Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Agencies Investigating Jail Death

From:  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (July 4, 2016):

By Cara Lombardo, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Two months after a Milwaukee County Jail inmate was found unresponsive in his cell, his family still doesn’t know how he died.

Terrill Thomas was arrested April 15 after shooting a man in the chest and later firing two shots in the Potawatomi casino. At his initial court appearance from inside the jail’s segregation unit, his lawyer told the judge there was reason to believe he wasn’t mentally competent. The judge ordered a psychiatric examination be completed by May 11.

But Thomas died in his cell on April 24.

His family thinks jail employees might have cut off his water supply when he acted erratically instead of getting him mental health treatment. An inmate whose cell was across from his said he repeatedly urged corrections officers to give Thomas water the day before he died.

“A 38-year-old man doesn’t die of natural causes,” said Thomas’ cousin, Tiffany Robertson.

The death is under investigation by three agencies — the Milwaukee Police Department, the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail where he died. No reports have been made public, and his family says they have been told little about how or why he died.

When two officers arrived at his parents’ house to inform them of his death, family members said one officer asked them to keep it out of the media while they completed their investigation. Police spokesman Sgt. Tim Gauerke said if the suggestion was made, it would have been to protect the privacy of family members while they grieve.

The Sheriff’s Office would not answer questions about the circumstances of Thomas’ death or basic policies and procedures in the jail.

The Police Department is performing an independent investigation into the death. A Wisconsin law enacted in 2014 requires an outside agency to perform an independent investigation of deaths that occur in police custody.

Autopsy and toxicology reports likely won’t be released for several more weeks or months given that in-custody deaths require additional procedures, including reviewing police reports and final investigations from both departments, said Karen Domagalski, operations manager of the medical examiner’s office.

A 2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found 10 people died in custody of the Sheriff’s Office during a four-year period. One woman complained of chest pains but didn’t get proper medical care, one man’s water had been shut off and one man committed suicide after not receiving his prescribed anti-depressants. None of those deaths resulted in charges against personnel; only two resulted in officers being disciplined.

‘Cell 15 needs water’

Marcus Berry said he was in a cell across from Thomas for the last six days of his life.

Berry said Thomas rarely slept and appeared to be suffering from mental health problems. He’d stuff toilet paper into his mouth and spit it out. He shouted strange things — “Pure cocaine,” “T.J. Thomas is my daddy,” “God is coming soon!” — while slapping the walls of his cell.

The tap water in Thomas’ cell was shut off the day he was brought to the segregation unit, Berry said; those taps are inmates’ primary source of drinking water. Berry said a correctional officer told him the water was shut off because of Thomas’ behavior in his previous cell.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to say if an inmate’s water would be shut off for disciplinary purposes.

Erik Heipt, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in cases of wrongful death in jails and prisons, said while this tactic is sometimes used, it shouldn’t be a long-term measure.

“You can’t punish someone by depriving them of the nourishment they need to survive,” he said.

Berry said Thomas also refused to eat Nutraloaf, a food product served to inmates in the segregation unit.

“I could tell he was getting weaker,” Berry said. “One day he just lay down, dehydrated and hungry.” When Berry asked if Thomas needed water, he said it sounded like Thomas tried to say “yeah” but couldn’t fully speak.

Berry said he urged a correctional officer to bring Thomas water, but said he was told it would have to wait until another officer was on duty.

Berry said he told an officer that he had never seen Thomas lie down before in the six days he had been in the cell.

“Cell 15 needs water,” he recalls saying. That officer told him Thomas was asleep and didn’t need water while sleeping.

Before going to bed that night, Berry said he told an officer: “If something happens to that man, it’s your fault.”

Hours later, around 1:30 a.m., Berry woke up when guards discovered Thomas unresponsive. Within 30 minutes, he was pronounced dead. Berry watched them take him out in a body bag.

Berry, 28, was interviewed twice in the jail for this story by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter. He has a lengthy criminal record and is awaiting trial for a 2014 incident where he is accused of shooting and injuring three people following a gambling dispute.

Berry said he has not been interviewed by investigators about Thomas’ death.

A Police Department spokesman said “pertinent witnesses” were interviewed for the investigation of Thomas’ death but declined to disclose names. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond when asked whether Berry was interviewed as part of its investigation.

Heipt, the attorney, said a credible investigation would “absolutely” require interviewing all eyewitness inmates and corrections officers and reviewing surveillance videos.

