“It affected me, which was unusual,” Pintabona said. “It really affected me. She had her whole life going for her.”
McFadden said she got a call later that day from the boyfriend, who said he was telephoning from Cummings’ apartment.
“He was calling from her cell phone,” McFadden said. “I was like, ‘How did you even get in the house?’ “
Even more questions would rise up for Cummings’ family and friends over the 17 days that she was in custody at the Erie County Holding Center. Here is an account of what happened to her, based on the 2018 state Commission of Correction report, Wyatt’s two lawsuits and BTR’s interview with her.
At some point after Cummings’ Feb. 1 arrest, Cummings’ brother, Gavin Wyatt, was getting telephone calls from people who’d seen an article about the incident in a newspaper in the Buffalo area. Gavin Wyatt called his mother and aunt to let them know what happened.
“Me and my sister are like, ‘In jail?’ “ Tawana Wyatt remembered.
Wyatt called various government offices around Buffalo and learned Cummings faced multiple charges.
“The next morning, I shot to Buffalo trying to find out what was going on,” Wyatt said.
When she got there, she learned Cummings had a court appearance in Lackawanna. When she reached Lackawanna, Cummings’ appearance was over.
Wyatt, who'd been working as a customer service representative, dropped everything to help her daughter. She began a daily, 80-mile trek from Rochester to Buffalo, often through blizzards. Each time Wyatt arrived at the holding center, staff told her Cummings refused to see her. They were rude and emotionless, she said.
“I was back and forth every day,” Wyatt said. “They kept telling me she was refusing her visits. I kept telling them it’s her mother.”
On Feb. 5th, four days after Cummings arrived at the holding center, Dr. Peter Martin, a psychiatrist with Erie County Forensic Mental Health Services, visited Cummings and noted that she was “delusional, minimally engaged, disorganized and responding to internal stimuli.”
Three days later, Cummings was scheduled to have her arm treated at Erie County Medical Center but she refused to go, according to a sheriff’s deputy. She also refused to go to court for a hearing.
That same day, McFadden and Gavin Wyatt drove to Buffalo to visit Cummings. The staff refused them entry. Cummings’ brother and friend asked the staff to let Cummings know her brother and her good friend were there. The staff said they could not do that. They said Cummings was behaving aggressively.
“I’m like, 'India? She’s never been a fighter,' ” McFadden recalled telling the staff. “They said, ‘We’ve got professionals that work here and they know their job.’ “
An employee pulled up Cummings’ file on the computer. McFadden and Wyatt were shocked. “I accidentally saw her mugshot and I said, ‘Is that her?’ “
Cummings looked nothing like the young woman who would regularly get her hair done and tweak her appearance until it was perfect, her friend said.
Wyatt had a similar shock the following day, Feb. 9, when she was in the audience for a court appearance for Cummings. Wyatt saw that her daughter’s hair was disheveled and she’d lost weight.
“I sat right up in the chair and I was in disbelief at her appearance,” Wyatt said. “There were guards on both sides of her but she happened to turn and look under her arm and she looked me right in my face. I could tell that she was trying to see if it was really me. I heard her whimper and I looked her dead in her face.”
During that hearing, Judge Debra Givens ordered mental health tests for Cummings.
As soon as the court appearance was over, Wyatt called around for lawyer recommendations and found Matthew Albert, a Buffalo lawyer who often works with the Western New York Peace Center, a Buffalo nonprofit. For the first time, Wyatt felt as if she had an advocate who could help, she said.
“I told Matt something is definitely wrong,” Wyatt said. “I said I know my child and I know that there’s some kind of depression, a deep depression. I’m not a doctor, but as a mother, I knew that she needed some kind of medical attention.”
McFadden was angry at how the authorities and the media handled the case. No one seemed to see Cummings as a person who was smart, kind and working to have a good life.
“They made it seem like the crazy Black girl went mad,” McFadden said.
