Former jail commander charged with felony after inmate's death
An inquest has been ordered following the April 2016 dehydration death of Milwaukee County Jail inmate Terrill Thomas. Here's how an inquest works, and how the only other Milwaukee County inquest in the past decade ended. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — The former commander of the Milwaukee County jail and two other staffers were charged Monday with felony offenses in connection with the death of an inmate who was denied water for seven days.
Maj. Nancy Evans, 48, of the Milwaukee County Sheriff Office is charged with felony misconduct in office and obstructing an officer. Jail Lt. Kashka Meadors, 40, and correctional officer James Ramsey-Guy, 38, each are charged with neglecting an inmate, also a felony offense.
Terrill Thomas, a 38-year-old inmate with bipolar disorder, died April 24, 2016, after being placed in solitary confinement. Meadors gave the order to shut off the water, Ramsey-Guy physically cut all water to Thomas' cell, and Evans lied about the subsequent investigation, according to the complaint, which accuses jail guards of "abandoning" Thomas to die.
Evans, Meadors and Ramsey-Guy were suspended with pay Monday, and Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt said discipline would be handed down Friday.
All three were on administrative duty previously and did not have contact with inmates, Schmidt said.
The defendants appeared in court Monday and remained free on signature bonds. They are due back in court March 2 for a preliminary hearing.
Last year, an inquest jury recommended charges against those three jail staffers, along with four others. John Chisholm, Milwaukee County district attorney, said he does not expect the other four to be charged.
"We're focusing on the individuals that we think are most responsible," Chisholm said. His office still is investigating the role of medical provider Armor Correctional Health Services in the dehydration death.
The practice of cutting off water to an inmate is against the jail's written regulations, but Ramsey-Guy said it was common practice. Within three weeks of Thomas' death, water was cut to two other inmates' cells, according to the complaint.
"The incidents demonstrate an institutional practice of punitively shutting off water to unruly inmates," it said.
Asked Monday if jail staff still shut off water to inmates, Schmidt would not comment.
"That deals specifically with this case so, I think we'll pass on that particular question today," he said.
Since Thomas' death, seven inmates have died in the jail, three between August and December. The Waukesha County Sheriff's Department is investigating those three most recent deaths.
Former Sheriff David Clarke Jr., who was in office at the time of Thomas' death, hasn’t commented publicly on his agency’s handling of Thomas’ incarceration.
He has complained publicly that the media fails to sufficiently highlight Thomas’ poor physical health and the charges that landed him in jail, neither of which contributed to his death, according to the medical examiner's report.
Thomas was arrested after he ran into the Potawatomi casino in Milwaukee, yelling and ordering patrons to "get out."
He fired two rounds and stuffed poker chips into his pockets. Confronted by police, he dropped the Glock 9mm handgun into a trash can and was arrested.
His family said they believe he was having a psychotic episode.
Within 48 hours of Thomas' death, Evans directed her subordinate, Capt. George Gold, to watch the video footage of Thomas' cell area to determine whether corrections officers turned off his water, according to the criminal complaint.
Gold told Evans the video showed that when Thomas was placed in his cell, a corrections officer opened the water valve cabinet and no other officers went back to touch it, indicating Thomas' water was turned off at the start of his incarceration and never turned back on until he died, the complaint said.
Witnesses confirmed seeing Gold watch the video.
Evans took no steps to preserve the video surveillance evidence, which resulted in it being overwritten and permanently lost, prosecutors said. It was her duty to preserve the evidence, the complaint said.
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In June 2016, Sheriff's Office Inspector Edward Bailey learned from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter's inquiries that Thomas’ cell water may have been shut off. When he directed Evans to determine what had happened, she did not tell him that Gold watched video footage for the entire week and knew that Thomas' water had been shut off, according to the complaint.
In March 2017, Evans denied, at least 15 times, to district attorney investigators that Gold had watched the video and changed her story a couple of weeks later, the complaint stated.
"On behalf of the family, we're elated that finally, charges have come down because we've never given up on Terrill Thomas," said Daniel Storm, an investigator working with one of the lawyers representing Thomas' family. "We know the videos. We saw the anguish he was going through his last few days of life."
In a news conference Monday, Schmidt struck a much different tone than Clarke did when discussing the case. He said such deaths are rare — about 34,500 inmates come through the jail every year and on average, a quarter have diagnosed mental health issues — but said he can't dismiss them.
"It hurts me as a human being when I see someone suffer, when I see the families of anyone suffer," Schmidt said. "I get it. This family has gone through a horrific ordeal. I don't wish this on anyone."