How could an aggravating experience at the airport end in death? That's exactly what happened to Carol Anne Gotbaum, a 45-year-old mother of three, who was trying to catch a connecting flight from Phoenix to Tucson the afternoon of Sept. 28. Late to the gate at Sky Harbor International Airport, Gotbaum—who was planning to meet a friend—was told that the airline had given her seat away and responded, according to reports, with a fit, yelling, "I am not a terrorist! I am a sick mother!" Moments later two Phoenix police officers arrested Gotbaum for disorderly conduct, handcuffing her behind her back and locking her in a holding room. Ten minutes after that, she was found dead—apparently, authorities say, after strangling herself while trying to manipulate her handcuffs, which were attached to a chain that was shackled to a bench.

Authorities say they followed proper procedure. But Gotbaum's prominent New York family charges police mishandled a 110-lb., emotionally frail woman who was on her way to a rehab center to deal with alcoholism. "She was treated like a criminal, an animal," says her stepmother-in-law and New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. "This never should have happened." Already the family has had another autopsy performed, though results are not available yet. "You do not shackle a sick, emotionally disturbed citizen to a bench and leave that person alone," says Michael Manning, a Phoenix attorney hired by Carol Anne's business-consultant husband, Noah, 48. Police-procedure expert Michael Lyman says it's unusual to handcuff somebody for such a minor offense but adds, "hands behind the back is pretty standard for those perceived to pose a threat." But to her family, the only threat Gotbaum posed was to herself. "She was a wonderful mother," says Betsy, who had never seen Carol Anne have a violent outburst. "She helped the children with their homework; she read to them. She wanted to get well.... Why didn't they take her to a hospital?"

  • Contributors:
  • Kerri Smith/Arizona,
  • Nicole Weisensee Egan/New York,
  • Diane Herbst/New York,
  • Maria Eftimiades/New York.