THE ART OF MAKING MEANING

When Susan Cooper Eastman’s cover story, “The Last Days of Daniel Linsinbigler,” ran in this magazine on July 1, 2014, the response was a mixture of empathy, disbelief and downright outrage.

After all, how could a mentally ill 19-year-old spend 10 days in solitary confinement in the Clay County Jail, only to end up dead?

A few weeks ago, and a little more than a year since the story ran, Cooper Eastman’s piece earned first place for Investigative Reporting at the 2015 AAN Awards. The awards, which were established in 1996, are presented by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia to recognize the best in alternative journalism.

Historically, Folio Weekly has always fared well in the competition. Cooper Eastman has singlehandedly brought home an armful since she started with the magazine back in 2004, including awards for Diversity Reporting and Long-Form News Story.

“Making the switch from reporting the story to telling someone else the story of what happened, of deciding what’s essential, what’s important, what’s not and how to present it — that’s hard,” Cooper Eastman says of the in-depth stories for which she’s become known.

When presented with telling the story of Daniel Linsinbigler and his death inside the Clay County Jail, Cooper Eastman was introduced to a slew of obstacles.

First, nobody at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office would talk to the reporter because the Linsinbigler family had filed a lawsuit against them. Second, the information that was available included piles of written and audio depositions from the Florida Department of Law’s (FDLE) investigation into Linsinbigler’s death.

“It’s hard to sort through all that material, and there was lots of it because a state and the local police agencies investigated what happened,” explains Cooper Eastman. “I was challenged with not getting bogged down in all the detail and finding a way to organize it all.”

So what exactly did happen? How did Linsinbigler die while in police custody?

According to Cooper Eastman’s story, Linsinbigler was arrested on March 2, 2013 after running around naked outside an Orange Park motel, shouting Bible verses at guests and proclaiming himself God.

On the 10th day of Linsinbigler’s 10-day lockup in solitary confinement, the 19-year-old, who was likely in the midst of a psychotic break, was pepper-sprayed and strapped by the wrists, ankles and chest into a restraint chair on the cellblock. A TranZport Spit Hood was placed over his head.

An hour later, Linsinbigler suffocated in the chair, about 10 feet from an observation desk where a deputy was monitoring him. He was pronounced dead an hour later at Orange Park Medical Center.

“I had a real desire to make people see that this was a kid that was 19 years old, that was mentally ill and was having some kind of psychotic breakdown,” says Cooper Eastman. “To see empathy toward him, to put themselves in his shoes, put themselves in the shoes of the family and to make them feel the tragedy of what happened.”

Aside from the countless hours poring over the FDLE investigator’s interview with the deputies on the scene, Cooper Eastman also got in touch with Linsinbigler’s mom, Valerie, and sister, Merissa, to get a real sense of what the teenager was like.

“It was critical to my story that I had the family sharing personal stories about Daniel with me, because it gave it that human dimension that I think really makes a story have an emotional anchor or context,” she says.

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office settled with the Linsinbiglers for $1.5 million. Cooper Eastman has been in touch with the family a few times over the past year — Valerie contacted her to offer congratulations for the AAN nomination that ultimately turned into a win.

“I see injustice and have a high sense of seeing wrong. And if I see wrong, I feel that I can make other people see it — like recreating for them what I was able to see in a situation,” Cooper Eastman explains. “As a reporter, I feel like I have to make meaning out of it for people.”

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