Recalling the South Side native whose August shooting death by an undercover cop left behind a grieving community and unanswered questions

When Michelle Dalton's mother died on July 8, she had to break the news to her three daughters that their grandmother was gone. But she couldn't find her youngest daughter, Donna.

Michelle and her husband, Michael, raised their daughters on Columbus' South Side. Lately, though, Donna had been spending more and more time on the West Side, and they worried about her. She was becoming harder and harder to track down.

For the past few years, things had been going downhill for 23-year-old Donna. At first, after graduating from charter school Focus Learning Academy in 2012, her partying appeared relatively harmless — drinking and late-night gatherings on Southwood Avenue while Michelle and Michael, a long-haul truck driver, were on the road. In 2014, at age 19, she married Christopher Castleberry, the father of one of her daughters. Friends and family say the marriage ended almost as soon as it began, despite the lack of an official divorce. (For this story, Alive has chosen to use the surname by which Donna self-identified and was commonly known, Dalton, rather than her legal surname, Castleberry.)

Another love interest — a man fresh out of prison and 10 years her senior — became the first domino that put Donna on a new, troubling path. “He introduced her to heroin, and that's when life changed,” Michelle said.

“All of a sudden she was all about this guy,” said Bobbi McCalla, Donna's oldest sister. “She thought that this guy hung the moon and wouldn't listen to anybody about him.”

At one point Donna told her mom she got a job at Waffle House, but the new gig was actually at a strip joint, House of Babes. According to Michelle and McCalla, the boyfriend pushed her into it to have cash on hand to feed their habit.

Eventually Donna got over the guy and wanted him out of her Canonby Place apartment on the Hilltop. She couldn't get rid of the people constantly crashing there, however, so she moved back in with her parents. But the addiction remained. Donna would frequently stay out all night. Her parents, sisters and two young daughters began seeing less and less of her. Word got out that Donna was involved in a prostitution ring along Sullivant Avenue on the West Side.

But no matter her situation, Michelle and McCalla knew Donna would want to know about her grandmother's death, so in July McCalla and cousin Amanda Norman spent six hours at a gas station on Sullivant Avenue, asking dozens of people if they knew where to find Donna. A woman finally pointed them to a house on Brehl Avenue, but McCalla was reticent to approach on her own, so she reached out to another cousin, Joel Dalton III.

Joel is a big guy. He has a “Bad to the Bone” skull tattoo on his left bicep. He was not reticent. “People know me out west,” he said, lighting a cigarette in the South Side living room of Brenda Dalton, Donna's aunt. “I'm a little hot-headed, so when they said [Donna] was in there, I just walked up to the back door and knocked on the door, and as soon as they opened it I kind of pushed my way in there.”

Donna was standing in the kitchen, shocked to see her cousin. The two were less than a year apart and grew up together. She hugged him. “I told her what happened to her grandma, and she said nobody had told her,” he said. “I asked if she was ready to go home, and she said she was ready.”

***

Joel took Donna to her sister. “She got out of the truck, gave me a hug,” he said. “I told her I loved her, that I was proud of her, that this was the first step to getting everything back together. She said, ‘I'm gonna do it this time.'”

But a couple of days later, Donna was in withdrawal. Dope sick in a truck with McCalla and Joel, she jumped out of the vehicle and took off down Morrill Avenue near Parsons Avenue. She wouldn't stop, wouldn't turn around. It was the last time McCalla would see her youngest sister alive — back turned, heading toward the West Side.

On July 25, Columbus Police Vice Officer Eric Poliseno arrested Donna for soliciting at Sullivant and Dana avenues. On Aug. 19, Michelle's family held a celebration of life service for her mother. Donna didn't show, and her absence was noteworthy.

“Seeing the path that Donna was on, and with her not showing up that day, there was a feeling that unless somebody intercepted and figured out how to get her on a different path, something very bad was going to happen,” said Donna's cousin, Mary Laile.

Two days later, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, Donna missed her solicitation court date, and a bench warrant was issued. Then, around 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23, undercover CPD Vice Officer Andrew Mitchell shot Donna three times inside his unmarked sedan parked against the side of a brick apartment building near the intersection of Bellows and South Yale avenues in Franklinton. Mitchell's bullets hit Dalton in the leg, abdomen and chest; the chest shot pierced her heart, killing her. Police said Donna stabbed Mitchell with a knife, severely injuring his hand. An autopsy later revealed cocaine and fentanyl in her system.

