Chapter 2: “Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”
Four-year old Ashanti Thomas unwrapped a Barbie playset for Christmas last December, a gift from her father, Quinten Thomas.
This wasn’t the first time she had received the playset. Her father had given it to her on her first birthday. He didn’t realize the playset had too many small pieces for baby Ashanti, so her mother, Saharra White, put it aside for her to open this year now that she’s old enough to enjoy it.
However, Thomas is no longer in Ashanti’s life to watch her open the gift. Thomas, who was a health administration major at CSUN, died at the Twin Towers jail on March 9, 2018.
After Thomas’ death, White initiated a civil suit on behalf of Ashanti against the County of Los Angeles for the jail’s handling of Thomas before he died. The suit alleges the county did not provide him with the appropriate level of care while he was in police custody.
The circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown, but according to the coroner’s report, Thomas died due to an idiopathic seizure, a result of his epilepsy. The autopsy also noted a cardiomegaly, or an enlarged heart.
Thomas was taking medication called Keppra to manage his seizures. He suffered two seizures while he was at Twin Towers, but skipped a dose of his medication on the day that he died.
Thomas’ death did not make national headlines and now more than three years later, White is still working to raise awareness for what she believes was a preventable incident in jail. She attends countless protests and commemorative events to ensure the community remembers his name leading up to the trial.
A civil suit was originally supposed to take place last November, but was postponed multiple times throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as the county court system protocols distinguished which cases were heard or postponed. The case is set to take place in January 2022.
Earlier this year, the judge offered to have the case tried by herself via video conference format, rather than an in-person trial by jury. RoseAnn Frazee, an attorney for White as guardian on behalf of Ashanti, could not afford to pay experts for trial witnesses, so she agreed to postpone the trial by jury.
At a commemorative event hosted by CSUN, Frazee said she tried to hire more attorneys to bring more attention to the case, to no avail. Frazee also tried to bring in Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who represented the family of George Floyd in the trial against Derek Chauvin.
Frazee brought on multiple expert witnesses to try and prove the plaintiff’s side, each costing thousands of dollars. According to Frazee, collecting evidence cost their side over $20,000 so far. She expects the trial by jury will cost an additional $20,000.
More resources, like the expert witnesses, bring with them a growing bill for White to pay.
White is reaching for solutions to afford the trial and resorted to creating a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to collect donations to fund her legal team.
The death of Ashanti’s father and trial have created a nightmare for White, who would have never imagined her young adult life would take this turn.
White first met Thomas in 2015, when she was 17 and Thomas was 19. White had just moved to the Los Angeles area to live with her uncle. She was walking around the neighborhood to get familiar with the area the day she met Thomas.
White was walking into Vercher’s Central Liquor store for a snack as Thomas and his cousin were walking out.
She remembered the two made eye contact and crossed paths again at the same intersection as she walked to the park. White described their meeting as fate and the two became friends.
White moved more than 60 miles away to Moreno Valley shortly after they met, but she would often take the train to visit Thomas in L.A.
“I really felt like I was out there to meet him,” White said with a smile. “I love telling this story.”
The two eventually became a couple and White said he inspired her when it came to continuing her education.
At the time, White was hoping to get her high school diploma at the very least. She said one of the first times she met with Thomas, he proudly showed White a report card marked with A’s and B’s.
He encouraged her to apply to CSUN through the Educational Occupation Program. She did not get into the program, but soon after started attending Southwest College.
“When I say I would not be in college now if it wasn’t for him, I literally would not be in college now if it wasn’t for him,” White said.
It was on the day of her EOP interview that White found out she was pregnant.
Thomas was supportive during her pregnancy because it was his dream to have a family of his own. Because he was raised in foster care, Thomas was always searching for community. He was an involved student at CSUN, he was close with his cousins, and now he was starting a family of his own. Ashanti was born in November 2016.
“He was so happy to be a dad,” White said. “He’s told me before that school and Ashanti are things that saved him.”
A few months before Ashanti was born, Thomas was diagnosed with epilepsy. He had suffered a seizure at the CSUN dorms during his freshman year.
The seizures were sporadic at first, but quickly became more regular.
“He’d have a seizure at least once a month,” White said. “Most of the time he’d have them in his sleep. And then I started noticing he was having them when he was awake.”
When White and Thomas were living together, she was hesitant to leave Thomas at home alone with their newborn baby due to his history of epilepsy.
Once, when they were at home, Thomas walked toward White in a daze with their baby in his arms and managed to hand her the baby before he fell into a full-fledged seizure.
“I grabbed the baby and then I was holding him so he didn’t fall back and I just kind of guided him down to the floor and he went into a whole seizure,” White said.
