CINCINNATI — For as long as Renee Noel can remember, she has stood up for her brother, Scott.
Born just 10 1/2 months apart, they were often mistaken for twins. Still, Renee Noel took her role as the big sister seriously.
“He was just this quiet kid,” she said. “When we were kids, the bigger boys would steal his bike. And I would take up for him and make sure he would come home with his bike so my dad wouldn’t be mad.”
Renee Noel figured that was her job -- to watch out for her little brother.
No matter what.
It’s a job that has become more important than ever since Nov. 3, 2018.
That’s the day 51-year-old Scott Noel was found dead in downtown Cincinnati, lying face down with his trousers and underwear pulled around his knees and his clothes soaking wet.
“I would love to know what happened to my brother. I think we deserve that,” Renee Noel said. “We deserve to have closure and some measure of peace. And certainly he deserves justice.”
Her story is about a sister’s search for truth and how that search has turned up more questions than answers. She wants more than anything to know how her brother died. But she also has a question that reaches beyond her own grieving family:
Did the authorities treat the investigation into Scott’s death differently because he was homeless when he died? Noel’s lawyer said he’s convinced he knows the answer.
“A common cliché is that death is the ultimate equalizer, and I think that Scott Noel’s death clearly contradicts that,” said Bennett Allen, a partner at Cook & Logothetis, LLC, who has been working for Renee Noel to help investigate her brother’s death.
“I firmly believe that his status as a citizen experiencing homelessness directly impacted the way that he was treated upon his death,” Allen said.
A boy of many talents
Like every person, Scott Noel lived a life that was far more than how he died.
When Renee Noel thinks of her brother, she remembers his many talents.
Scott was a three-sport athlete at Anderson High School, class of 1985. He played basketball and football, and he and his sister both ran track, she said.
He played trumpet and could paint and draw. He was good-looking and popular, she said, and he loved to play pranks.
But something changed his senior year of high school when Renee Noel was away at college.
“It was almost like someone had flipped a switch,” she said. “He was a completely different person. His appearance was completely different. It was just very, very strange the way that he was acting.”
Scott started drinking heavily, his sister said, and used some recreational drugs. Eventually he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and early onset schizophrenia, Renee Noel said. In his late 30s or early 40s, he was diagnosed with early onset dementia.
She remembers driving with her brother in 2011 to North Carolina, where their parents had retired. They were going to see their father, who was fighting cancer and had just been put on life support.
“It’s a 12-hour trip, and the whole way down there, I can’t tell you, I mean hundreds of times he would look over and say, ‘Why are we going down here again?’ ‘Is Dad all right?’ ‘Did Dad already die?’ ‘Are we going to his funeral?’ ‘Is Mom OK?’” Renee Noel said. “He could remember things from our childhood. But anything that was short-term, he could no longer really access that part of the brain.”
Long before that diagnosis, though, her brother struggled.
It took Scott six years to graduate from the University of Cincinnati, where he studied Spanish and international studies.
“My dad was good about it,” Renee Noel said. “He would always say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a doctor’ because he was in school for so long.”
Scott Noel’s family tried to help him get jobs, but he had trouble keeping them because he would stay awake for days on end and miss work.
The job he seemed to like best was at a place called Clown Alley that marketed costumes, his sister said. He modeled all sorts of costumes in a catalog that Renee Noel still has.
“He could do all these different voices and things like that so he just fit right in there,” she said. “But I’m going to say that, after 1999, he was not able to work. So that was the last job that he had.”
How Scott Noel became homeless
Eventually Scott qualified for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, paid through the Social Security Administration, and started living in an informal group home operated by a local man whom he viewed as a grandfather figure, Renee Noel said.
When that man died in late 2017, his daughter took over the group home, and Renee Noel said the arrangement began to sour. Scott Noel was admitted to Christ Hospital in January 2018 for a psychiatric hospitalization, his sister said.
He went back to the group home for a while, then back to Christ Hospital for another psychiatric hospitalization in May, she said.
Renee Noel didn’t find out about the May hospitalization until after her brother’s death, she said. When he left Christ Hospital that time, she said, “they apparently released him into the streets of Cincinnati.”
Renee Noel said she believes that’s when her brother became homeless.
There are options available so hospitals don’t have to discharge psychiatric patients onto the street, although the resources aren’t unlimited, said Kevin Finn, the CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness.
