Lawsuit: Police ‘desecrated’ ashes of man’s murdered 2-year-old, tested them for drugs

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — An Illinois man has filed a federal lawsuit after Springfield police officers unsealed an urn carrying the ashes of his 2-year-old daughter last year and tested the ashes for drugs.

The entire April 6, 2020, incident involving Dartavius Barnes was captured in body-worn camera footage recently obtained by Newschannel 20 in Springfield.

The police department’s response to the lawsuit, which was filed in October, concedes that the factual claims made in the lawsuit are accurate. Attorneys for the city and the officers argue, however, that Barnes’ rights were not violated that night.

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“As a result of this unlawful search, defendants desecrated and spilled out the ashes of plaintiff’s 2-year-old daughter, who died several months earlier,” the lawsuit states.

Barnes is the father of Ta’Naja Barnes, who died in February 2019 at the hands of her mother, T’wanka Davis, and Davis’ boyfriend, Anthony Myers. Ta’Naja’s cause of death was environmental neglect, with the significant contributing factors of dehydration and malnourishment.

Court records indicate that when Decatur police officers found the toddler’s body wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket Feb. 11, 2019, at her home, her core temperature was so low that paramedics could not get a reading.

When Ta’Naja reached the hospital, her temperature was 32 degrees, the freezing point for water.

Davis, 23, is serving 20 years in prison for Ta’Naja’s murder, Newschannel 20 reported. Myers, 27, is serving a 30-year sentence.

Barnes carried some of Ta’Naja’s ashes with him the night he encountered police.

Barnes’ lawsuit states that he was unlawfully stopped the night of April 6, 2020, near the intersection of 16th Street and Laurel Street in Springfield. The spot is in a residential area with a school on one corner and a church on another.

Police reports obtained by Newschannel 20 indicated that Officer Colton Redding pulled Barnes over in connection with a shooting that took place at a nearby gathering for a murder victim. Barnes’ car had a fresh bullet hole in the rear fender.

According to the reports, Barnes said he was driving west on Laurel Street when he heard gunshots and what sounded like a rock hitting his car.

The officers handcuffed Barnes while they searched his car, without his consent or a warrant, the lawsuit alleges. The bodycam footage, recording by Redding’s camera, shows Barnes seated in the back seat of Redding’s patrol vehicle, his hands cuffed behind his back, while officers process his car.

Barnes appears to give consent for the officers to search the vehicle, though his lawsuit alleges the search was without consent, valid warrant or probable cause.

One of the officers, identified by his uniform as Officer Brian Riebeling, shows Redding a small baggie of marijuana found in the car, as well as a small gold container he says he found in the center console.

Riebeling unscrews the cover and shows Redding the contents.

“At first I thought it was heroin,” Riebeling says. “Then I checked for cocaine. But it looks like it’s probably molly.”

The contents were not molly, the street name for ecstasy. They were Ta’Naja’s ashes.

Watch the bodycam footage in full below.

Riebeling wrote in his report on the incident that the small urn was shaped like a rifle round and had what appeared to be the skeleton of a bat on the outside.

“I have seen similar items like this before utilized to contain narcotics,” he wrote. “I opened the top and observed it was full of a brown chunky substance similar to heroin.”

Riebeling wrote that the substance changed colors when he tested it with the combined test for methamphetamine and MDMA.

The officers also found several bags of marijuana in the vehicle, drugs that Barnes had already admitted he had. While marijuana is legal in Illinois, Barnes’ two ounces of marijuana was not in the proper packaging and was well beyond the legal amount, the officers said.

Illinois residents can possess up to 30 grams of marijuana. It must be in an odor-proof container that is child resistant, such as a prescription bottle.

Read the police reports on the incident below, courtesy of Newschannel 20.

Redding went back to Barnes, who was visibly confused when the officer told him a substance testing positive for meth or ecstasy was found in the car.

“You sure, bruh?” Barnes asks.

“I’ll show it to you,” Redding says.

“The only thing that should have been in there was weed,” Barnes said.

He becomes upset when the officer shows him the gold urn, which had been stashed inside a black disposable glove.

“No, no, no, bro, that’s my daughter! What are y’all doing, bro?” Barnes exclaims. “That’s my daughter! Give me that, bro!”

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Barnes, still cuffed behind his back, starts trying to grab the urn from Redding’s hands. He continues to protest, telling Redding to ask his father, who has arrived at the scene of the traffic stop.

“No, no, no, she just passed last year,” Barnes tells Redding, looking up frantically at the officer. “You know me. That’s her, bro.”

Redding, who later tells his colleagues he was there when the coroner told Barnes his daughter was dead the year before, seems to immediately realize the mistake. He tries to calm Barnes down as tears appear to fill the man’s eyes.

“Please give me my daughter,” Barnes pleads. “Put her in my hand. Y’all are disrespectful, bro.”

Redding closes the door as Barnes continues to plead for his daughter. The officer turns to a colleague standing near the patrol vehicle.

“This is his daughter’s ashes that Reibeling thought tested positive for meth,” Redding tells an officer.

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Redding says he’d seen the color change in the test Riebeling had done. He initially decides to test the baby’s ashes again.

When he goes into the back of his SUV for a test kit, Barnes continues to plead with the officer.

“Give me my daughter, bro,” he yells. “That is something very important to me.”

Redding confers with the other officers. One officer tells him that Barnes’ father knew immediately what was in the metal container seized from the car.

A man can be heard screaming from somewhere near the scene that the item is an urn.

“The guy immediately got out and said that’s the ashes of his granddaughter who just died,” one of the officers tells Redding.

Read Barnes’ federal lawsuit below.

Redding tells his colleagues he won’t test the ashes again. He goes to Barnes and tells him he will give the urn to his father.

“Thank you, bruh,” Barnes says.

Redding goes to Barnes’ father and hands him the urn.

“I’m going to go ahead and give this to you,” the officer says.

“I appreciate that. Thank you,” the man responds.

Redding tries to explain that the test was conducted because officers have to be suspicious any time a container of something unknown is found.

“I understand that, but come on, man. Common sense,” Barnes’ father says, pointing to the urn. “How can it be a bullet with this on the end of it?”

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The officer says they did not suspect it was a bullet but that the substance inside resembled MDMA. Barnes’ father seems appeased by the explanation.

As Redding returns to the scene, he tells colleagues he won’t arrest Barnes.

“I’m probably just gonna write him up for the weed and release him. It’s just two ounces,” one says.

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the other officers agree that an arrest doesn’t make sense. Redding releases Barnes, who goes to wait with his father for them to finish with his vehicle.

As Redding works in his vehicle, another officer approaches the driver’s side door.

“I’m just gonna give him a notice to appear on the weed,” Redding tells the officer, who remains off-camera.

“OK, aside from pissing off dad and testing the dead baby ashes,” the other officer says.

Barnes’ lawsuit names the city, Redding, Riebeling and four other officers as defendants. His attorney argues that the police violated Barnes’ rights against unlawful search and seizure.

The suit accuses the officers of failing to intervene as they watched one another violate Barnes’ Fourth Amendment rights. It also accuses them of false imprisonment and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

When asked for comment, city officials told Newschannel 20 that they do not comment on pending litigation.