Family members gather Monday at Lynnwood City Hall seeking answers about the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family members gather Monday at Lynnwood City Hall seeking answers about the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lynnwood council agrees to ask AG to investigate jail death

At a rally Monday evening, Tirhas Tesfatsion’s family called for answers in her July 13 death.

LYNNWOOD — Tirhas Tesfatsion’s sister remembers her as incredibly loving.

If she saw someone who needed a pick-me-up, she would take off her earrings and give them to that person.

“She always had the most beautiful smile, the most loving human,” said Tesfatsion’s sister, who did not want to be identified by name. “That was her job. To love and give love and she should not have been taken away.”

Tesfatsion died July 13, less than 36 hours after being booked into the Lynnwood Jail for investigation of a DUI. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office determined she died by suicide. She was 47.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Members of Tesfatsion’s family rallied Monday evening outside Lynnwood City Hall. Under a framed portrait of the Lynnwood woman were half a dozen candles with crosses on them. Her family called for answers explaining how Tesfatsion died. Later, inside City Hall, they urged the city to hit the pause button on a new jail that would cost tens of millions of dollars, which was originally on the City Council agenda the same evening.

Under pressure from the vocal crowd, the council passed a motion to request a new independent investigation into the death through the state Attorney General’s Office.

Lynnwood police pulled over Tesfatsion just after midnight July 12. She had been driving about 30 mph on Highway 99, where the speed limit is 45, according to a police report obtained by The Daily Herald through a public records request. She told police she hadn’t been drinking but said she had taken oxycodone and anti-depressant medication, according to the police report.

Tesfatsion had also been arrested for investigation of driving under the influence in December 2020, police wrote in their report in July.

A custody officer found Tesfatsion unresponsive at about 3 p.m. July 13 near the shower of the female detention area in the jail. She was housed in an area designed for multiple female inmates, but she was the only one there at the time. The unit has two video cameras, but the shower area is “digitally masked for privacy,” according to Lynnwood police.

The family led a chant claiming Tesfatsion’s death wasn’t suicide and called for the release of video footage.

“She was a human being. She was my sister. She was a family woman. She had kids. She had life. Her life should’ve never been taken away under the custody of people that are supposed to protect her,” Tesfatsion’s sister said. “… I want to know what happened to my sister.”

Family members address the Lynnwood City Council about the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a rally Monday at City Hall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family members address the Lynnwood City Council about the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a rally Monday at City Hall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

After rallying outside City Hall, members of Tesfatsion’s family led a crowd into the building for a Lynnwood City Council meeting. The council was scheduled to vote to move forward on the new Community Justice Center that would include a new jail for misdemeanor charges, the police department and a court. What followed was over 2½ hours of contentious dialogue between the city’s elected officials and those seeking answers for Tesfatsion’s death.

The four city council members and the mayor attending the meeting in person were all white. Tesfatsion was Black.

Earlier this month, Lynnwood police had asked the Kirkland Police Department to conduct an investigation into Tesfatsion’s death. Tesfatsion’s family said the inquiry doesn’t serve as true oversight. The family’s attorney, James Bible, called the police investigation “rinky-dink” and “fake.”

Mayor Nicola Smith said the city would start working on a letter to the attorney general Tuesday, seeking an independent investigation.

“Once we see the results of (the Kirkland police) investigation, that doesn’t mean that that’s the end of it,” council President George Hurst said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have another independent investigation.”

Meanwhile, the family and their supporters said Tesfatsion’s death shows the city should not be moving forward on a new jail facility.

“The city of Lynnwood is no place to house human souls for profit,” Bible said.

Advocates of the center, including Councilmember Christine Frizzell, argue it would be a positive for the community because it includes programs to reduce recidivism, such as a partnership with the Community Health Center of Snohomish County to bring rehabilitative services.

Family members of Tirhas Tesfastion gather in the City Council chambers Monday at Lynnwood City Hall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family members of Tirhas Tesfastion gather in the City Council chambers Monday at Lynnwood City Hall. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The City Council had planned to vote Monday on the center’s funding, but while Tesfatsion’s family and dozens of others rallied outside, they voted to remove that from the agenda, Hurst said. The council now plans to vote on the legislation next Monday at its 6 p.m. meeting.

The standing-room-only crowd at City Hall said they will be back.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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