” said attorney Roni Sokol.
That’s right. there were no drugs in Vanessa’s system, but because her heart was removed, and dissected so her valves could be donated, there was no way to determine whether she had a previously unknown heart defect.
“And the coroner was left with no cause of death and no way to determine it,” Sokol said.
19 News wanted to talk to Dr. Miller, but he referred us to his attorney who said he’d get back to us and never did despite repeated calls for comment.
19 News discovered other similar cases around the country where the rush to donate lifesaving organs sometimes interfered with investigating suspicious deaths.
Example: an Arizona man who died after a night of drinking, drugging, and a fight.
Was it murder? A fatal drug and alcohol binge, or heart attack?
The local sheriff said detectives were “shocked” after learning the man’s heart and other organs were removed and given to a donor network before a cause of death was determined.
The sheriff said, “We’re just going to be shooting in the dark.”
“I think we are struggling with this,” said Sharona Hoffman, a bio-ethics professor at Case Western Reserve Law School.
“It’s very hard to determine the line. Do they want to make the death meaningful as some would say by donating organs or are they more interested in finding out what happened,” said Hoffman.
As for Lifebanc, the organization told 19 News if there’s a problem, it’s not with them.
“The coroner may say we have to restrict this because we need certain information in order to determine a cause of death or obtain specific information and we respect that,” says Heather Mekesa Lifebanc’s Chief Clinical Officer.
There’s no doubt, organ donation saves lives.
Lifebanc said 113,000 people are waiting for transplants nationwide, 1,500 in Northeast Ohio right now.
Theresa Smith, a mother of three, was one of those people.
“My first memory is that I was so glad I was opening my eyes. I remember crying and trying to say thank you,” Smith said.
Smith went into liver failure after coming down with the flu.
She received a liver transplant after the death of a young man in his 30’s.
“When I wrote the family part of what I put in there. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m a niece. I’m a friend. I’m a granddaughter. I’m all of those things. And I get to continue to do those things because the most special part of me is him now,” Smith wrote.
But Jennifer Stewart feels she was pressured by Lifebanc, its repeated phone calls in her moment of grief and deceived by the coroner who promised donating Venessa’s organs wouldn’t interfere with finding out what caused her death.
“I never got to grieve,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t want to wish this on anybody.”
Dr. Miller wouldn’t talk to Cleveland 19, but he did write this protocol for organ donations in 2008 while working in the Cuyahoga Coroner’s office.
Among other things, Dr. Miller wrote it is in the interest of the coroner’s office to never deny requests for organs and tissues regardless whether it’s a homicide, suicide, or suspicious death.
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By Alan Cohn | May 2, 2019 at 11:08 PM EDT – Updated May 5 at 8:46 AM
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