To White’s knowledge, medical professionals never advised Thomas to live with someone for his safety, but she felt that it was too risky to leave Thomas alone or with their baby when she was not home.
“I knew he had to have somebody there you know? At least watching, if not watching, checking up on him,” White said.
White still worried about his health after the two had ended their relationship. She was scared that he would have a seizure while he was alone.
After their separation, Thomas struggled to pay for school and housing. His financial aid fell through and he had to stay in a shelter. White remembers Thomas was under pressure from many sides at that point in his life.
“Just thinking about the stress it put on him, being a man and having to take care of your family,” White said. “He ended up being in all these positions that he never wanted to be in.”
White and Thomas’ paths started to split, but they remained friends and continued to co-parent Ashanti.
On March 5, 2018, Thomas called White when she was grocery shopping with Ashanti. He said he was in jail. He told her not to worry ?? he’d be back soon. White thought that Thomas would call her later to fill her in on what happened.
“We never had conversations of ‘why’ [he was in custody],” White said. “He just told me that he would tell me later.”
She didn’t press him on the details. She just wanted to make sure he was okay. She hadn’t heard from him in two weeks, so she was happy to hear his voice.
She talked to him other times when he was in jail, and he told her he would be out later that week. Thomas was in jail in Van Nuys and was transferred to Twin Towers three days later. White didn’t know that he was transferred to Twin Towers.
A few days later White received another call. This time she would find out Thomas had died.
“When I got the call from the detective, and it sounds like a damn movie,” White said. “I got a call from a private number, and I usually don’t answer private numbers but for some reason I answered it.”
A detective named Gene Morse called and said he wanted to meet about Thomas. She was afraid to tell Morse where she lived, so she agreed to meet him at a McDonald’s in Harbor Gateway.
White remembered it was raining hard when she went with Ashanti to meet the detective. When they arrived, Morse was wearing a black suit and sitting at a table.
“Before I even sat down and he said anything I was just like ‘please don’t tell me he’s dead,’” White said.
White learned of Thomas’ death in a McDonald’s dining room full of strangers. She sat in the parking lot for over three hours rocking her baby and crying.
White was left questioning how he could have died after just talking to him days prior.
White hired Frazee to make a case against the county and Frazee ordered an independent autopsy. The second autopsy was never completed because they found that his brain was missing from his body. White could not understand why it had been removed.
She was walking to a math class at Southwest College when she received a call from the county coroner. White said they kept his brain. She asked how that was possible, but the coroner confused her with a flood of medical jargon.
The L.A. County Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner refused to confirm whether or not the brain was kept after the autopsy due to the pending litigation.
“He started going back into all this medical talk that I didn’t really understand and I just wrote down what I could,” White said.
White needed help. She met with Michele Infante, an activist with Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization that advocates for incarcerated people and their families.
White said Infante helped her arrange a meeting with two sheriff’s detectives to go over the autopsy, but the two detectives diverted the conversation to discuss his previous time in jail for another misdemeanor charge.
White didn’t get the answers she was looking for that day with the detectives, so she continues to navigate the legal system with support from Dignity and Power Now. She started her new job as a field organizer with DPN to serve other families of incarcerated people.
The series of events in White’s life continues to bring her back to social justice work. White’s father was formerly incarcerated, so as a child, she aspired to become a lawyer to help incarcerated people. Now that her daughter has suffered in a similar way, she has seriously committed herself to social justice.
In addition to working with DPN, White spoke at multiple protests in recent months to raise awareness for the trial.
White spoke at the #BlockGarcetti protests outside of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house in November. She brought Ashanti along for her first protest. She tried to bring Ashanti to protests in the past, although she was younger and timid around the crowds. White has answered Ashanti’s questions about the activist scene, telling her which protests they are attending and why.
They both have the support of leading groups at events to ensure Ashanti feels comfortable at the scene. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles even made Ashanti a custom denim jacket that says “my daddy matters.”
“There’s a lot of love out there and BLM and Dignity and Power,” White said. “They’re really my backbone, all that support really helps, and [Ashanti] felt all of that too. And she was more comfortable after that.”
Ashanti often looks at old pictures of her parents together.
White hopes that she can one day tell her daughter definitively what happened to Thomas, because Ashanti already asks questions about her father and is learning about the concept of death at the age of four. She knows her dad is in heaven, but has trouble understanding what exactly that means.
Until then, White hopes the trial will bring answers and justice for both Thomas and their daughter.
“I have to be able to answer stuff like that,” White said. “They have to give me an answer so I can give her an answer. And that’s the whole reason why I’m doing this.”