A spokesman for Christ Hospital told WCPO that he could not discuss Scott Noel’s case specifically. But Bo McMillan, senior coordinator of media relations for The Christ Hospital Health Network, offered this statement in response to questions about its policies:
“The Christ Hospital provides discharge planning assistance to every patient in our care. Each of these patients is unique, and we consider a multitude of factors prior to discharging them. This level of care for our patients has earned us distinctions such as an “A” grade for patient safety from the Leapfrog Group, and the Outstanding Patient Experience award from Healthgrades.”
Renee Noel said that is not what seemed to happen for her brother.
The search begins
The last time she talked to Scott was on May 21, 2018.
When she and her mom stopped hearing from him, they started to worry. Renee Noel called all the local hospitals, she said. When she couldn’t find him, she filed a missing person’s report with the Cincinnati Police Department.
A detective told her in July that her brother was staying at the David and Rebecca Baron Center for Men, a homeless shelter in Queensgate. But when she asked how he looked, the detective said he hadn’t actually seen Scott Noel himself.
Renee Noel was left with the understanding that nobody from the police department had seen her brother in person. She called the shelter to try to reach him, but the staff there told her they couldn’t give her any information, she said.
She contacted the police again and again, she said, because she wasn’t satisfied that her brother had been located but not seen.
The police stopped returning her calls, she said, and she continued to worry.
By late November, she was so desperate that she planned to hire a private investigator.
She called an old friend at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office to get a recommendation. He told her to let him ask around first.
Then on Nov. 29, Renee Noel got a call saying her brother had been found again. She was elated -- until she understood the truth.
Scott Noel was found dead weeks earlier on Nov. 3, face down in some bushes near Third and Walnut streets above Fort Washington Way. His body was at the Hamilton County Morgue.
“I was in such a state of shock, I could not even write or take any notes at the beginning of the conversation because my hands were shaking,” she said. “This is not ever how I would have thought that my brother’s life would have ended.”
When she learned more about how he was found, that shock turned to anger. Anger and a big sister’s determination to understand her little brother’s final days of life and get to the bottom of how he died.
‘I’ll never get that out of my mind’
Renee Noel said she immediately asked to see her brother, but she said the death investigator assigned to the case said that wouldn’t be possible because his body had “turned to soup” by that point.
The coroner's office declined WCPO's request for an interview about the case. WCPO asked specifically about the death investigator's conversations with Renee Noel and the office's policies about how to interact with family members. Andrea Hatten, chief administrator at the coroner’s office, replied in an email that “the content of her conversation(s) with the investigator was not substantiated.”
“Interactions with family members are varied and handled on a case by case basis,” Hatten wrote. “However, there is always an expectation of professionalism, respect and empathy.”
The coroner's office listed Scott Noel's official cause of death as "complications of chronic ethyl alcohol abuse" with "hypothermia while intoxicated" as a contributing factor.
Renee Noel said she was devastated after talking with the investigator and began working to learn everything she could about Scott’s death and the final days of his life.
She quickly arranged a meeting with Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. Spring asked Allen to be there, too.
Soon after, Renee Noel hired Allen to help her get all the public records and information she could, even the most graphic.
“Since I wasn’t able to see my brother, I requested to see the scene photos as well as the autopsy photos because I really wanted to make sure it was him,” she said. “I had all this doubt in my mind it would actually be him.”
The images still haunt her.
“When I first saw those pictures, I didn’t think it was my brother. I didn’t,” she said. “I’ll never get that out of my mind.”
The scene photos show Scott Noel lying on his stomach, his rear end exposed and marked with abrasions. There were open sores on his arms. Dirt was packed under his fingernails, some of which were long and painted with chipping red polish. Beer cans and newspapers were strewn around his body. His Ohio state identification card was photographed near where he was found.
‘Found in such an embarrassing way’
The images raised even more questions for Renee Noel.
She said the death investigator with the coroner's office originally told her that her family wasn’t notified more quickly because her brother didn’t have any ID.
But there it was in the photos.
She didn’t know at first that he was found with his trousers pulled down.
Brandy Taggart, the woman who spotted Scott and called 911, was the first to tell her that. The photos confirmed it.
“I felt sorry for the poor man to be found in such an embarrassing way,” Taggart told WCPO.
She noticed the body when she and her husband were out celebrating her birthday.
