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Former commander, 2 staffers charged in dehydration death of Terrill Thomas in Milwaukee County Jail

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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

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The former commander of the Milwaukee County Jail and two other jail staffers were charged Monday in connection with the dehydration death of Terrill Thomas, with the complaint saying guards “abandoned” him to die.

Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Maj. Nancy Evans, 48, is charged with felony misconduct in office and obstructing an officer. Jail Lt. Kashka Meadors, 40, and correctional officer James Ramsey-Guy, 38, are each charged with neglecting an inmate, a felony offense.

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, the complaint says.

Evans, Meadors and Ramsey-Guy were suspended with pay Monday and Acting Sheriff Richard Schmidt said discipline would be handed down Friday. Prior to Monday all three were on administrative duty and did not have contact with jail inmates, Schmidt said.

The defendants appeared in court Monday. They were not in custody and remained free on signature bonds. They are due back in court March 2 for a preliminary hearing.

Thomas, a 38-year-old inmate with bipolar disorder, went seven days without water in solitary confinement before his death. He lost 34 pounds in his eight days in the jail.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation exposed details of Thomas’ death, including incomplete investigative work by the Milwaukee Police Department, which had neglected to interview fellow inmates who witnessed Thomas’ death. Detectives interviewed additional witnesses once the Journal Sentinel reported the lapses.

Last year, an inquest jury recommended charges against those three jail staffers, along with four others. District Attorney John Chisholm 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.

He said his office is still 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, the complaint says, 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.

The complaint called it a “pattern and practice” in the jail. That phrase is often used to refer to potential federal civil rights violations. Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee have been monitoring the investigation into Thomas’ death, sources said.

Asked Monday if any jail staff are still in the practice of shutting off water to inmates, Schmidt said: “That deals specifically with this case so I think we’ll pass on that particular question today.”

7 more inmate deaths

Since Thomas’ death, seven inmates have died in the jail, three between August and December 2017. The Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department is investigating those three most recent deaths.

Former Sheriff David A. 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, 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.

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During the inquest into Thomas’ death last April, Evans fielded pointed questions about whether she misled investigators and failed to preserve key evidence after Thomas’ death.

At that time, prosecutors focused on the disappearance of four days’ worth of vital surveillance video and conflicting statements given to investigators by Evans, who oversaw day-to-day operations of the jail. They grilled Evans for 90 minutes during the inquest.

“Defendant Evans’ course of conduct during the investigation into Mr. Thomas’ death, of withholding information from her superiors, lying to her supervisors, failing to preserve evidence, repeatedly lying to law enforcement investigators and lying at the inquest, constituted misconduct in public office,” the complaint says.

It alleges Evans lied to district attorney investigators as well as her bosses in the department, including Schmidt.

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 his water was turned off at the start of his incarceration and never turned back on until he died, the complaint says.

Witnesses confirmed seeing Gold watch the video.

Prosecutors said Evans took no steps to preserve the video surveillance evidence, which resulted in it being overwritten and permanently lost. It was her duty to preserve the evidence, the complaint says.

In June 2016, Sheriff’s Office Inspector Edward Bailey learned from a Journal Sentinel reporter’s inquiries that Thomas’ cell water may have been shut off, according to the complaint.

Bailey told Evans to determine what had happened with Thomas’ cell water access, and in response, Evans did not tell him that Gold had watched the footage for the entire week, nor did she tell him Thomas’ cell water was shut off on April 17, 2016, and never turned back on, the complaint says.

That same month, Evans ordered a different commander, Capt. Paul Hein, to watch the video. But as Hein was watching the video, the earliest footage was being overwritten and lost, the complaint says.

Milwaukee police investigated the case as the medical examiner declared it a homicide.

Evans was asked if the water had been shut off and gave what the complaint says is a “non-responsive dodge of the question.”

“There is no documentation indicating this,” she told police detectives.

Misled investigators, supervisors

In March 2017, Evans denied, at least 15 times, to district attorney investigators that Gold had watched the video. That same day she told Schmidt, then the inspector and her direct supervisor, she never told anyone to watch the video and never got a report back from Gold.

“Major Evans has emphatically stated to me, ever since the death investigation began, that she had NO KNOWLEDGE of the water in the deceased inmate’s cell ever being turned off,” Schmidt wrote in a memo documenting the meeting.

But then a couple of weeks later Evans changed her story. She admitted she did order her subordinate, Gold, to watch the video but she said he told her, “There’s nothing there.”

The complaint calls her changed story, which she repeated in the inquest, “nonsensical,” noting she directed a different subordinate to watch the video after Gold supposedly told her nothing was there.

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During the inquest last spring, Meadors testified she ordered Ramsey-Guy to cut off the water going to Thomas’ toilet in his new cell after he flooded a previous cell.

Meadors said she meant for the shutoff order to stay in effect only until Thomas settled down. She later said she only meant that toilet water should be shut off.

She said officers told her the water situation was resolved before she left for the day.

“I was under the impression that it was taken care of, and as well, I briefed my supervisor,” Meadors said at the inquest.

Ramsey-Guy testified he only shut off Thomas’ cold water and left on the hot water — even though investigators found the entire water system off. Ramsey-Guy said he expected another officer on the jail wing, John Weber, to document the shutoff.

“I was the one that turned the water off, so the officer at the desk was the one who was supposed to log it,” Ramsey-Guy said.

Weber, in turn, testified he didn’t know who issued the order or cut off the water.

Evans in trouble before

Clarke promoted Evans in 2014 to overseeing Mitchell airport security after Clarke’s own internal investigation found she had committed a “clear act” of misconduct in office just 18 months before.

At that time, prosecutors decided not to press charges against Evans because they couldn’t prove she personally benefited when awarding thousands of taxpayer dollars to an account she created for her longtime boyfriend via no-bid contracts.

A sheriff’s investigator concluded Evans broke county rules by providing contracts to a former corrections officer with whom she had an extramarital affair, according to an internal report.

Daniel Storm, an investigator working with one of the attorneys representing Thomas’ family, spoke Monday to reporters at the Milwaukee County Jail. He said he had been in touch with Thomas’ son, Terrill Thomas Jr., that morning through text messages.

“On behalf of the family, we’re elated that finally, charges have come down because we’ve never given up on Terrill Thomas,” Storm said. “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.”

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