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Police stand by investigation as activist David Caton questions death of Tampa woman

TAMPA — After Fatima Abdallah died in 2009, investigators looked and saw an accident — an odd one, yes, with her smashing face-first into a coffee table.

But still an accident.

Then on Thursday, controversial culture-war activist David Caton caused a stir at City Hall by demanding publicly that the case be reopened.

"There are glaring problems with this case," Caton told the Tampa City Council.

By day's end, police said they had reviewed their records and talked again with Dr. Laura Hair, the associate Hillsborough County medical examiner who did the autopsy.

"She was very firm on her ruling that it was accidental and she has no reason to believe otherwise," Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin said.

So the case remains closed.

Abdallah, 47, died the night of Aug. 16, 2009, at her brother's home on Old Town Drive in the Grand Hamptons subdivision. Her death occurred after the 5-foot-5, 106-pound woman struck her head on a table, fracturing her left cheek bone and causing a subdural hemorrhage.

Caton said he got involved after hearing rumors circulating in Abdallah's New Tampa neighborhood. His Florida Family Association, whose agenda includes opposing pornography, gay pride events and suggestive television programming, hired private investigator Dick Rivett to look into the case.

Rivett, a former Tampa homicide detective, reported that Abdallah lived with three Muslim families, was divorced because she could not have children and was not allowed to leave the house, Caton told the City Council.

He went on to raise questions about what the family told police after Abdallah died and the injuries she suffered.

Members of Abdallah's family did not return calls to their home, business and cell phones on Thursday.

Abdallah's brother, Ali Alkahla, had told police he was in Fort Myers when he got a call from his mother about 6:30 p.m. the night his sister died.

His mother told him his sister had been hitting her head on a table. Half an hour later, he said his mother called and said his sister was on the floor and wouldn't answer her.

Alkahla told police that he told his mother to call 911, but she said she didn't know how. He said he didn't call 911 at first because he didn't realize his sister was not breathing until he got home two hours later. That, he said, is when a call was made to 911 and he began CPR.

Abdallah's mother, Nafish Kahla, told police through a son who interpreted for her that she and her daughter had argued about cooking and that Abdallah had tried to leave. She grabbed for her daughter's arm, and Abdallah pulled away and slammed her head on the coffee table.

She then got up, noticed that her face was bloody and struck her face against the table several more times, then smashed her face onto the carpeted floor.

Asked about that account Thursday, Hamlin said: "There's a medical probability, the medical examiner's telling us, that after the initial head trauma there were seizures involved," which would be consistent with such an injury.

"So it could be that the convulsing of the body is what the family could have thought was her maybe trying to hurt herself," he said.

When police were first called at 9:05 p.m., someone told dispatchers that Abdallah had been found unconscious and unresponsive in the house. Whoever called 911 told dispatchers that she had been cleaning and might have passed out after breathing in fumes.

The first officers on the scene were joined by their sergeant, crime scene technicians and two homicide detectives.

"The severe trauma to the decedent's facial and forehead area was 'allegedly' self-inflicted," Officer James Perrone wrote in an incident report.

Hamlin said the initial investigation was thorough, but once the medical examiner determined that the death was an accident, "there's no criminal investigation to be done afterward."

"They have the jurisdiction in that matter; they determine the cause of death," he said. "No amount of investigating would change the conclusion that it was an accident based on the competent medical evidence of the medical examiner."

But Caton also raised questions based on what his investigator said he heard from Tampa Fire Rescue Lt. Scott Ashley.

Ashley said Abdallah's injuries "looked like somebody beat the crap out of her," Caton said. Ashley, who could not be reached for comment, also reportedly doubted that her ribs were broken during CPR, because paramedics didn't do CPR.

True, police said, but relatives did, and Hair told police Thursday that Abdallah's other injuries were consistent with being caused by CPR.

"The bottom line is, Dr. Hair has done a lot more autopsies than a paramedic from the Fire Rescue Department," Hamlin said. "We've got to go with what a medical expert is telling us, not a paramedic on the street."

Police stand by investigation as activist David Caton questions death of Tampa woman 05/19/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 12:33am]
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