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AZ jail faces 4th lawsuit involving inmates with mental illness

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Posted at 8:22 PM, Apr 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-26 13:39:17-04

GILA COUNTY, Arizona — The Gila County Jail faces its fourth lawsuit in two years claiming unconstitutional detention of people who have mental illnesses.

The most recent case involves Anthony Stewart. He died after using a towel to hang himself in his cell in April 2021.

The internal investigation in Stewart’s case found staff failed ensure wellness checks were completed, and the jail needed new policies for suicide watch. The investigation also found many detention officers were not up to date on lifesaving CPR training.

On the one-year anniversary of his death, Stewart’s family and friends gathered to remember the 23-year-old. They wrote messages on cards and tied them to balloons released into the air.

“I just hope he knows how much he's missed,” said Robert Zache, Stewart’s dad.

Stewart played football and pampered his cats. He also had schizophrenia and brushes with law enforcement.

“When he's on his meds he was very capable of being a productive member of society, but without them, he was a completely different kid,” Zache said.

In January last year, Stewart stole Yu-Gi-Oh! cards from a Walmart. According to police reports, an off-duty officer working security chased him. The officer said he fired shots at Stewart when the young man tried to hit him with a car.

Stewart was accused of attempted homicide and shoplifting. He was arrested and locked in the Gila County Jail pending trial. The jail is located in Globe, 90 miles east of Phoenix.

Stewart's family says they were denied multiple visitation requests.

“I never got to see him again,” Zache said.

While Stewart was court-ordered to take daily medication, electronic jail logs show he was offered medication on 14 of the 100 days he was behind bars. Sometimes he refused the drugs.

“He didn't like the meds, he hated them,” Zache said. “It wasn't his responsibility to make sure he was getting them. It was their responsibility to make sure he got them.”

Meantime, jail reports show Stewart became a danger to himself and others. He was accused of assaulting another inmate and assaulting jail staff four times. Reports show he attempted suicide four times, including twice on April 5, 2021. After the first attempt that day, a handwritten jail observation log indicates a contracted mental health worker from Community Bridges spent seven minutes assessing him. An hour later, the log shows Stewart did a backflip off his cell's toilet in another suicide attempt. After less than two hours at the hospital, he was returned to jail.

Valerie Stewart, Anthony’s mom, filed a lawsuit against the Gila County Sheriff's Office this month. The lawsuit alleges wrongful death and constitutional violations for failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care and failing to protect Stewart while he was psychotic.

“POWs get better treatment under the Geneva Convention than Stewart had in the county jail,” said Valerie’s lawyer Jason Kelly.

The ABC15 Investigators obtained video from the jail showing Stewart's final suicide attempt on April 19, 2021. At 7:17 a.m., jail reports said Stewart took his medication and told the nurse he was not feeling good, but he did not elaborate.

Two minutes later, Stewart wiggled something white between his cell bars.

“He's working a towel in and out of the bars,” Kelly said.

A detention officer was stationed at this desk feet away as Stewart repositions the white towel through his bars at least 4 more times, according to GCSO’s internal investigation.

All movement in the cell stops at approximately 7:40 a.m.

According to the internal investigation, the detention officer was supposed to check on Stewart every 15 minutes per behavioral health watch policy. Instead, the investigator found the detention office was surfing the internet, so she doesn't check until 49 minutes had elapsed.

The detention officer called for help and tried to untie Stewart. It's too late. He died two days later.

“It could be prevented,” said Andrea Renon, Stewart’s stepmom. “He would still be with us today.”

“You put him in there, deny him the care, and treat him so poorly,” Kelly said. “They caused his death; they were a cause, at a minimum, of his death.”

The detention officer quit before internal investigators interviewed her.

Her supervisor told investigators that jail managers have a handheld device that can send an alarm if cell checks are not completed on time.

“As far as I know I do not remember if the alarm was going off - whether I had it actively open or not,” Sgt. Brandi Kriley said in a recorded interview during the investigation.

This is the fourth lawsuit filed against the Gila County Sheriff's office in two years claiming this rural county jail violated the constitutional rights of inmates with mental illness.

Tamara Barnicoat was denied running water for days and ended up drinking out of the toilet in 2019. She was also held without charges for 27 days. Barnicoat settled her lawsuit with the county in July. One jail employee was demoted for failing to note he shut off Barnicoat’s water, and the sheriff promised better training.

The ABC15 investigators exposed how Memory Burns deteriorated in a cell for weeks in 2020 after jail staff failed to release her to a mental health facility despite a judge's order.

Gene “Chad” Beason died by suicide on Christmas day 2018. He was hearing voices prior to his death, but he did not receive psychiatric care. Jail staff skipped checking his cell as Beason hanged himself and died. Detention officer Lance Goad resigned during the internal investigation. Four others were suspended without pay.

Stewart's family wants changes, which could include more mental health specialists, better training, and maybe even a bigger budget. At the same time, they question if the current jail managers are capable of preventing another death.

“It sure seems irrational for us to think that the jail and the county are going to get their act together without a change of personnel,” Kelly said.

“They have a broken system,” Renon said.

An attorney representing Gila County said the sheriff can't comment about Stewart because of pending litigation and medical privacy rights.

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