Conflicting Reports, Racial Confusion: SF Sheriff Outlines Breakdowns In Search For Woman Found Dead In SF General Stairwell

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi today revealed breakdowns in communication and technology that happened during the search for a woman who was found dead in a San Francisco General Hospital stairwell in October after being reported missing weeks earlier.

Mirkarimi held a news conference at City Hall this afternoon to disclose the sheriff’s department’s preliminary findings in the case of Lynne Spalding, a 57-year-old British woman found dead in the hospital stairwell on Oct. 8 after being reported missing Sept. 21.

Among the findings was that authorities alternately thought Spalding was black or Asian—she is white. Additionally, attempts to retrieve surveillance video from the time of her disappearance were unsuccessful because of faulty hardware, Mirkarimi said.

Spalding had been admitted to the hospital on Sept. 19 to be treated for an infection. Two days later, after she disappeared, a physician told a deputy that Spalding was about to be discharged when she wandered off, Mirkarimi said.

However, the physician also told the deputy that Spalding was “very confused and not safe to be out on her own,” according to the sheriff.

Mirkarimi said initial reports within the hospital about Spalding’s disappearance indicated that she was black and wearing a hospital gown, while a log book used to document information between work shifts identified her as an Asian female.

After more than a week had passed and Spalding still remained missing, hospital officials asked sheriff’s deputies to search the entire 24-acre campus, Mirkarimi said.

A day later, it was determined that not all stairwells had yet been searched and staff was directed to search them, but only half of the stairwells were actually searched, the sheriff said.

Then, on Oct. 4, a hospital official called the sheriff’s Institutional Patrol Unit to report that someone told the official that somebody was lying on the landing in the third or fourth floor of Stairwell 8.

A staff member from the sheriff’s communications center responded, “We’ll take care of it,” but there is no indication that anyone was dispatched to check the stairwell, according to the sheriff.

Spalding was found dead in the stairwell four days later. The cause of her death has not been released by the medical examiner’s office, but foul play is not suspected.

Mirkarimi today again expressed condolences to the family and loved ones of Spalding.

“The gravity of this isn’t lost on us,” he said. “This should have never happened to anyone.”

He said the sheriff’s department has developed new policies since her death, including conducting daily patrols of fire exit stairwells and documenting responses to all audible alarms at the hospital.

He added that “there will be staffing changes” at the sheriff’s department, but declined to elaborate.

Haig Harris, an attorney representing the Spalding family, said the information released today raises more questions than answers.

“This becomes more and more troubling,” Harris said. “They don’t seem to have done much to find her.”

Along with the discrepancy over Spalding’s race, Harris said he finds it odd that no one at the hospital or sheriff’s department mentioned her thick English accent in the initial reports about her disappearance.

He questioned the conflicting reports outlined in the sheriff’s statements, including that Spalding was ready for discharge from the hospital but was not safe to be on her own.

Harris said he has also been told that she was found dead in her own clothes, rather than the hospital gown described in the initial reports by sheriff’s deputies.

“There’s conflict in the story that comes from each person,” he said.

Harris said he has not yet filed a civil claim on behalf of the family and is continuing to gather information about the case.

He declined to place blame on either the hospital or sheriff’s department but said, “it’s a broken system if this is how you take care of your patients.”

Hospital officials were not immediately commenting this afternoon on the sheriff’s findings.

Along with various investigations by the hospital, sheriff’s department and Police Department into Spalding’s death, Mayor Ed Lee announced last month that the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center would also undertake an independent review of San Francisco General Hospital’s safety and security systems.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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