January 7, 2011 in City

Man’s bizarre death at Taco Bell baffles family

By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photo

Gayla Wright, 45, is looking for answers in the death of her brother, Richard Thomas. He was found dead Monday in a cooler at Taco Bell on Monroe Street and Boone Avenue. The picture on her computer screen was taken of him in the past week.
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The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office said an autopsy is pending the results of toxicology reports, which could take eight to 12 weeks. Police hope that will help them understand what happened.

As police await toxicology reports in Richard Tyrone Thomas’ bizarre death, his family is questioning how a man just beginning his second term at Spokane Community College could end up dead in a fast-food restaurant storage cooler.

“He wasn’t a crazed, deranged person out on the street,” said his sister, Gayla Wright. “Something happened at that store, and we don’t know what that is.”

Thomas, 42, died Monday about 8 p.m. at the Taco Bell at 1202 N. Monroe St. after entering the store and becoming locked in the walk-in cooler.

An employee told 911 that Thomas appeared shaken up and had asked employees to call the police before he entered the cooler, according to a 911 call released Thursday.

Thomas was a recovering drug addict who planned to enter treatment this week, his family said. He received a $4,000 financial aid check the day of his death and was visiting a new friend at an apartment near Taco Bell when he sought help at the restaurant, family said.

Thomas’ family doesn’t know what led him to the Taco Bell, and they question employee claims that he voluntarily entered the cooler. A comment posted on an online news site by someone claiming to be an employee’s father said Thomas was pushed into the cooler.

But police don’t doubt employees’ accounts of the incident, said Officer Jennifer DeRuwe, spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department. Thomas did not die from exposure in the cooler, and there were no signs of violence.

The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office is awaiting the results of toxicology reports, which could take eight to 12 weeks. Police hope reports detailing any drugs in Thomas’ system will help them understand what happened, DeRuwe said.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Marla Skinner, suspects drugs were a factor.

“He definitely could have relapsed having it be the first day of school and having all that money,” Skinner said. “It’s just too strange for him to have been in his right mind.”

But Thomas’ family is reluctant to call his death a drug overdose.

“I don’t know that my brother was even on any drugs,” Wright said. “He went in there to go get help.”

In the 911 call, a Taco Bell employee identified only as Shane asks for police to remove a man who had entered the store’s “employee area.” He said the man was not aggressive, violent or threatening.

“He’s just really shaken up, but we’re always supposed to make sure nobody comes back here, and he just kind of talked himself back here,” the employee said. The employee said Thomas was acting “like he just saw something, like somebody’s after him.”

About a minute into the call, the employee said Thomas had locked himself in the cooler.

Employees at the store declined to answer questions this week, but an employee at another Spokane store said older stores like the one on Monroe Street have coolers that lock from the inside.

A Taco Bell spokesman declined to answer questions but called Thomas’ death “a very sad and unfortunate situation that has shocked us all.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim’s family and friends during this tragic time,” according to a prepared statement. “Our franchisee has – and continues to – fully cooperate with Spokane police detectives as the community awaits the conclusive details of their investigation.”

Wright said she heard witnesses at the apartment told police that her brother had “started acting paranoid … because he thought they were trying to rob him.”

Thomas’ death devastated his family, who moved here from Jacksonville, Fla., in March after Wright got a job at Eastern Washington University.

“I haven’t cried yet because I just can’t see my son dead; I just can’t see it,” said Thomas’ mother, Virginia Smith.

Family described Thomas as a happy father of two and full-time lab technician student who loved people and hats and had a contagious smile.

“If I didn’t tell you he had an addiction, you would never know,” Wright said.

He started classes at SCC in August, attended a local church and was baptized in the Spokane River in Coeur d’Alene on his birthday in November.

Thomas lived with Skinner at an apartment just a few blocks from where he died. Skinner said she talked to him about 6:30 p.m. – shortly before the Taco Bell incident – and he asked for a ride home. She couldn’t go, and he agreed to walk, she said.

“He just wasn’t himself when I talked to him,” Skinner said.

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