(ALTON, Ill.) — A mentally ill Illinois woman allegedly shot and killed herself in the front seat of a police car that was giving her a courtesy ride to a hospital, but her family is questioning the police version of what happened in the car.
On Wednesday morning, an Alton, Ill. police officer spotted the woman, Stephanie Hicks, walking on a bridge in the sweltering heat. When he approached her in his car, Hicks said she was going to a hospital that was nearly 10 miles away in St. Louis. Her family said that Hicks suffered from mental health problems.
“She was adamant about going to St. Louis and so, in light of allowing her to walk 9.5 miles, our officer asked for permission for him to provide her courtesy transportation to Christian Hospital, which is something we don’t normally do,” Alton Police Chief David Hayes said at a news conference.
The officer, whose name authorities have not released, was granted permission to give her a ride and Hicks, 20, got in the front seat. She was not under arrest and there was no air conditioning in the back, so she was allowed to ride in the front.
Shortly after, the courtesy ride took a deadly turn.
“For some reason that we’ll probably never know, only God will, she decided to disarm the officer by surprising him,” Hayes said at the news conference. “It was an unexpected move by her. The officer didn’t perceive her as a threat. She’s a 5-foot, 100-pound girl and nobody in their right mind would perceive a person like that to be a threat.”
Police said Hicks shot herself in the head and died at the hospital.
“His gun was in his holster and, as far as I know, secured,” Hayes said. “The snap on his holster could have been simultaneously unsnapped and removed. We don’t know those answers at this point.”
“It’s very sad and I feel horrible for the family and I also feel bad for the officer who was trying to do a good deed,” Hayes told ABC News.
The officer is on paid administrative leave for the time being.
“That doesn’t mean any wrong doing [on his part],” Hayes said. “It just means we want him separated from the investigation as much as possible.”
The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office said it has not yet determined an official cause of death, but police said a preliminary report indicates suicide.
“After today’s autopsy, the medical examiner’s preliminary report has advised it appears that her death was a suicide,” the St. Louis County police wrote in a news release. “This is believed to have occurred after a struggle over the control of the Alton police officer’s weapon while in the patrol vehicle wherein she was shot in the head and died as a result of her injury.”
St. Louis police are investigating the shooting because it took place in their jurisdiction, even though the police officer involved was from Alton, St. Louis County Sgt. James McWilliams told ABC News.
Once the St. Louis police investigation is complete, police will hand it over to the local prosecutor’s office and the Alton police department will begin its own internal investigation “to determine whether policies and procedures were complied with by the officer,” Hayes said.
Although Hicks’ death is being considered an apparent suicide, her family isn’t so sure.
“There is no possible way; she would not do that,” Hicks’ mother, Robbin Hicks, 40, told Illinois newspaper The Telegraph. “I don’t believe that. I’m not letting this rest, especially with her being shot in the side of the head. I want justice for her. She could have made it. This mother is not going to let this one go.”
Robbin Hicks told the paper that her daughter “had problems, but wasn’t a bad kid.”
“She got into drugs and alcohol,” Robbin Hicks said. “We did everything in our power, taking her to rehab in Carbondale, but she ran away after two weeks.”
She said her daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Hicks told the paper she also took her daughter to facilities for mental health treatment in the past few weeks.
“She was very smart, a good kid, feisty,” Hicks told the paper. “She was bubbly, loved to dance and sing. She was always singing about something.”
The investigation into Hicks’ death is ongoing.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Wayne Covil, WTVR
Doug Criss and Tony Marco, CNN
Euan McKirdy and Natalie L. Gallón, CNN