Donna Dalton's life sits at the intersection of opiates and human trafficking — two scourges that often work in tandem to tear Ohio families apart. But her death is also impossible to separate from the Columbus Police Vice Unit, which Chief Kim Jacobs has “temporarily paused” while a task force consisting of the FBI, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Ohio Auditor look into the unit after it made headlines in recent months, most notably with the high-profile arrest of President Donald Trump-adjacent adult film star Stormy Daniels at local strip club Sirens in July.

On the day of Donna's death, Mitchell was already under investigation by Internal Affairs due to a “criminal allegation” lodged against him on Aug. 8. (No further information was available regarding the allegation; CPD also would not make Mitchell or any officer involved in Donna's July 25 arrest or Aug. 23 death available for interviews, citing ongoing investigations.)

At a “Justice for Donna” rally held outside police headquarters on Oct. 23, the two-month anniversary of her death, some of Donna's “street sisters” wore bright pink T-shirts with white lettering that read, “I could have been Donna Dalton.” If, indeed, all these women could have been Donna Dalton, then we ought to know who she was.

***

Bobbi McCalla had 10 years on Donna, but only two years separated Tiffiny Dalton from her younger sister, and from an early age the two were into everything. Donna would hang onto door knobs while Tiffiny would swing her back and forth. They'd dump eggs, flour and milk onto the middle of the kitchen floor and play in it.

“One time I came downstairs,” Michelle said, “and they took dish soap and squirted it all over the kitchen floor and were sliding across it, smacking against the kitchen cabinets: ‘Boom! Boom!'”

A trampoline helped get the girls outside, but Donna was a fearless daredevil. She'd jump from the top of the swingset onto the trampoline, catapulting herself into the air. As Donna got older, Michelle coached her in cheerleading, and Donna was always at the top of the pyramid. In softball, she was the pitcher. “Anything I put her to, she'd get really good at,” Michelle said.

Donna was part tomboy, part beauty queen. She'd ride a four-wheeler and stay in a trailer while hunting in the mountains of West Virginia, but she wasn't one to go around in a ponytail. She cared about her appearance. “She was drop-dead gorgeous,” said family friend Jenna Gibson.

Donna progressed through Columbus City Schools on the South Side: Southwood Elementary, Buckeye Middle School, Marion-Franklin High School. She kept a close group of friends, who would often come to the Daltons' house after school. “We'd sit at the dining room table and do homework,” Michelle said. “I worked in all the schools with her and Tiff as a parent consultant, so I was on the city payroll. … I was PTO president, too.”

Donna was independent and hard-headed, and she fiercely supported the people she loved. Bullies knew if they messed with Tiffiny, they'd have to mess with Donna. “She stood up for what was right,” said one of Donna's best friends, Dean Stump. “Ten or 11 years ago, a neighborhood kid wanted to fight me for being gay or something. Donna and Tiffiny stopped him.”

Donna's cousin, Mary Laile, was 14 years her senior. “We were a lot alike,” Laile said. “She would light up a room. Cousins could be fighting, and she would walk in the room and do something silly or something stupid to make everybody laugh.”

“Donna was funny,” said Joel Dalton, who transformed from a stone-faced tough guy to a giggly kid when remembering Donna's sense of humor. “I was a really angry person. I was always down, and it don't matter what was going on, she'd always make me laugh. Not just like, ‘Ha, that was funny.' Like I laughed till I pissed myself. … If there was anything dark going on with you that day, she was gonna be the light.”

Joel went to school with Donna and remembered her as a popular kid at Marion-Franklin. During her junior year, though, she got into some trouble. “She had problems with the other girls,” Michelle said. “It was over boys, and I got tired of them threatening her. And she's a fighter, too, as you can imagine. I mean, she wouldn't back down from a gang.”

Donna transferred to Focus her senior year. After high school it was often just Donna and Tiffiny at the house on Southwood, since Michelle was frequently on the road with Michael. Then came the partying, the short-lived marriage to Castleberry, two young daughters, a series of bad-news boyfriends and the throes of addiction.

“Heroin grabs you and doesn't let go. It's like the devil with octopus tentacles — just wraps around you,” Joel Dalton said. “It takes complete control over all your functions until you get that fix. … We got her off the needle. That was hard. Smoking it, though. She couldn't get away from smoking it.”

