Coroner to release body of Chicagoan killed at Indiana fair, denies 'refusing' to release body to domestic partner

Families release statement on 'disagreement'

August 17, 2011

(Photo courtesy of Howard Brown Health Center)
Christina Santiago of Chicago will be buried in her native New York.

The body of a 29-year-old Chicagoan killed at the Indiana State Fair when a stage collapsed last Saturday night will be released to a family member and buried later this week in New York City.

An official with the Marion County (Indiana) Coroner’s Office said an aunt of Christina Santiago will be given the body.

Santiago had been at the state fair to watch a concert put on by the country band Sugarland. Santiago was accompanied by her domestic partner, Alisha Brennon.

A fierce storm with strong winds reaching 70 mph toppled the stage just moments before Sugarland was to have walked on stage.

Santiago was among the five victims who died following the stage’s collapse. Brennon, who was critically injured during the incident, was listed in fair condition in the intensive care unit at Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a hospital spokesman. Dozens more people were also injured Saturday. Several remain in hospitals in the Indianapolis area.

Santiago, a native of the Bronx, was the manager for the Lesbian Community Care Project at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago.

According to the center’s website, a service will be held in New York Thursday. She will be buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx this Friday.

The Bilerico Project, a Washington, DC -based website featuring news about the lesbian and gay community, created controversy Tuesday after it reported that Brennon had tried to claim Santiago’s body from the Marion County Coroner’s Office, but the office “refused” to release the body to her. The website cited Indiana’s Defense of Marriage Act as the reason for the denial.

The implication was that Brennon and Santiago’s relationship, which is protected by Illinois’ domestic partnership  law, was not being honored by Indiana officials. Indiana law prohibits same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships. Backers of that law also aim to solidify that rule in the state’s constitution.

The Bilerico piece has made the rounds across the Internet, but according to a top coroner official in the office, “there was no issue.”

"The wife (Brennon) never contacted us to claim the body so she was never denied that opportunity," said Alfarea Ballew, chief deputy coroner of the Marion County Coroner’s Office. "The wife is still hospitalized. We’re working with the friends and aunt (of Santiago) to release the body. I’ve never talked to anybody denying the wife that opportunity."

In an interview with WBEZ Tuesday afternoon, Ballew said the office has never encountered a situation involving the spouse claiming a body of a same-sex loved one.

“Still,” Ballew said, “I’m surprised it’s being put out that way. That’s not how we would address that kind of  issue. We release the body to the next of kin. Christina’s aunt was listed as the next of kin. The aunt signed off on paperwork and everything is moving forward with the wife.”

The Howard Brown Health Center released a statement Tuesday:

“Howard Brown Health Center is working with Amigas Latinas as well as friends and family of Christina and Alisha to host a memorial service in Chicago. As so many of us grieve this tragic and sudden loss, let us patiently and respectfully await the wishes of Christina’s family, that of Alisha and all of their friends and loved ones to finalize arrangements in privacy."

The families of Brennon and Santiago issued a joint statement Wednesday in hopes of putting the matter to rest. The statement, released by Wishard Memorial Hospital spokesman Todd Harper, reads:

     "Alisha Marie Brennon and the family of Christina Santiago are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support following this unfortunate tragedy. It is our hope that people will continue to keep us in their thoughts and prayers. We, as a family, have continually and will continue to work together, without conflict to get through this trying time. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any disagreement as to the manner in which Christina will be honored for the amazing woman that she was. We ask that people respect our time of bereavement and continue to remember and honor her in a solely positive light."

An ongoing investigation will address questions about whether fair and concert officials should have taken action to evacuate the outdoor venue sooner. One issue is whether staff should have heeded storm warnings that came in at least an hour prior to the concert.

The Indiana State Fair reopened to the public Monday following a memorial service lead by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Fair officials announced that scheduled concerts featuring Janet Jackson and Lady Antebellum were canceled because the main stage area where the incident happened will not be used for the remainder of the fair, which runs through Sunday.

A concert featuring Train and Maroon 5 set for Thursday will be moved from the fairgrounds to Conseco Fieldhouse. Proceeds from those performances will help the victims.

Meanwhile, Sugarland announced it will soon hold a private memorial in Indianapolis to honor the fans.

Sugarland canceled an appearance in Iowa this week but will resume its tour with a concert Thursday in Albuquerque.

“The emotions have us yearning to be close to each other immediately. The logistics have us needing to replace all of our instruments and equipment,” the band stated on its web site, adding, “The set is a loss that is insignificant in light of the tragedy.”

Singer Sara Bareilles, who performed on the stage just before it collapsed, released a statement, “The accident at the Indiana State Fair felt like a bad dream. My heart aches for the lives lost or injured as well as their families. We will do whatever we possibly can to help heal the hurt from this very sad day.”