“I yelled at him. I was kind of afraid to walk over there because he could have been just passed out,” she said. “I called 911, and we just waited until the life squad got there. The man from the life squad walked over to him, felt for his pulse, shook his head no and then walked back to his truck.”
Renee Noel said she was upset nobody tried to perform CPR on her brother.
The Cincinnati Fire Department’s policy is to start basic or advanced “cardiac life support” on any person who is found without a pulse -- unless they have a “do not resuscitate” order on file, a life-ending injury such as decapitation, or signs of rigor mortis, decomposition or unnatural skin color that occurs in death, according to Cathy Ritter, the department’s public information officer.
Both the death investigator from the coroner’s office and the police officers who responded to the scene observed “lividity,” the more technical term for that unnatural skin color.
“He was rather gray,” Taggart said. “It was pretty evident.”
But even if Scott Noel’s death was evident, Renee Noel and her lawyer said the cause of death wasn’t.
They said they are dismayed that the Cincinnati Police Department didn’t do more to investigate.
“There were at least three if not four closed-circuit television cameras, security cameras, that were focused on or at least pointing almost directly at the area and at the corner where Scott was found,” Allen said. “And nobody pulled that footage.”
That, he said, is one of the things he has found most compelling as he has helped Renee Noel investigate her brother’s death.
“What struck me the most about Renee’s story was the lack of an investigation consistent with what we’ve rightly come to expect from our law enforcement and first responders,” Allen said. “As a former federal investigator, there are several things that I’ve come to expect from our law enforcement. I would hate to think that if my sibling or my loved one were found in a disturbing state of undress in broad daylight on a warm November day that they would be treated the way that Renee’s brother was treated.”
Why police weren’t suspicious
Allen said he also couldn’t understand why it took the authorities so long to notify Renee Noel about her brother’s death when she had filed a missing person’s report that included her contact information earlier that year.
Lt. Steve Saunders said the missing person’s report didn’t help the police find Renee Noel because the report was “closed out” after an officer determined Scott Noel was staying at the David and Rebecca Baron Center for Men in Queensgate.
“If officers located him deceased in November of 2018, if they didn’t have next-of-kin information and he wasn’t in the computer as a missing person, it’s kind of hard to figure out who the next of kin is,” Saunders said. “With no active missing person’s report in the system, it wouldn’t show up as an alert.”
The coroner’s office put out a plea for help reaching his next of kin that was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on Nov. 15, 2018. Renee Noel didn’t see it. His name was listed as Scott William Noel in the article, and she had been searching online for mentions of Scott Noel without his middle name.
But why didn’t the police examine footage from security cameras pointed near the area where the body was found?
“They wouldn’t have a need to if there’s no suspicious circumstances determined from the coroner’s office or the officers at the scene,” Saunders said. “I talked to an officer who was there at the scene also. Homicide was never notified. That is kind of a common area for homeless people to congregate and sleep sometimes. If he’s outside in the elements, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find somebody with their clothes damp or moist.”
That’s what Renee Noel said she can’t get past -- that her brother’s death was not considered suspicious because he was homeless.
Homelessness and death
Each year the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition reports a number of people who died as a result of homelessness.
The year Scott Noel died, that number was 109 people, and the average age was 48 years old, said Spring, the coalition’s executive director.
Last year, the number was 135 with an average age of 49.8 years old, he said.
In 2009, the coalition reported 22 people had died, Spring said. He acknowledged that the coalition has gotten much better at getting information to report. But he said he still doesn't think they account for everyone.
The numbers include people found outdoors or in other places not meant for human habitation in addition to people staying in homeless shelters. They also include people who were in housing at the time they died but had previously experienced homelessness, he said.
“Of course, the average age signifies that homelessness does in fact decrease the life span,” Spring said, considering that the average life expectancy in Hamilton County is more like 77 years old.
As far as Renee Noel can tell, her brother was homeless for less than a year.
Street outreach workers knew Scott Noel and worked with his case manager at a local social service agency to help him get into treatment during the time he was on the street, said Finn of Strategies to End Homelessness.
“He was known to services in the community,” Finn said. “He was being assisted by services in the community. But, unfortunately, that didn’t prevent him from passing away.”
Only about 14 percent of people who experience homelessness in Hamilton County sleep outside, Finn said, and those who do sleep outside have a much higher rate of severe mental illness and substance abuse.
Someone who lives on the street is also three times more likely to die than somebody who stays in a shelter, he said.
