This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

In the weeks leading up to Yolna “Yo-Yo” Lubrin’s 31st birthday, she was excited about moving to a new city that was closer to her sister and other relatives in South Florida.

Back in Orlando, she had been the primary caregiver for her mother, who lives with a disability. Still, her family agreed that it was her time to chase her dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. She had solidified her living arrangements and had a job lined up, her sister Naomi Lubrin recalls to Capital B.

All Yolna had to do was pack her bags — but she would never make it out of Orlando.

At 7 a.m. on Sept. 28, her mother got a devastating call: Yolna was found hanging from a tree behind a friend’s home on West Livingston Street. 

In the weeks since, the family says their grief, anger and confusion have been intensified by a lack of communication and empathy from the Orlando Police Department. Her death has been deemed a suicide, but her family says it makes no sense.

“She did not deserve to be on that tree. Someone put her there, and they [the police] put out to the media a false narrative about who my sister …” Lubrin pauses on whether to refer to her sister in the past or present tense. 

Yolna Lubrin was weeks away from her 31st birthday when she was found hanging from a tree behind a friend’s home. (Courtesy of Naomi Lubrin)

Yolna’s family is not alone in their skepticism of police investigations. 

The suspicious circumstances of a loved one’s death and the response from authorities leave too many Black families wary of the investigations. Law enforcement’s disproportionate rate of closing a homicide investigation when the victim is Black also makes it hard to take the police’s preliminary reports at face value, some experts say

Naomi says communication with Orlando police has been challenging from day one. There have been meetings set up that were canceled at the last minute, and trying to get the lead case detective on the phone has been impossible, she says.

“It really has been strangely cold and with no transparency,” says Life Malcolm, the Lubrin family’s attorney. “We don’t know anything outside of the little bit of information the Orlando Police Department has probably already shared publicly.”

The department told Capital B in an email that its case detectives have been in contact with Yolna’s family throughout the investigation but didn’t comment further about their communication with Malcolm.

“I know what it’s like to work with the police department when dealing with the tragic, sudden death of a family member, and OPD, in my view, ain’t doing it right,” says Malcolm, who reflected on his son’s homicide investigation in Tampa 10 years ago. “As far as I’m concerned, OPD stands for Opaque Police Department — they really have been completely opaque.”

“To find somebody hanging from a tree, it should provoke a strong response from whatever investigative body that is examining the case, given the country’s history with lynching,” says Keith Taylor, a retired assistant commissioner with the New York City Police Department.

Suspicious deaths and a brutal past 

Tree hangings trigger memories of the thousands of Black people lynched in America and the cover-ups that often followed.

“When we hear about someone found hanging, it evokes that imagery of lynching,” says Sherry David Molock, an associate professor of psychology at George Washington University. “That imagery is evoked because of historical trauma. So it’s not surprising that we say ‘eh-eh, something else going on here.’” 

When Texas police said Sandra Bland was found hanging in a holding cell three days after she was arrested in July 2015 for a minor traffic infraction, her death was seen by her family as suspicious. Bland’s arrest was captured on police cameras, and as a civil rights activist, she recorded what she could on her cellphone. Despite her family reaching a $1.9 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit, they’ve still been chasing breadcrumbs such as video footage and her time of death with hopes of receiving closure.

And in Georgia, when Kendrick Johnson’s body was found wrapped in a high school gym mat over a pool of blood in 2013, it seemed apparent that someone else had to be responsible for his death. Following an autopsy, Georgia law enforcement officials said his death was an accident and his family demanded a second opinion. Ten years on, after several autopsy reports as well as state and federal investigations that did not find any wrongdoings, Johnson’s family filed a $1 billion federal lawsuit that accuses several Georgia law enforcement agencies of covering up a crime.

In Yolna’s case, the lack of communication is reminiscent of the treatment Rasheem Carter’s family says they faced with law enforcement officials in Mississippi. Last October, after Carter warned police that white men in his community were targeting him, he went missing and weeks later parts of his body were found in a wooded area. A year later, Carter’s family told ABC News that they have not received an update on the investigation for “several months.”

Instead of celebrating Yolna’s birthday on Oct. 13, the Lubrin family hired an independent pathologist to conduct an autopsy for their own records. Yolna was laid to rest on Oct. 28. 

Her sister, Naomi, hasn’t had much time to mourn. Days after her sister’s death, she switched into defense mode when Orlando police released their investigation findings on Oct. 3 without notifying the family first. 

Although the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office will determine Yolna’s cause of death, homicide detectives concluded that the physical evidence — only seen on her neck — “all point to suicide … caused by the hanging,” according to a statement released to news outlets.

Naomi would rather Orlando police pay attention to evidence that may indicate that a crime was committed and not rush to close the case. Yolna’s chest was partially exposed and her car, which was parked across the street from where her body was found, was vandalized, the family says.

When law enforcement are tasked with investigating a death, it’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open and frequent with a victim’s family, says Taylor, the retired assistant commissioner. Detectives must be empathetic and professional, and provide additional resources like grief counseling to families, he adds.

Suicide and the Black community

Naomi says Orlando police should not have released their theory of Yolna’s death without scientific evidence from the medical examiner. And she’s vigorously challenging police claims that her sister has a “documented history of mental illness.” 

“She was brilliant. She was amazing. She was talented,” Naomi says. “There are a bunch of people who can speak about my sister’s character, and would say that she would never have done this.” 

With or without an explanation from a deceased loved one, many families wrestle with guilt, and their religion or spirituality may dictate that suicide isn’t acceptable. 

There’s also the myth that Black people don’t die by suicide. 

“The first three leading causes of death for young Black people are homicides, accidents, and suicides. All three of those are preventable. So we can’t deny that it happens if we want to fix it,” Molock says.

Hanging and suffocation are relatively common methods young Black people have used, Molock found in her research published last year. And those are the leading methods of suicide deaths among Black women, other than pills.

“It’s really hard to come to grips with the fact that a loved one has died by their own hand — and that cuts across all social classes, all races, and cultural groups,” Molock says. 

In Orlando, the Lubrin family and members of the community have hosted almost weekly protests demanding that police share all documents in connection to the investigation. The department told Capital B in an email that “any further updates on the investigation will need to be directed to the Medical Examiner’s office.”

Yolna’s sister says she will continue to lead “an outcry of not letting my sister’s name be in the shadow of darkness.”

“My sister was a loud individual,” Naomi says. “Meaning, she spoke very loud, and because that was her character, I’m going to speak loud and hit volumes to let the Orlando Police Department know that she has a family that loved and cherished her. She wasn’t … another number.”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega