Austin Vance

22-year-old Austin Vance died April 26 at Norman Regional Hospital, 10 hours after he was arrested by Norman Police for public intoxication. 

More than a week after her 22-year-old son died in county custody, Cynthia Williams is still searching for answers. 

Austin Vance was arrested on April 26 for public intoxication, was taken to the hospital, where he was deemed fit for incarceration and booked into Cleveland County Detention Center.

Less than 10 hours after his arrest, the former Norman North student was dead. In the early morning hours of April 27, Norman Police officers arrived on Williams’ doorstep to deliver the news. Word of her son’s sudden death was the last news she received.

“The last time I spoke with the police, they said they would call me whenever they had any information. No one’s contacted me since,” Williams said.

“I spoke with the medical examiner, and thought he was going to give me some information, but all that he told me was that he was done with (Austin’s) body and we would know something in two to four months.”

Williams said she was told that the District Attorney’s office is involved and her son’s death is under investigation. But the wait for answers is agonizing.

“I don’t understand. We’re trying to figure out how it could have happened,” she said. “No one will talk to me. They wouldn’t release his phone so I could contact his friends. The police won’t even release his clothing to me.”

Cleveland County Public Information Officer Meghan Jackson said detention officers reported Vance attempting to bang his head against a glass wall and placed him in a restraining chair, where he was monitored every 15 minutes. When detention officers noticed that he had become unresponsive, they transported him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Jackson said the medical examiner reported no signs of internal injuries. Max Saunders, Vance’s grandfather, said that makes his death all the more puzzling.

“It would be nice if someone would talk to us,” he said. “But I think it’s a case of them trying to cover their butts.”

According to the arresting officer’s affidavit, Vance was reportedly dancing in the street. The affidavit states that Vance said he had just taken Adderall and was “sweating heavily and was extremely animated with his physical actions.”

Williams said the behavior described in the arresting officer’s affidavit sounds completely out of character. Saunders said that his grandson had lightly experimented with drugs, but had never gone overboard.

According to the FDA, Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant, usually used to treat ADHD, that can cause sudden death via stroke or cardiovascular complication.

Between 1999 and 2003, the FDA reports 16 cases of sudden death where the deceased had taken the drug.

A history of heart trouble exists in Vance’s family. Saunders and his wife, Sue Saunders, both have pacemakers, and in 2009 Vance’s sister, Chelsea Vance, died from what doctors believe was a heart-related condition.

“The best they could ever decide was that her heart just stopped,” Saunders said.

Still, Vance’s family believes that something could have been done to save him. They are exploring the possibility of filing a wrongful death suit.

“Depending on what kind of answers we get — I’ve gotten nothing.” Williams said.

“If the only way for us to find out is with an attorney, then we’ll go with an attorney. It all seems way too strange. Austin was healthy. I know healthy people can die too, but the whole thing, it just seems like something was wrong there. The way no one wants to talk to me, no one wants to call. It seems like something’s not right here.”

The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and the Norman Police Department can’t even agree on who’s custody Vance was in at the time of his death.

Jackson claimed Wednesday that Vance wasn’t in county custody when he died. She would not clarify when asked for a comment Thursday, but said Vance’s death is an open investigation.

“Austin Vance was a city of Norman prisoner housed at the Cleveland County Detention Center when he died at Norman Regional Hospital on April 26. He was not in Cleveland County custody,” Jackson said in an email Wednesday. “Norman police had custody because he was arrested on a public intoxication municipal charge, not a state charge.”

Norman Public Information Officer Sarah Jensen said Vance was turned over to detention officers after being medically cleared for incarceration and that was the end of the police department’s involvement.

“He was in (county) custody,” Jensen said. “They’re the ones that had them transferred to the hospital. He never came back into our custody. Once police book someone into jail, until they are released from the facility, they would remain in the county’s custody. It’s interesting that they would say that he was (Norman Police’s) responsibility when we have no one on site. We don’t even have access to a prisoner once they’re in (county) custody.”

There are more questions than answers at this point, but for Vance’s family, answers won’t give them what they want most.

“We didn’t believe that this happened, but it did,” Sue Saunders said. “It’s just so iffy. Why couldn’t they have helped him? Why did the doctors clear him to go to jail?

“We just loved him dearly. Yes, he had his problems, but he was a really good young man and we’re going to miss him a lot. So, whatever we find out, it’s not going to bring him back. Nothing brings that sweet boy back.”

Mack Burke


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Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.