No one grows up saying they want to be a prostitute. Donna dreamed of being a cop one day — a mounted officer on a horse. “I don't believe in classifying a police officer as [murderers] or bad people,” she wrote in a July 2016 Facebook post. “When I'm settled I WILL be attending the police academy and I want people to know that my daughter is mixed, black and white. And she's my WORLD. Who would have thought a future police officer who is white loves a little mixed girl more than anything in this world?” Later that year, in a Facebook Live video recorded the day after Christmas, Donna hears a knock at the door, and her eyes go wide when she realizes it's a cop. But nothing comes of it. A kid accidentally dialed 911. “All the kids say, ‘Fuck 12!'” she says into the camera, using the slang term for police, but then immediately clarifies: “I'm gonna be a police officer one day.”

Heroin led Donna into a life she couldn't leave. She told her parents stories about being locked in a basement. At one point, McCalla said her father picked Donna up from a house, and she came out running, saying, “Go, go, go, before they come out here to get me!” Michelle and McCalla said a madam — a big, older woman known on the streets as Butterball — would bully her and keep her from leaving. “She said, ‘Mom, every time I leave the house I'm on camera. They watch me,'” Michelle said.

According to sources familiar with prostitution on Sullivant Avenue, the cycle often starts with free dope — a gratis hit of heroin. Once a woman is hooked, she has a dope boy, and if she tries to buy from anyone else other than the dope boy, he'll find out. Soon enough, women are in debt to the dope boy and have to pay him back, and there's a threat of violence if he doesn't get his money. With a $200 to $250 per day heroin habit, he pushes women to the streets to sell their bodies for the next fix, and all the money goes back to the drug dealers.

For some women, a trap house is a safe alternative to a boarded-up property or a homeless camp. It's a warm bed and a promise of the next hit. Home, on the other hand, can't promise the same thing, which is why it can be so difficult for someone in Donna Dalton's situation to truly go home. Once addicted, it's virtually impossible to quit heroin without treatment. Joel Dalton said at one point she did detox at her Aunt Brenda's house, but an enabler roped her back in.

“I told her, ‘You know you can come back any time,'” Brenda Dalton said. “She said, ‘Aunt Brenda, I'm not ready to come home yet. But you guys will be my first call. I'm coming home soon. I promise.'”

Donna knew her mom and dad would take her back in, too, and she knew her own daughters needed her, but the trap was in effect. “I've had to educate plenty of people,” McCalla said. “Donna was being trafficked.”

***

In the brief time Donna was home in July, before she jumped out of the truck, McCalla let her use her phone, which is how McCalla ended up with the number for “Todd,” one of Donna's johns who became the family's lifeline. “He helped me keep tabs on Donna the end of July and early August,” McCalla said. “It's really bad when you have to depend on a john to give you updates.”

Joel Dalton tried his best to help, too. “I put my hand on a lot of people out there just to make sure she was all right,” he said. “I could pinpoint where she was, and then I would just miss her, then I wouldn't come close for another week or two.”

On Aug. 23, Michelle heard from a family friend that a young woman matching Donna's description — dark hair, tattoo sleeve — was shot and killed on the West Side. Fearing the worst, she called CPD, but she said the police told her it wasn't Donna. About an hour later, two detectives showed up at her door. “I just collapsed,” Michelle said. “I'd never seen Michael cry like that. Never. And I've known him my whole life.”

Later, the Daltons called to ask about a rape kit for Donna and a drug screen for Mitchell, a former homicide detective who has been with CPD since 1987 and moved to the vice unit in 2016. But Michelle said they were told neither was necessary. “I said, ‘Who's investigating for Donna?' He said, “Well, I am,'” Michelle said. “It doesn't feel like it.'”

With a dearth of information, the Daltons have been trying to piece together what happened that morning, but they're left with more questions than answers. What prompted the altercation with Mitchell? Why did he park his car against the building such that the passenger-side door would be nearly impossible to fully open? What will unreleased audio of the incident reveal? How and why would one of the bullets pass through Donna's lower left leg and re-enter her left thigh? Why did the bullets that hit her abdomen and chest come from an above downward angle?

McCalla said it's surprising that Donna would have a knife. “She had pepper spray that my dad had given her,” she said. “I talked to another woman she knew, and she said that Donna had a Beats by Dre speaker. It's hefty, and that's what she had for protection. She was ready to go upside somebody's head with it. … The way we grew up is you better defend yourself. If you don't defend yourself, they're going to keep walking all over you.”

