Episode 031: Lauren Smith-Fields

March 14, 2022

A young woman is found dead by her date, but the investigation is bungled from the beginning. Will there ever be justice for Lauren?

Episode Media
Lauren Smith-Fields (Instagram)
Lauren Smith-Fields (Instagram)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week we’re diving into the case of a young Black woman who was found dead under mysterious circumstances. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Lauren Smith-Fields was a smart, energetic 23-year-old living in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A graduate of Stamford High School, Lauren was studying cosmetology at Norwalk Community College, about a 30-minute commute from her home on the east side of Bridgeport. Lauren’s goal was to graduate college and work towards a career as a physical therapist.

Lauren loved to travel, visiting places like London and Rome while documenting it all on her Instagram account. In the summer of 2021, Lauren traveled to the Dominican Republic and shared videos and pictures of her enjoying swimming and sunbathing.

Lauren also had an active social life, and she was well-liked by those around her. Like many young people her age, Lauren used dating apps to connect with other singles in the Bridgeport area.

In December of 2021, Lauren had been chatting with 37-year-old Matthew LaFountain. They had matched on the dating app Bumble, then took the conversation over to Instagram. After a few days of back and forth, Lauren invited Matthew over to her house on the evening of December 11th.

According to Matthew, he showed up at Lauren’s home around 9:30pm with the bottle of tequila she had asked him to bring. The evening began with tequila shots, but Lauren soon became ill and rushed to the bathroom to vomit. When she emerged, she was apologetic and suggested that they dilute the tequila with mixers.

The rest of the evening was spent in front of the TV watching a movie and playing games. At one point, Lauren said that her brother Lakeem was coming over to give her something. Lauren stepped outside to talk to him for a few minutes. When she returned, Matthew claims she disappeared into the bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes. He thought it was odd, but because he didn’t know her very well, he didn’t question her about it. Eventually, Lauren fell asleep on the couch and Matthew carried her to her bedroom where he fell asleep beside her on the bed.

After this, no one seems to know what really happened. According to Matthew, when he woke up around 3am to use the bathroom, Lauren was asleep and snoring. But a few hours later, at 6:30am, he woke up and found Lauren on her side, blood coming from her nose. She wasn’t breathing.

Matthew called 9-1-1, and the dispatcher told him to do chest compressions on Lauren while he waited for police to arrive. In the police report, the responding officer, Carla Remele, noted that Matthew was “frantic” and “trembling” and “visibly shaken.” He led Officer Remele to the bedroom where Lauren was lying on her back on the floor, dried blood around her nose. Matthew, who was still on the phone with 9-1-1, asked the dispatcher if he should continue the chest compressions. The dispatcher told him to hang up and speak with the officer; medics were on the way.

Lauren was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:49am. The medic told Officer Remele that she had been dead for at least an hour if not more. Officer Remele contacted her sergeant and the medical examiner. Soon, more officers arrived at the scene, including Detective Sergeant Joseph Morales and Detective Kevin Cronin.

Unfortunately, Matthew didn’t know Lauren’s last name or anything about her family. Officer Remele looked around the house for anything that might help them identify Lauren. She found a cell phone, credit cards, and a U.S. passport belonging to Lauren Smith-Fields.

The detectives then talked to Lauren’s landlord, but he didn’t have any information about Lauren’s family or know of any way to contact them. Detective Cronin gave the landlord his number and told him to give it to Lauren’s mom next time he saw her.

But after that, there was no attempt to contact Lauren’s family to let them know she was dead.

It wasn’t until the next day that they knew anything at all.

Lauren’s mother Shantell began to suspect that something was wrong when all of her texts and phone calls went unanswered. Lauren was always quick to respond; this type of silence was very unusual. Shantell texted again and again, “Are you OK? Please let me know.”

Finally, Shantell and Lauren’s brother Tavar drove over to Lauren’s house to check on her in person. What they found was a note on the door that said, “If you’re looking for Lauren, call this number.” Shantell immediately called the number and waited for the landlord to arrive. When he did, he delivered the terrible news.

Shantell later said that she was filled with panic during that moment. “All I could do was just stand there, like I was frozen. I could not believe what he was telling me, that my baby was gone.”

The landlord put the family in touch with Detective Cronin, but that call did not go well. They were understandably upset that they’d had to find out about Lauren’s death this way, but the detective told them that police didn’t have to notify the family – they knew who the victim was, so they went ahead and ordered an autopsy. He said there was nothing suspicious at the scene.

But Lauren’s family was not going to take his word for it. They asked Detective Cronin to meet them at Lauren’s house, but he never showed up. When they tried again, he told them to stop calling. Tired of waiting, Shantell and Tavar went inside the house, determined to pack up Lauren’s belongings.

What they found was not a scene that lacked suspicious evidence. Inside Lauren’s bedroom, they found a used condom, a sedative pill, multiple bottles of alcohol, and the bed sheets stained with blood. Nothing at the scene had been collected as evidence or sent to the lab for processing. It wasn’t until December 29th, two and a half weeks after Lauren’s death – and only after her family insisted – that police finally collected the items. But the family’s attorney alleges that the items were never turned over to the state forensic lab.

