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Arizona’s ‘drinking toilet water’ jail lawsuit ends

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Posted at 6:17 PM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 12:54:02-04

GILA COUNTY, AZ — An Arizona grandmother has settled a lawsuit with Gila County after she was forced to drink toilet water in jail.

Tamara Barnicoat, 63, said she received $130,000 in the case, which stemmed from her 2019 detention. Barnicoat, who is diagnosed with mental illness, said she was delusional at the time of her jailing, which prevented her from advocating for herself. Her lawsuit detailed several civil rights violations.

“They didn't get away with it, you know, for treating me the way they did,” Barnicoat said.

During a series of reports in February 2020, The ABC15 Investigators were the first to break the story about Barnicoat’s treatment in the Gila County Jail. The jail is located in Globe, 90 miles east of Phoenix.

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Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd

In one interview, Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd admitted that Barnicoat had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Such punishment is a violation of the 8th Amendment.

“I felt that all my rights were taken away,” Barnicoat said this week. “I didn't even feel like an American citizen.”

Barnicoat arrested, jailed without charges

Globe officers arrested Barnicoat in October 2019 after she threw a cup of water, claiming it was poison, on a car wash employee.

Inside the Gila County Jail, Barnicoat said she did not get her medication nor mental health treatment.

At first, Barnicoat was locked in an isolation cell. A detention officer shut off water to her cell. Violating jail policy, nobody turned the water back on for at least two days. Isolated and dehydrated, Barnicoat resorted to drinking from the toilet. Jail employees, and even the sheriff, confirmed this account through written reports and interviews with ABC15.

“I was crying the whole time I was in jail,” Barnicoat said. “I kept telling them, you know, you're taking away my rights, and they seemed like they didn't care.”

While jailed, no criminal charges were filed against Barnicoat, but she was not released for 27 days. At that point, her public defender and a judge noticed, and the judge ordered her immediate release. Barnicoat also sued her public defender, Ray Geiser, and they reached a separate settlement.

"Absolutely, we wish we would have known earlier, and then it wouldn't have happened," said Sheriff Adam Shepherd in a February 2020 interview with ABC15.

Attempted payoff, alleged retribution

Several weeks after ABC15’s initial report on Barnicoat, a sheriff’s official came to her house with a check for $7,500 and a written agreement not to pursue future legal claims, according to court documents.

Barnicoat’s civil lawyers, Robert Campos and Kevin Garrison, later argued that the agreement should be null-and-void. They said the sheriff’s office, which had previously traumatized Barnicoat in jail, was now taking advantage of the mentally ill woman, who did not have a lawyer to help her understand the documents.

After Barnicoat filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, with a $500,000 settlement request, her old criminal case suddenly resurfaced. The Gila County Attorney used the original police report about water throwing to charge her with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and assault.

After ABC15 reported on what many saw as retribution, the criminal case was transferred to an outside county attorney who dropped all the charges.

“You got to fight for what you believe in,” Barnicoat said. “No matter how they treat you, just hang in there and fight for what you believe that you deserve.”

Other Gila Co. Jail mistreatment

ABC15 has identified a total of four families with similar allegations against the Gila County Jail. They claim people with mental illness have routinely been neglected, mistreated, and denied their civil rights.

Like Barnicoat, Memory Burns said she was denied mental health care, and she was jailed for weeks beyond her court-ordered release.

The families of Gene “Chad” Beason and Anthony Stewart said the lack of mental health treatment in jail ended with their deaths by suicide.

“One of our goals was to get this out in the open so that the community could see what happens in their jails,” Campos said.

“I'm glad there is definitely a closure now,” Barnicoat said. “I just hope that, you know, they treat people better than what they have.”

Sheriff Shepherd declined an interview about the lawsuit settlement, and the sheriff’s office refused to discuss any improvements in inmate management or mental health care.

The executive director of the Arizona Counties Insurance Pool spoke briefly to ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius by phone. He confirmed a settlement had been reached with Barnicoat, but he refused further comment and hung up. He did not answer a call back.

Sheriff Shepherd did tell the Gila County Board of Supervisors during an annual report in July that his jail had moved to a digital management system, which included handheld devices for detention officers to better track inmate status.