Christina Nance had been missing for 12 days when a police officer spotted a pair of shoes next to a prisoner-transport van parked at the Huntsville, Alabama, public safety complex.
Inside, the 29-year-old Black woman lay dead.
What happened to Nance and why it took police nearly two weeks to find her body on Oct. 7 in the busy municipal parking lot remain a mystery — even after officials on Friday released surveillance footage showing someone they said was Nance entering the vehicle and moving around.
Preliminary autopsy results this week showed no signs of trauma or foul play, officials said; the cause of death is under investigation. A separate police inquiry into Nance’s death is ongoing, and a toxicology report is expected in the coming weeks. In the meantime, her family has hired one of the nation’s most high-profile civil rights attorneys, Ben Crump, to represent them as they await answers in the case.
“We will get to the truth of what happened to Christina Nance,” Crump said in a statement. “We lift up Christina’s family with prayer as they mourn this devastating loss.”
A police news conference Friday offered a partial view into how Nance may have gotten into the vehicle but provided no insight into why she remained there for so long.
Huntsville Deputy Police Chief DeWayne McCarver played video clips showing a person wandering through the parking lot outside police headquarters Sept. 25, then appearing to enter the blue-and-white van. Footage from the three days that followed showed movement inside the vehicle, McCarver said. The last movement was recorded Sept. 28, he said, noting that investigators had combed through hundreds of hours of video to find those key segments.
Nance’s family members reviewed the video before police presented it publicly. They told local news station WAFF that they were unsatisfied with the footage because it was such poor quality.
“The video was not clear enough to indicate that that was our sister Christina Nance,” Nance’s sister Whitney Nance said. “It was just very heartbreaking to know that we didn’t get the clarification that we really needed, that we wanted.”
McCarver acknowledged that Nance never should have been able to get into the van in the first place. Department policy requires that police vehicles remain locked.
“It is an accountability issue on our part,” the deputy chief said. “That should not have happened. And now we have to look at that, and we have to make sure that we have things in place so that does not happen again.”
Once Nance was inside, there would have been no way for her to let herself out. The van, which had been out of commission since March, was previously used to transport prisoners, so there were no handles on the interior.
But the windows were easy to pop out and were open when she was found, McCarver said. Although video showed officers moving through the area “continuously,” she never appeared to try to flag anyone down for help, the deputy chief said.
“Cars go by, people walk nearby the van,” McCarver said. “We just wish that she would have hollered out to someone or something because unfortunately there were what we see as potential opportunities for this to not be a tragedy. And unfortunately no one was able to realize she was in that van.”
“We simply have no idea of knowing what her state of mind was,” he added.
The public safety complex is between a tangle of highway overpasses on the north side of Huntsville and includes a jail, a magistrate’s office and a gun permit office, along with the department’s main offices. The parking lot where she was found is for police personnel. “There are police officers in and out of that lot 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” McCarver said.
Nance was known to the department. Officials said members of the crisis intervention team, which helps treat people with mental illness, had provided her unspecified resources in the past.
“We’ve been working with the Nance family now for over a year with the needs of the family through our CIT program and our community resource officers,” Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray told WAFF. “So we’re very close to this family and so we grieve with them; we share the loss of Ms. Nance at this time.”
Nance’s family members told WAFF that Nance was last seen Sept. 27 and reported her missing on Oct. 2. They described her as a sweet, quiet person who loved to sing and dance. Her sister Latausha Nance recalled going for a drive with her in late September.
“I just looked back at her and she was just smiling,” Latausha Nance told WHNT, the Huntsville-based CBS affiliate. “And I said, ‘Christina, why are you smiling like that?’ and she just said, ‘Oh nothing, it’s nothing.’ That’s the last memory I have of my sister.”
Nance’s death caught the attention of Alabama public officials. On Friday, Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, called for an independent autopsy.
“Hopefully, many of the questions raised by the community and the family of this young woman will be answered,” he said in a statement. “We need to fully understand what happened to Ms. Nance so that we may prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”