PETALUMA, Calif. (KTVU) - A 30-year-old homeless woman was killed this week while she climbed into a donation bin in Petaluma, Calif. looking for clothes, leaving her friends devastated at what appears to be a tragic and freak accident.
Sometime overnight Tuesday, Kaily Land was found trapped head first in the box when it snapped shut, authorities said. The boxes are used by various non-profit agencies, and are designed to put clothing and shoes in. People are not supposed to go in and retrieve items themselves.
"She liked to go into these boxes and get clothes and stuff," Land's friend, Donna Alger, said. "But she never did it alone, and that's what so scary, that she's dead."
Alger wiped away tears on Wednesday night as she placed a candle on the green metal bin, which has stood for years along busy Old Redwood Highway north of town. A longtime market and deli, the Steel Bear occupies the property, with a 24-hour Valero gas station on the other side of the box.
Petaluma police received calls from commuters who saw legs and feet dangling from the open box. Police say they found a flashlight still on inside the bin.
Investigators say it appears Land was trying to grab items from inside the box, or shimmy herself into it.
"As you try and pull yourself out of it, the mechanism tightens and closes further," Lt. Tim Lyons said. "She obviously dropped the flashlight and the door came up, and caught her in the neck area, and we think she asphyxiated from being trapped inside," Lyons said.
Police will be talking to the box owner, an East Bay agency, about ways to prevent another accident.
"Maybe they can re-design their box or put up warning signs or something," said Lyons.
But Land, who was homeless, was apparently well-aware of the danger.
"I just saw her last week at 7-Eleven and I said 'You need to be careful going into those boxes,''" recalled Alger, "and she said, 'Well I never do it alone.'"
Alger was mystified why Land would try to scavenge from a box by herself.
"Somebody would always have to hold it open, she never did this alone," said Alger, "and she's been doing this for years, always with someone with her. "
Her boyfriend, who arrived after her body was found, was visibly distraught talking to police.
Alger described Land as kind-hearted, and says she would often give away items she pulled from donation bins.
"It's a tragedy," said witness Charlie Miller, who was driving past. "At first I thought it was someone just stuck in there, and then the more I thought about it, it occurred to me, what was going on."
Such deaths are not unheard of.
In 2016, an Alameda woman, 42, and also living on the streets, was asphyxiated the same way, and there are easily a dozen such deaths around the nation the past decade.
"The thought of someone struggling to stay alive until someone notices them, it just breaks my heart," said Elece Hempel, Director of Petaluma People Services.
Hempel believes the boxes should have safeguards that will deter theft,without becoming death traps.
As a non-profit leader , she advises people to donate to homegrown charities that distribute directly.
"Look around locally and see where you can give, take the time to find out," said Hempel, "and for those in need, please ask for help. It's our jobs to figure out how to help you, so don't wait for something horrific like this happens."
By evening, the now-broken bin was removed, and replaced with a new one, on which someone had placed a small bouquet of wildflowers.