Heipt said in-custody deaths can also be the result of untreated drug or alcohol withdrawals. He said it is imperative that law enforcement agencies get detailed information about an inmate’s lifestyle during the intake process — and give immediate medical attention to inmates displaying common withdrawal symptoms, which can include hallucinations, nausea and abnormal vital signs.

Thomas’ family and girlfriend said they were not aware of any drug or alcohol dependencies.

Past mental illness

Thomas’ parents said he had a history of mental illness. The episodes started when he was 22. He’d shout strange things, cry and get little sleep for days at a time.

“Whatever was causing his breakdowns would go away and come back,” said Thomas’ mother, Celia Thomas.

Celia and her husband, T.J. Thomas, believe their son was in the throes of a mental breakdown at the time of his arrest at Potawatomi. An acquaintance who went with Thomas to Potawatomi told police Thomas had been acting strangely and called himself a god shortly before firing his gun in the casino.

He had been admitted to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex at least three times in the past 15 years, but his parents weren’t aware of him receiving a specific diagnosis. The only medical issue his mother knew of him having was high blood pressure.

The Thomases said they have tried to collect their son’s medical records but were told they can’t access them without his death certificate, which won’t be available until the medical examiner’s office finalizes a cause of death on his autopsy report.

They are concerned that their son did not receive the health treatment he needed in jail.

Celia Thomas worries he refused food because he wasn’t thinking clearly and expected his parents to bring his favorite meals as they did when he was at the mental health center.

But they hadn’t been able to visit him or even speak with him in the jail after he was arrested. When his mother tried to arrange a visit, she was told he was too agitated to have visitors.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Anitra Gosa, said she showed up at the jail but was turned away and told to call later.

She said she tried calling several times, but never saw or spoke to Thomas again.

Gosa said Thomas had warned her about his mental health issues when they started dating two years ago.

“He told me, ‘Sometimes I slip out of reality. … Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I’m not,'” said Gosa, who lived with Thomas in West Allis.

But outside of those spells, Gosa and his parents said it was hard to tell anything was wrong.

“He was a delicate little boy without a temper,” Celia Thomas said.

Strange behavior

In the weeks before the incident at the casino, Thomas had been buying and selling used cars.

Gosa noticed Thomas was acting strange after returning from a car auction in Georgia.

“I heard it in his voice,” she said.

Two days after he returned, a 2007 Mercedes-Benz he just bought was stolen at a gas station on N. 35th St.

Thomas suspected a man he let ride in the car earlier that day took it. Thomas demanded the gas station clerk show him video footage of the lot, his father said. When the clerk didn’t agree, Thomas knocked things off the counter in frustration. The car was recovered within a few hours and a police officer arrived at his parents’ house later that day.

His parents said they begged the officer to get Thomas mental health help before he hurt someone. But under state law, a law enforcement officer can take an individual who appears to be mentally ill into custody only if a specific, recent act suggests the person is very likely to harm someone else or themselves.

Celia Thomas recalls asking the officer a desperate question: “What do you want him to do, kill somebody?”

The next night around 7 p.m., Celia Thomas looked out her front window.

“First thing I saw — I couldn’t believe it — was Terrill shooting a gun,” she said.

The bullet was intended for the man Thomas thought had taken his car, but it struck the man’s friend in the chest instead. Thomas ran away before his mother could approach him. When the police later showed up at the house, she told them what she saw. The man Thomas shot survived.

Shortly before 3:30 a.m. the next day, police say Thomas ran into the Potawatomi casino, yelling and ordering patrons to “get out.”

He fired two rounds in the High Roller area and stuffed poker chips into his pockets. Confronted by police, he dropped the Glock 17 9mm handgun into a trash can and was arrested, according to police reports.

He told police he had smoked synthetic marijuana and drank alcohol.

Before that night, Thomas had a significant criminal record, including convictions for multiple felonies for possessing cocaine between 1997 and 2004 and a battery charge in 2008.

Thomas’ family doesn’t know if he received any mental health treatment between his arrest and the day he died. With no information about what caused his death, his family has struggled to process it.

“I wake up every night at the time that he died,” Celia Thomas said.

Thomas’ 6-year-old son sits at the front window of Celia Thomas’ house, waiting for his dad to come back.

“Terrill did what he did, it wasn’t right,” Celia Thomas said. “But how would people feel if it had been their kid?”

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