The following day, Feb. 10, Wyatt left two telephone messages with a social worker at the holding center. Her calls were not returned.
Overnight, at 1:20 a.m., Cummings banged on her cell door and said she could not breathe. Nothing was done.
On the 11th, Dr. Evelyn Coggins, a physician who works with Erie County Forensic Mental Health, was updated on Cummings’ condition by a judge and noted something seemed “terribly wrong” with the young woman.
A nurse or nurse practitioner checked on Cummings from the window of Cummings' cell and noted that she was “disheveled, with poor hygiene, her left arm unsupported and discolored.” The nurse or nurse practitioner also saw that Cummings’ broken arm was red. It was 10 days after her arrest and Cummings had still not received medical treatment for her spiral break, a condition that typically requires immediate surgery.
That same day, Wyatt and Albert were in court. They were hopeful when they won permission to move Cummings to a health facility. Now, they would just need to find her a bed.
Again, Wyatt called the social worker at the holding center and left a message.
On the 12th, Wyatt left another message for the social worker that went unanswered. The holding center log notes that Cummings had gone 16 hours without urinating, a sign of danger.
On the 13th, holding center staff saw Cummings in her cell at her sink, holding her head underwater and urinating on the floor. The cell, littered with food and saturated with urine, was in “deplorable” condition, according to the state commission report. That night, Cummings lay on the floor moaning and urinating on herself.
On Valentine’s Day, when couples were enjoying romantic restaurant meals, Cummings ate lunch on the floor of her cell. Later, holding center staff saw that she was again naked, on the floor and moaning.
Fellow inmate Teyonna Walker said in an affidavit that the next day, the 15th, Cummings “seemed out in space with a glazed look on her face.” Walker, reached through Facebook, agreed to talk to BTR but did not answer the phone when BTR called multiple times over months.
In her affidavit, Walker said she and other inmates noticed that Cummings was not eating and did not seem to have a grasp on reality. She would scream at all times of the day and night, bang her head against the bars and seemed to think there were people with her in her cell.
“We told the main deputy in charge of the block … that she needed medical treatment,” Walker said. “Most of the time he would ignore us. On one occasion, he told me that ‘he would do his fucking job and I should do mine.’ “
On Feb. 16th, holding center staff saw Cummings in her cell hyperventilating. They did nothing, according to the state Commission of Correction. By now, the young woman had not urinated for 40 hours. At various points, staff saw her moving her bowels as she knelt on the floor, smearing breakfast cereal on her body and the walls, and laying on the floor surrounded by trash.
That night, Cummings wept. A concerned deputy contacted a sergeant to say something was wrong with Cummings and her cell needed cleaning. When holding center staff arrived, Cummings was too weak to stand and they helped her into a wheelchair. She seemed confused, according to the state report.
On the 17th, holding center staff found Cummings unresponsive. She’d gone into cardiac arrest. Emergency responders rushed her to Buffalo General Medical Center. The hospital told state authorities that when Cummings arrived, she was malnourished, severely dehydrated and her organs were failing.
Wyatt was at a friend’s house when she got the phone call.
“I just fell to the floor,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt's sister, Beverly Patterson, came over, scooped her up and drove both of them to Buffalo. When Wyatt and her sister arrived at the hospital, they saw two uniformed officers at the door to Cummings’ room.
“Just seeing the officers there and the whole nine sent me overboard,” Wyatt remembered. “I called Matt and I’m screaming into the phone telling him what I’m seeing.”
The hospital told Wyatt Cummings had suffered irreversible brain damage. They asked her to decide whether to remove Cummings from life support.
“It’s a situation you hear about happening to other people and you’re like ‘awwww,’ but when it hits close to home it’s like a whole other ball game,” she said. “You're in this office and you’re sitting around this table and you’ve got doctors telling you the condition your child is in. It’s just unbelievable.”