For the next month, Lauren’s family pushed for answers. Why hadn’t the police started an immediate investigation into Lauren’s death? Why hadn’t they collected evidence? Why hadn’t they questioned Matthew LaFountain after that night? According to the family, Detective Cronin told them that Matthew was “a nice man” and that they shouldn’t jump to any conclusions.

Even if Matthew had nothing to do with Lauren’s death, he was still the last person to see her alive and would be a valuable source of information for the case. But he was never investigated or questioned.

On January 23rd, what would have been Lauren’s 24th birthday, her family held a rally in Bridgeport to highlight the lack of attention to Lauren’s case. Dozens of Lauren’s friends and family members joined the march, demanding an independent investigation into her death and an internal affairs investigation of the Bridgeport Police Department.

Shantell spoke at the rally, saying, “To lose your daughter, your only daughter, your baby girl… and to be treated the way we [were] treated… is unacceptable. All we keep getting is doors closed in our faces and empty promises… Today and forever I will always be her voice. I will always stand strong for her.”

The family also announced their intent to sue the Bridgeport Police Department, alleging that the department was “racially insensitive” to the family and violated their civil rights. The notice of claim stated, “They have failed to investigate this matter, and they refuse to view the last person with Lauren Smith-Fields before she died as a person of interest. This behavior is unacceptable.”

After the rally, there was a flurry of activity. Lauren’s case caught fire on social media, with high-profile celebrities like Cardi B tweeting about Lauren and demanding justice. Amateur sleuths on platforms like TikTok and Instagram shared case updates and theories, and the hashtag #laurensmithfields was viewed millions of times. Matthew LaFountain’s name and face were plastered all over social media, even though authorities had not released his identity and had said that he wasn’t a person of interest in the case.

The mayor of Bridgeport, Joseph Ganim, made a statement announcing that the police department’s handling of the investigation had been turned over to the Office of Internal Affairs. “I recognize that the family and the community is experiencing a lot of pain because of the loss of a young woman in addition to unanswered questions and concerns about the way the matter has been handled… There is no tolerance for anything less than respect and sensitivity for family members and their loss.”

On January 24th, the medical examiner’s office released the results of Lauren’s autopsy. Lauren’s death was ruled an accident due to “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of fentanyl, promethazine, hydroxyzine and alcohol.”

This announcement was met with shock by the family. According to a statement released by their attorney, Lauren didn’t use drugs. She was healthy and active and had no history of substance abuse.

From here, there are only theories and rumors. Because the responding officers automatically assumed Lauren’s death was an overdose, they failed to collect evidence in a timely manner. They also failed to question WHY Lauren died of an overdose. How did she get access to that particular combination of drugs? Did she get them from Matthew? Did her brother Lakeem bring them to her? Or did she buy them herself? Did she take the drugs voluntarily, or were they somehow given to her without her knowledge?

The day the autopsy results were released, the Bridgeport Police Department announced they were opening a criminal investigation into Lauren’s death. Detective Cronin was removed from the case and placed on administrative leave. Sergeant Morales took an early retirement.

Even with these steps forward, many feel it is too little, too late. If not for Lauren’s family and the power of social media, Lauren’s case likely would have faded away, becoming just another statistic.

In a tragic twist, another Black woman died the same day as Lauren, in the same town. Fifty-three-year-old Brenda Lee Rawls died in her home in Bridgeport on December 12th, but no one bothered to contact her family. It was a neighbor that eventually told them Brenda had passed away, but no one knew where her body had been taken. Brenda’s family called the police department, local hospitals, and even funeral homes. Finally, they found her body at the medical examiner’s office on December 14th. They later learned that the officer assigned to her case was Detective Angel Llanos – the family left multiple messages for him that were never returned. Unsurprisingly, Detective Llanos was the supervising officer for Detective Cronin, who worked Lauren’s case. Detective Llanos was also put on administrative leave during the internal affairs investigation.

I wish I could say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen often, that it must have been an honest mistake. But there are countless stories of men and women of color who are treated unfairly by a system that was not created for them and does not value their lives. Just a few weeks ago, 29-year-old Asia Maynard was found dead after going on a date, and her family has been fighting for information that should be readily available to them. But we’ll dig into her case next week.

For now, we’ll end Lauren’s story with a small bit of hope. Lawmakers in Connecticut have introduced a bill that would change the process for notifying victims’ family members and hold law enforcement officers accountable.

The bill would require officers to notify next of kin within 24 hours of a victim being identified. If they fail to do so, they would have to have a valid reason documented or they would be reported to the Office of the Inspector General for investigation.

During a public hearing for the bill, Lauren’s mother Shantell said, “When it comes to Black and brown people, you need to treat us like we’re human… I just need for everyone to be treated as a human being, and to be notified of their family’s loss and to be treated with respect and kindness.”

Lawmakers from both parties have vowed to pass the bill in the state house, but in the meantime, the families of Lauren and Brenda and other victims like them must wait and hope. As Shantell told members of the Connecticut house of representatives, “Every day my heart breaks, every moment I have to keep myself strong.”

This is the part where I remind you that you can make a difference in your own community. Contact your local police department or sheriff’s office and ask them what their policy is for family notifications. Reach out to your state legislators and advocate for the rights of victims and their families. Your voice matters, and you can affect change right where you are.