When there’s an emergency, you call 911 and they help you. That’s what we’re all taught as children and we trust that it’s true, almost as surely as we trust that gravity keeps us stuck to the ground.
It’s especially critical that the most vulnerable people in our society can rely on this knowledge. But in a critical situation, one family would find out that common sense knowledge can’t always be trusted.
On a Wednesday morning, four days after Christmas, in a Brooklyn apartment building, a woman heard some familiar sounds coming from her next-door neighbor’s apartment. It seemed that Tonie and her husband Barry were arguing again.
Tonie and Barry had a contentious relationship to say the least. They’d been together for a number of years, had a 2-year-old daughter together, and had gotten married in the spring. If you were to ask most of their neighbors or check them out on social media, you would think that things were just fine between them.
Picture of Happiness
“They seemed like a pleasant family,” said Beverly Miller, one person who lived in their building. “They would do laundry together.” Barry had even gotten a tattoo of his wife’s face on his back over the summer, calling it an “early anniversary gift” and adding #WellsWay at the end of the Instagram post featuring the tattoo.
Barry’s Facebook page also had a post telling men to never treat the mothers of their children with any disrespect, “especially if you have a daughter.” The post from October of 2016 continued: “she gonna grow up believing it’s ok to be treated that way!”
But all of those outward appearances hid away an unpleasant truth. The people who lived immediately next door to Wells would sometimes hear heated arguments and shouting coming from them that told an entirely different story: one of a domineering husband.
These arguments weren’t just idle words with no consequences. In fact, just one month prior, Tonie had suffered a miscarriage after a domestic quarrel. Because of their fighting, she’d lost her baby when she was eight months pregnant…
Taking it Seriously
That’s why, when the Wells next-door neighbor heard the sounds of argument coming from their apartment, she wasn’t surprised. But when she heard Tonie cry out “help me, he’s going to kill me!” she felt the need to call 911 and report the incident.
I’ll Send a Squad Car
The neighbor described the situation to the dispatcher and was told that police would respond to the situation to make sure everything was OK. But unfortunately for Tonie, those police would never show up.
It’s Cold Out There
That’s not to say that the dispatcher didn’t send a squad car – they did. But according to Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, “preliminary reports I received [say that] they did not exit the vehicle and that’s troubling.” Maybe it was the low temperature outside that kept the officers in their car.
About an hour later, a second call was placed to 911 – this time because someone heard Tonie and Barry’s 2-year-old crying with no response for a long period of time. The police who responded this time actually left their vehicle and investigated the scene.
Stuffed in a Closet
What they found was Tonie Wells in a closet at the bottom of a stairwell, unconscious and unresponsive. She had bruising around her neck indicative of being choked and when the police checked for a pulse, they found nothing. Tonie was pronounced dead at the scene.
Thankfully, the baby was physically unharmed. When word of what happened got out to Tonie’s family, they were devastated. Around 1 p.m., one of Tonie’s aunts was the first to arrive and took her child away from the crime scene.
Fled the Scene
But Tonie’s husband Barry was nowhere to be found. After the first call, it was highly likely that he was somehow involved with what happened to Tonie, even more so considering he was suddenly nowhere near his home. Police were looking for him as their primary suspect.
Later in the day, Barry was turned in to the authorities at the New Rochelle Police Department precinct in Westchester County by his brother. He informed the police that Barry had taken a large number of pills to try and kill himself.
Barry was placed in handcuffs and rushed to the hospital where he was successfully treated for his suicide attempt. He was eventually charged with murder as prosecutors alleged that he dragged his wife down the stairs, then strangled her and stuffed her in the closet after they’d had an argument.
Even Worse Than it Sounds
While it’s absurd that the two police officers who responded to the first call wouldn’t get out of their car to actually check and see if the 911 call had merit, it becomes even more absurd when you find out that at the time of the incident, Barry Wells was out of jail on bail after he’d been arrested in September. The crime: He choked Tonie during an argument, though she survived on that occasion.
The two officers who were supposed to have responded to the first call were suspended without pay. NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill promised and investigation, saying “I like to talk about my pride in the NYPD each and every day.”
“Unfortunately, there are times we don’t live up to that standard,” he added, “it’s up to us to make sure that we fully investigate that. And if discipline needs to be dealt out, we’ll do that.” But Commissioner O’Neill isn’t the only one who wants to get to the bottom of what happened.
Release the Records
Tonie’s mother, a woman named Elizabeth Rivera, filed a petition in Manhattan Supreme Court asking that a judge order the NYPD to turn over the recordings of the 911 calls, police logs of the incident, and all other related documents. She requested that the NYPD turn over the health care information card of her traumatized 2-year-old granddaughter so that she can get the counseling she’ll need.
While obtaining that information would be the first step in filing a wrongful death lawsuit, which Elizabeth would have probably had a very strong case for, that may not have been her primary motivation. As a mother and a citizen, her primary motivation was likely finding out why it took police two tries to try and help her daughter and if her senseless death could have been prevented.