Despite the family's heartbreak, they had to pull it together. Wyatt made the painful decision to take her daughter off of the machines. Cummings’ aunt said goodbye to the niece that liked to ask her about God.
“I was told hearing is the last thing to go and I know she heard me,” Patterson remembered. “I said ‘Auntie loves you’ and she just breathed through that machine.”
Simon also was there when the hospital removed her friend from the machines.
“This girl was so funny and full of life,” Simon said. “They said she was crying in her cell. I don’t even remember (ever) seeing India cry at all. She was such a happy person. Even when she was sad I never saw her cry. That was hard to hear.”
On Feb. 21, a doctor pronounced Cummings dead.
Police took Cummings to court, where she was arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct, harassment and obstructing governmental administration. Outside of traffic tickets, this was her first brush with the law. By that afternoon, Cummings was in custody in downtown Buffalo at the Erie County Holding Center, one of New York’s five worst local correctional facilities, according to a state report. Several hours later, authorities took her to a hospital, where she received a cloth sling for her arm. She returned to her cell at 2:45 a.m.
India Cummings, right, with Simon, second from left, and more friends. Photo courtesy Tawana Wyatt.
Tawana Wyatt goes through papers related to her daughter's death at her home in Rochester. With her is Cummings' dog, Kash. Photo, Beyond the Railroad.
“She would go, ‘Auntie, you making that peach cobbler?’ “ Patterson recalled. “Oh my baby, I will never forget her as long as I live.”
Cummings and Patterson would have long talks about God.
“She loved the Lord,” Patterson said. “She’d sit and deliberate. We’d sit and have our little opinions together.”
And if she accidentally let a cuss word slip out in front of her aunt, she’d fix it. “She would come to me later and she would say, ‘Auntie, I’m sorry,’ “ Patterson said.
Cummings flagged down a 70-year-old motorist and punched him.
“She jumped in the car and took off,” Pintabona recounted. “She barrelled down the street. I didn’t see what happened because it was too far but we heard the crash.”
Police arrested Cummings. "I think they treated her like a doped-up junkie," Pintabona said.
The funny thing was, Pintabona said, he never found her keys in her apartment. “That was suspicious. I think he (the boyfriend) may have taken them.”
Police took Cummings to court in downtown Lackawanna for arraignment and then to the holding center in Buffalo.
As Cummings grew up, friends and relatives came to know her as someone who was kind and maybe shy if she didn’t know someone. When she got to know people, she was full of laughs and down-to-earth, her mother said. She would become outgoing to a degree that it wore people out, some said, laughing at the memory.
A favorite high school guidance counselor would enlist Wyatt’s help when Cummings came to visit. “He would have to call me just to kick her out of the office,” Wyatt remembered.
When Cummings would visit her good friend, Jessica Simon, she would announce that she was staying the night. Simon said her mom was not having it. “She was like, ‘India, when are you going home?’ “ remembered Simon, 32.
Simon said she and Cummings met in the auditorium at middle school. Simon was feeling isolated. It was only the second day of school and she couldn’t find her older sister.
“I think India could sense that because she was sitting next to me,” Simon, a lawyer, said in an interview. “She was like, ‘Hi, my name’s India.’ We ended up being in the same class.”
The pair became fast friends and together completed a program for high-performing students. They stayed close as they grew into adults and Cummings became the diva of their group, paying so much attention to her appearance that Wyatt called her a “glamour puss.” Cummings joked that if she had a daughter she would name her “Adiva.”
Cummings loved singer Mariah Carey and the movie Love and Basketball. If someone was cooking soul food during the holidays, she’d perform a little hum of anticipation, her aunt said.
As a tenant, she initially made a nice impression and kept her place up, the landlord said. There were no wild parties or people coming in and out at all hours. Whenever he ran into her, they had nice conversations. “I have a good judgment of people,” he said.
