Shortly before dawn on Sunday, Janela Miller received a call from her husband, Tarz Youngblood, on Rikers Island. His voice was subdued, she remembered, as he wished her a happy birthday and asked about their children — 3-year-old twins and a 6-year-old daughter.

She knew he was struggling, and was worried about confrontations with correction officers and other detainees, Miller said, even if he didn’t let on when they spoke that morning.

“He wanted you to think he was so strong and that he wasn’t afraid of nothing,” she said.

Less than six hours later, Youngblood, 38, was pronounced dead, according to the Department of Correction. His attorney, Adam Silverstein, said he was found unresponsive in a common area outside of his cell in the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.

Despite multiple requests, the city DOC declined to provide additional details on Youngblood’s death, including the suspected cause or where he was found. Mayor Eric Adams' office did not immediately respond to similar questions.

In the absence of official information, Youngblood’s wife and close friends have mounted their own investigation. They said they’d received a series of calls in recent weeks indicating something was wrong, including an explicit warning from one of Youngblood’s fellow detainees who said he was in a “dangerous situation.”

“Rikers Island killed my husband,” said Miller, who is living with her three children in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. “They think that no one cares and he don’t have family, but I’m right here, and they got to pay for what they did to him.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction declined to respond to specific questions, but said the death was being referred to an independent outside agency for investigation. A spokesperson for the State Attorney General’s Office confirmed they had opened an investigation.

Youngblood’s death is the first in city custody this year, and comes after 16 people died in city jails last year, the highest total since 2013. Rikers remains beset by overlapping crises, including high absentee rates among correction officers that have fueled a spike in violence and self-harm in the jail complex.

Records show that Youngblood, who was previously homeless, was incarcerated in September on $10,000 cash bail after he was arrested for a domestic violence charge. He spent two weeks in an intake system that had descended into chaos, and was unable to access medical treatment for a wound he had when he entered the jail system, according to his wife and attorney.

The DOC declined multiple requests to respond to this assertion.

Miller said her husband was moved last month to a new housing area in the facility where he feared for his safety. She said he would spend long stretches of time locked in his own cell, missing meals and showers.

In addition to his wife, he spoke regularly to his friend, Omowale Hewitt.

Hewitt said the pair grew up together in Park Slope, where Youngblood’s father ran a pet grooming service. As two of the only Black kids in the neighborhood, he said they’d bonded over an interest in fashion and remained friends for decades.

While family and friends said Youngblood had struggled with mental illness in recent years, Hewitt said he seemed intent on turning his life around and was eager to leave Rikers.

Then last week, Hewitt said he received a strange phone call from an unknown individual on Rikers Island, who appeared to be calling on behalf of Youngblood.

“The kid is trying to tell me ‘it’s not good for him in here,’” recalled Hewitt.

In the background, Hewitt said he could hear Youngblood’s voice calling out to him.

“He said, ‘Tell my kids I love you. They're not treating me right,’” Hewitt said, adding that it wasn’t clear why his friend couldn’t come directly to the phone.

“He's a deep type of person,” Hewitt said. "In the last week when he was calling it wasn't regular. He was letting it be known: ‘I'm in a dangerous situation.’"

The phone call left Hewitt shaken. He called Rikers Island seeking answers, he said, and is trying to find a lawyer who can take up his friend’s case. He wants the city to release audio recordings of the phone call as part of their investigation, though he says he has little faith in that happening. The DOC declined to respond to a question from Gothamist about this as well.

“Something shady is happening and no one cares,” said Hewitt. “I just want justice for him.”