According to a recent Associated Press story, the woman who called 911 and wrapped Mitchell's bleeding hand with her shirt reportedly “ran outside after her boyfriend heard [Dalton] cry for help, saying Mitchell was going to kidnap her. [She] then heard several shots, and as she arrived at the car, saw Mitchell pushing [Dalton's] folded-over body into the rear seat.”

The audio of the 911 call, though, makes no mention of Donna.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said a review of the shooting is underway, and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation is helping with “supplemental crime scene and forensic exams.” O'Brien also confirmed that his office is coordinating with the FBI in their overlapping investigations. Eventually, the case will be presented to a grand jury.

***

On Oct. 13, word spread that Andrew Mitchell was at the Dawghouse Pizza and Bar on the South Side. Family and friends of the Daltons headed to the pizza shop, and Mitchell called for backup. (Mitchell has been relieved of duty and is without a gun and badge, but remains employed by CPD.)

“We got a call as soon as he showed up at the Dawghouse,” Joel Dalton said. “This is where we grew up. I don't know why he would think it would be OK for him to be anywhere around this area. This is where our roots are. That dude ain't welcome over here.”

In other officers' bodycam footage of the incident, Mitchell admits as much. “I kind of figured I should have stayed off the South End because that's where the girl's from,” he says in the video.

“You would think he would want to lay low for a while,” another officer says in the footage.

With scant details coming from CPD or the FBI regarding the ongoing investigations into vice and the Aug. 23 shooting, rumors continue to swirl, fueled by street violence and public records puzzle pieces involving Mitchell. On Oct. 14, the burning body of Bobbie Simpson was found in an Upper Arlington park. Simpson had been picked up for soliciting multiple times in the last year, including once by Mitchell in November of 2017. Simpson was also charged with soliciting by another vice officer on Aug. 23, the day Donna was killed. And court records show that two days prior, on Aug. 21, Mitchell picked up Donna's cousin, Amanda Norman, on charges of loitering to engage in solicitation.

Of course, it's not unusual for a vice cop to book someone for soliciting. But with vice under investigation, the unit's past actions are getting more scrutiny, and with Mitchell there's plenty to scrutinize, especially considering the criminal allegation leveled against him just two weeks before Dalton's death. Plus, Mitchell owns more than a dozen Franklin County properties, and according to the Columbus Dispatch, “37 violations have been filed with Code Enforcement regarding those properties, but all have been resolved.” 10TV also reported that police have responded to rental units owned by Mitchell more than 500 times in the last five years.

Aside from the pending Aug. 8 allegation and the use-of-force investigation from Aug. 23, Mitchell's employee report shows several other Internal Affairs complaints, most notably a 2013 incident during which a woman named Paula Swick, who claimed to work for Mitchell and was driving his Ford F-150, was pulled over by Clinton Township Police for not stopping at a stop sign.

Swick at first provided a fake name, then admitted she didn't have a valid driver's license. Two other people were in Mitchell's truck with her, one of whom was holding marijuana. Meanwhile, Mitchell's badge, hat, duty belt, baton and more were left unattended in the truck. In Swick's witness statement to Internal Affairs, she says that Clinton Township Officer Terry Phillips stated, “Oh, that's Andrew Mitchell's truck. We finally got him,” then came to the window of the cruiser where Swick was sitting and said, “Your boss is fucking dirty. We got him.”

According to the IA report, “Officer Mitchell stated that Clinton Township does not look at him in a good light because he has had some issues with drug dealers in the parking lot of one of his apartment complexes.”

In the same report, Officer Phillips alleges that the night of the incident, Mitchell spoke to him on the phone and said, “Why are you fucking with me?” The IA investigation found that Phillips' allegation regarding the phone call was “not sustained” (Mitchell denied saying it), and that Mitchell did not knowingly allow Swick to drive his vehicle without a driver's license; the allegation of not properly securing his division-issued equipment in his personal vehicle was “sustained.”

At the Oct. 23 rally outside Columbus Police headquarters — the building in which Donna had hoped to one day work — protesters held signs: “Justice for Donna”; “She is a mother, daughter. She is someone.”; “Release the audio.” They voiced their solidarity with other Ohioans who have died at the hands of police, shouting the names of Ty're King, Henry Green, Jaron Thomas and others.

Bobbi McCalla ascended a set of steps flanked by two stone lions and stood next to Donna's street sisters in pink. “We still haven't received any answers. We have no idea what happened that day,” she said into the megaphone between tears. “We are not going away until we receive the answers that we deserve.”