But something changed. Cummings became secretive with her family and friends. Pintabona got complaints from her neighbors about loud music and smoking in her apartment. Family and friends believe it had to do with a new boyfriend -- someone they knew only by his first name, which BTR is choosing not to publish. All agreed that he gave them a bad feeling. There were rumors of him selling drugs and being married, though none of that could be corroborated by BTR.
“(One day) she arrives with this guy that’s just the opposite of her,” Pintabona said. “He was real smooth talking with a hand in the pocket jingling something. I could just tell by the way he talked. I have a good perception of people. I’ve run several businesses. I’ve sold real estate. And I don’t judge people right away, but this guy just had this air about him.”
Erie County Holding Center, Buffalo, NY. Photo, Fortunate4Now.
“She should have been in a hospital,” Buffalo lawyer Matthew Albert told BTR. “She was never even in a forensic unit (set aside specifically for people in custody),” added the litigator representing Cummings’ mother in two lawsuits.
An initial autopsy by the Erie County medical examiner listed no cause of death. A second autopsy by a state review board blamed a “massive” blood clot from Cummings' leg that shut down both lungs. The autopsy also cited terminal kidney failure. Cummings' right foot and ankle were purple and blistered due to lack of blood and oxygen. Had she lived she would have lost the leg. The broken bones in Cummings’ arm were healing poorly and able to move freely. The second autopsy also mentioned dehydration and a breakdown of muscle tissue. The state Commission of Correction blamed Cummings’ death on a “cascade of failures.”
For more than a year, the office of New York State Attorney General Tish James has been investigating whether to press criminal charges. The office was aiming to meet with Wyatt and her legal team earlier this year but the coronavirus
India Cummings is buried under a tree in a peaceful corner of Falls Cemetery in Greece, N.Y. Her grave is in the lower left corner of the photograph. Photo, Beyond the Railroad.
Cummings was the kind of person who attracted people and supported them. Ciera McFadden, a nurse in Rochester, said she met Cummings when they both worked in a group home. She appreciated that Cummings was loyal.
“Sometimes you’ll go and tell a friend something and they’ll tell somebody, not even maliciously but just because they can’t hold it in,” said McFadden, 33, explaining Cummings was different. “She never ever ever ever told anything you told her.”
McFadden added, “I know for a fact there’s no one else like her, not even close.”
Cummings’ cousin, Rodney Lee, agreed, calling the young woman a “beautiful soul” who helped him get through a prison stint.
“She kept my spirits up,” said Lee, 37, of Rochester. “She would send money. She was a talker. She loved to talk -- just gossiping about what’s going on in the family. She would just keep me posted on everything.”
While the young woman was a rock for everyone else, she struggled to find direction for her own life, friends and loved ones said. She wanted to start a family and thought about moving out of Western New York, Simon said. Cummings and Wyatt settled on moving together to metro Buffalo for a change of scenery. They got jobs and made good friends. After a few years, Cummings decided to get her own place in Lackawanna, a former steel town south of Buffalo working to remake itself.
“I was upset about it but she was an adult so I didn’t feel that it would be a problem,” said Wyatt, who moved back to Rochester.
A NEW START
Property owner David Pintabona remembers meeting Cummings and, like others, was inspired by her enthusiasm.
“She touched me a little bit,” Pintabona, said. “She seemed to be someone who wanted to better themselves, very enthusiastic. I asked her, ‘Why do you want to move here?’ She said she was going to college, wanted to get a degree. She said she broke up with a boyfriend and wanted to better herself. I thought she was a beautiful young lady inside and out - very smart."
India Cummings as a toddler and as a little girl, photos courtesy Tawana Wyatt. Cummings' mother, Wyatt, looks over photos and notes at her home in Rochester, N.Y., that remind her of her daughter, who died in 2016 after a stay at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo, photo, Beyond the Railroad.
The street where India Cummings lived in Lackawanna, N.Y. Photo, Beyond the Railroad.
