Jessica Mejia, 20, was killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 2009, while riding in a Mercedes driven by her ex-boyfriend, who was drunk when he crashed into a pole. The car rolled over in a ditch near 147th Street and Oak Park Avenue in unincorporated Cook County.
Now her family is filing a lawsuit and alleging that the Cook County Sheriff’s Office improperly removed the clothing from Jessica’s body and took roadside nude photographs after an accident is scheduled for trial next Monday, court records show.
The lawsuit, filed in late 2010 by Mejia’s mother, Christina Mejia, and other relatives, alleges that responding sheriff’s officers removed Mejia’s clothes in violation of the department’s own rules and took multiple nude photographs of her body. It alleges that the sheriff’s office intentionally caused emotional distress to Mejia’s family by shooting the photos.
Don Perry, the attorney representing Mejia’s family, said the sheriff’s office was wrong to photograph Mejia at the scene.
“This was a young lady that just died and was treated with less dignity than a deer carcass you find on the side of the road,” Perry said.
Cara Smith, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, said the department acted appropriately to try and preserve evidence that later helped convict Nicholas Sord, the driver whose actions led to Mejia’s death.
“The family suffered an unimaginable loss, and the crime scene photos were taken as our officers investigated this crime and were instrumental in securing a conviction against the person responsible for this tragic death,” Smith said. “In no way were these photos intended to cause harm to the family.”
But Christina Mejia said she feels that the sheriff’s officers didn’t fulfill their responsibility to serve the public that night.
“I don’t feel protected,” said Mejia, who fought back tears during an interview. “I feel violated.”
Christina Mejia said she’s suing the sheriff’s office to help clear her daughter’s name. In the south suburbs, she said, many people believe the accident was caused by Jessica Mejia straddling Sord, which is not what happened.
But by stripping her daughter at the scene, Mejia said, sheriff’s officers contributed to that perception.
“(People) think my daughter died from having sex, not from somebody being drunk and killing her. Because they took these photos, by the time everybody else got to the scene, all the ambulances and everybody else, she was partially naked because they made her naked,” Mejia said. “So the rumors, and the allegations … they made it believable.”
When the lawsuit was first filed, the sheriff’s office denied it had taken naked photos of the young woman at the scene. Smith, who was not with the sheriff’s office at the time, acknowledged the photos were taken but said it’s “standard operating procedure” to photograph crime scenes.
The pictures, shown to the Tribune by Mejia’s attorney, show the young woman’s body was moved after the accident. One set of photos shows Mejia, lifeless, in the back seat of the vehicle: She is wearing jeans, a white T-shirt and high heels.
Other shots show her on a tarp on the ground, naked except for her lower undergarment.
“To see the way my daughter’s body was handled, at the scene, was so confusing and so disturbing,” Mejia said. “I just didn’t understand why they did that.”
Perry, Mejia’s attorney, said the sheriff’s office shouldn’t have taken the photographs on the side of the road. Smith said the sheriff’s deputies were just doing their job and added that harming the Mejia family “couldn’t be further from the intention of the men and women of the sheriff’s office.”
Mejia’s lawsuit isn’t about money, Perry said, but rather is about “the truth coming out and clearing her daughter’s name.”
Christina Mejia said she would like an apology and the knowledge that other victims won’t be treated like Jessica.
“I don’t want this to happen again,” Mejia said.
Sord pleaded guilty last fall to drunken driving and was sentenced to 56 months in prison. He had a blood alcohol content of 0.236 at the time of the accident, about three times the legal limit.
Sord is the son of Bryan Sord, a prominent south suburban developer and restaurateur.
Mejia was a junior in psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago when she died. Christina Mejia described her daughter as an outgoing woman who would make friends with everyone, from freshmen to nerds.
After her daughter died, Christina Mejia made a card with Jessica’s picture on it to give out.
“People put it in their cars, and they say, ‘She’s my angel, she protects me,'” Mejia said.
The trial is expected to begin April 27.