“We’ve had people die in fires when their tent caught on fire, people beaten when they’re out on the street or in vacant buildings,” Finn said.
Not only that, people experiencing homelessness have been victims of hate crimes all across the country and in Greater Cincinnati, Spring said.
The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office postmortem examination of Scott Noel noted a “cluster of three red contusions that range from ½ to 1½ inches in greatest dimension” on his torso.
Spring said he believes those injuries, combined with Scott Noel’s state of partial undress and the fact that he was found dead outdoors, would have triggered a robust investigation under most other circumstances.
“You’re left with the only reason they didn’t investigate is because they believed him to be without a home,” Spring said. “Frankly that’s discriminatory. It’s deciding he didn’t deserve to have an investigation because he didn’t have a home.”
Bringing Scott home
Renee Noel has done everything she could think of to get answers.
She studied all the public records and had multiple conversations with police and officials with the coroner’s office.
When someone there suggested her brother’s pants were down because he was going to the bathroom, she pointed out that the autopsy showed his bladder was full.
When another person told her that her brother was probably wet because it had been raining so much, she got copies of weather reports that showed only light showers in the days leading up to his death.
She met with a Social Security Administration employee, who helped her track her brother’s final purchases on the debit card that allowed him to spend his SSI benefits.
She got records for everything he spent in October and November. The October report shows transactions almost daily at gas stations and Subway and Skyline and the occasional stop at Walgreens.
In November, his card reflected four purchases on Nov. 1, 2018, according to a printout she shared with WCPO. The last two were at a CVS Pharmacy and Queen City Wine.
A CVS manager reviewed the store’s closed-circuit video of her brother in the store and gave Renee Noel two color photocopies of images from the video. One shows her brother wearing a black hat, camouflage jacket and light-colored pants walking into the store. A second time-stamped image shows him leaving.
“I think he’s in CVS for seven minutes. He’s perfectly fine. He’s wearing sweat pants, tennis shoes, you know, his hat, a hoodie. He’s up walking around. He’s completely fine,” Renee Noel said. “And so literally he makes one other stop after that and disappeared. Doesn’t transact anymore. And then is found two days later.”
She had hoped to get more answers.
She and her lawyer contacted Dr. John Hunsaker, a forensic pathologist at the University of Kentucky. He did confirm that it was possible for hypothermia to have been a contributing factor in Scott's death, even though it was more than 58 degrees outside when he was found. That's because his clothes were soaking wet at the time, Hunsaker wrote in a report about his findings.
Renee Noel said he was going to examine her brother’s remains for her to see what he could learn from the fluids.
But the funeral home that picked Scott Noel up from the county morgue cremated him before she could have his body transferred to Hunsaker.
Renee Noel said she went to pick him up immediately.
“I just thought, well, if I can get him and bring him home, he’ll never be cold again,” she said through tears. “That was my concern. I just wanted to get my brother and bring him home.”
Struggling to find peace
Renee Noel could think of only one thing left to do. She reached out to a reporter and asked WCPO to tell her brother’s story.
She has been so upset by his death and how it was handled that she took a leave of absence from her job at Citibank. She sold her home in Northern Kentucky and has been living in North Carolina to be close to her mother.
But she spent her own money to fly back for an interview. She brought family photos and samples of Scott’s artwork and copies of all the records she gathered with Allen’s help, including the coroner’s photos and the forms of identification that were found with her brother’s body.
She still wants answers, she said, and she still wants justice for her brother.
She also wants to publicly question how the authorities handled her brother’s case and whether they would have done more if he hadn’t been homeless.
Hatten, from the coroner’s office, wrote in an email to WCPO that Scott Noel’s case was “absolutely not” handled any differently from anyone else’s.
Renee Noel said she wasn’t convinced.
“This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, you know, somebody’s friend,” she said. “This is somebody that had a life and because you’re seeing them on their worst day doesn’t mean that you have just carte blanche to give them no compassion.”
Spring put it this way: "It doesn't have to be like this. We can have enough housing, and we can value everybody equally."
Just about the only place Renee Noel can find peace these days is walking near the ocean, she said, because her brother was always so happy on a beach when they were growing up.
“And every time I find a sand dollar, I always kind of take it and point it up to the heavens, and I say, ‘This is for you, Scott,’” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “Because I feel like in some way that he might have sent if for me so that I find it and know that he’s OK.”
Maybe it's her little brother’s way of looking out for her now.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.