Over the next two weeks, the young woman who friends and family said was meticulous about her hair, lashes and nails would break down, walking around naked, babbling to herself, and urinating on the floor so much that it seeped out the cell door. Sometimes she cried while she lay on the floor. Her untended broken arm turned color. She smeared breakfast
By Melanie Eversley
©Copyright 2020. Beyond the Railroad.
GREECE, N.Y. – India Cummings is buried under a tree in a 200-year-old cemetery near Lake Ontario.
But the peaceful scene contradicts the harrowing final days for the late 27-year-old.
On Feb. 1, 2016, Cummings called 9-1-1 to say she couldn’t breathe. By the time emergency responders reached her apartment building in Lackawanna, N.Y., outside Buffalo, she’d mentally unraveled. The nursing student ran outside, knocked an elderly man out of his car, took the wheel and crashed twice in an incident friends and family said was uncharacteristic for the law-abiding woman. Authorities arrested her, twisting her arm with an audible snap. It broke in at least two places.
©Copyright 2020. Beyond the Railroad. All Rights Reserved.
Wyatt has survived by taking part in an annual season of rallies in Buffalo in front of the holding center. February and March, the months of Cummings' death and birthday, are especially difficult for her. She and Kash are like partners and the dog never leaves her side.
“You could tell that he went through a little depression,” Wyatt said.
“Tawana will never be the same,” Beverly Patterson said. “She looks OK to people but I know my sister because I helped raise her. The sadness is still there and a lot of times I see it but I just don’t say anything. I don’t know how it feels to lose a child but they tell me it’s totally different from losing your mother or your father, so I can’t begin to understand the hurt that she feels.”
India Cummings. Photo courtesy Tawana Wyatt.
A FAMILY OF STRIVERS
Cummings came from a family that works hard and loves God. Her grandmother abandoned the palm trees of Sanford, Fla., for better opportunities in Rochester, a city of concrete and, at the time, plentiful jobs. The family blossomed.
Cummings was born at Strong Memorial Hospital on a cold, gray day in 1988. She was a brash little girl -- smart, funny and always pushing the envelope, Wyatt said. Wyatt explained all this from her home in Rochester. The grieving mother was reminiscing over mementos in a room she has devoted to memories of her daughter. Wyatt found a note from Cummings’ kindergarten teacher and chuckled as she read it out loud.
“Tawana, I have been having a very hard time with India listening to directions,” the teacher wrote. “She knows the rules and constantly tests me on them to see my reaction. For example, if I ask her not to play in the bathroom she continues.”
India Cummings, who died in 2016 after a 17-day stay at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo. Photo courtesy Tawana Wyatt.
She couldn't breathe:
Advocates for India Cummings seek justice for her mysterious death in Buffalo
But Wyatt’s ordeal with the correctional system was not over. Swimming in grief, she had to call multiple entities for days to have her daughter’s body released. The voices on the other end were cold and rude. People never called her back. An employee with the holding center sued Wyatt because she claimed Cummings had injured her to a degree that she could not work.
“They did not do her right,” Beverly Patterson said of Cummings. “It just doesn’t make any sense for somebody to be locked up for two weeks and they lose their life like that. I still can’t get over that but you know what? God’s got his hands in it and this is why it’s being brought to life.”
Cummings' funeral took place at Church of God by Faith in Rochester, She was buried at Falls Cemetery in Greece, N.Y. Her final resting place is in a quiet corner under a large tree that appears to protect her.
pandemic postponed that indefinitely. The Erie County District Attorney investigated and closed the case three years ago with no action.
Cummings’ mother and her lawyer are placing their hope behind James’ office along with two civil lawsuits they’ve filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo. A personal injury civil suit filed in 2018 seeks damages due to negligence, medical malpractice and wrongful death from the city of Lackawanna and its police department, Erie County, Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard and his office, and multiple medical entities who did see or should have seen Cummings while she was in custody. A second personal injury civil suit filed last year is seeking damages from 17 Erie County sheriff’s sergeants, five lieutenants, a captain and 49 deputies.
BTR reached out or made multiple attempts to contact every entity listed in both lawsuits. The organizations contacted referred BTR to lawyers, who all said it was not their practice to comment on active litigation. In the cases of the multiple medical entities, many could not be located despite attempts over the course of some months.
As for Wyatt, she spends lots of time researching her daughter's case from her home in Rochester. She has devoted a bedroom to mementos of her daughter. Her companion is Cummings’ dog, Kash.
“There are still some times where it’s still so unreal,” Wyatt, 50, told BTR during an interview at her home.
Wyatt gave doctors the OK at Buffalo General Medical Center to take her brain-dead daughter off life support.
“In the beginning I could hear myself in my sleep calling out her name,” Wyatt said. “It’s hard because we were very close. We had our little mother-daughter spats but there was never a time that she didn’t come back and apologize or say ‘I’m sorry’ for whatever reason. I guess the hardest part is that I wasn’t able to reach out to her during that time (when Cummings was in custody).”
“To me, it was like she slipped through our fingers,” Beverly Patterson, Wyatt’s big sister, told BTR. “She was gone for no reason.”
Cummings introduced the man as her boyfriend, and it seemed as if he had some kind of power over her, Pintabona said. “He had on nice slacks, rings, jewelry. He was smooth, sly. India was the opposite -- sweet, down-to-earth, looking to better herself.”
Cummings’ friends said that while they hadn’t met the boyfriend, they had the impression that he was controlling.
“It felt like she was trying to hide something - you know how you know your friend and something is not right? ” Ciera McFadden said. “I’d text her or something and she’d say, ‘I had to block you because he’d be looking through my phone and he didn’t like what you said.’ “
Around Friday, Jan. 29th, Cummings may have come to see her boyfriend in the same light as the people around her. She told her friends that she’d broken up with him. He was supposed to return the key to her apartment. She seemed sad about the breakup, her friends said.
On Feb. 1, she telephoned Pintabona to say she’d locked herself out of her apartment.
When Pintabona arrived, Cummings was not herself, he said. She sat inside a car and he smelled a pungent, unfamiliar odor, one that he now associates with synthetic marijuana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that this set of drugs can be lethal. Officials were warning about synthetic weed making its way through Western New York around the same time in 2016. Pintabona wonders if Cummings' boyfriend gave her some.
“I went down there and she’s acting like she lost her mind,” Pintabona said. “She was very rushed and she’s all of a sudden frantic. She said, ‘I’ve gotta go, I’ve gotta get out of here.’ “
Cummings told Pintabona she needed to get to Rochester to see her mother. She called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher she couldn’t breathe. She knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked the neighbor to take her to see Wyatt.
“The rescue squad came, the fire truck, and she was just all over the place,” Pintabona said. “All of a sudden, it was like where did she go? She was outside, moving all around, almost not rational. Just something was really off.”
cereal on her naked body and upended her mattress. Her right foot and ankle lost so much blood and oxygen her entire leg would have required amputation had she lived. Each day, the young woman with no history of mental illness was more unlike herself, according to a June 2018 report by the state Commission of Correction. Two judges ordered mental tests.
That never happened.
Sixteen days after Cummings entered the holding center, she went into cardiac arrest. Responders got her heart beating again, but she was irretrievably brain damaged. She died four days later at Buffalo General Medical Center - eight days shy of her 28th birthday.
Cummings’ mother, Tawana Wyatt, is anguished because she made the 80-mile trip from Rochester each day, often through blizzards, only to be told each time that her daughter was not seeing visitors. Wyatt left multiple messages with a hospital social worker that went unanswered. Each time Wyatt asked holding center staff about the status of the mental tests, they said it was up to the doctors to complete them.
A state Commission of Correction report in 2018 concluded Cummings’ life could have been saved had she received proper medical attention. The report classified Cummings’ death as “homicide by medical neglect.”