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Mistakes and Lies: Torrey Smith, 31, Dies In Hays County Jail

Nov 4th, 2010 | Category: Hays County, Jailhouse Stories

SAN MARCOS — Torrey Lamar Smith had fallen behind on paying fines related to a 2006 felony, and on Dec. 2, 2008, after officials issued a warrant for his arrest, Smith turned himself in at the Hays County Jail .

He would never check out of the jail. Five days later, the 31-year-old father of four was dead. An autopsy report said he died of an attack brought on by sickle cell anemia . Fellow inmates said he died slowly and painfully, growing incoherent as his condition worsened over three days.

An internal investigation conducted after Smith’s death by the Hays County sheriff’s office found that a jail medic accused Smith of faking his illness, gave a false medical report about his condition and was unable to use lifesaving medical equipment.

The investigation also said supervisors and other jail officers failed to challenge the medic as Smith’s condition deteriorated, carried an ailing Smith in a way that violated jail procedures and failed to check on Smith’s condition every 15 minutes after being ordered to do so.

After the investigation, one worker was fired and another left the sheriff’s office, which staffs and oversees the jail. Investigators found numerous violations of county jail policies and procedures during the incident.

The sheriff’s office started the internal investigation the day after Smith died. Detectives looked at jail logs, surveillance video, medical notes, the incident report made immediately after Smith’s death, the current Hays County Jail manual and medical protocols, and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education ‘s medical policies.

Through his spokesman, Lt. Leroy Opiela , Sheriff Tommy Ratliff declined to talk about Smith’s death. Ratliff, who was appointed sheriff after Smith’s death, is running for re-election in November. Officials say they’ve made no changes in policy or procedure since the incident.

County officials released the investigation report , which the American-Statesman requested under the Texas Public Information Act, this month after a settlement was reached with Smith’s survivors. Smith’s widow, Cynthia Smith , and Regina Wade , the mother of one of his children, sued the county over his death and were awarded a $245,000 settlement in March.

“The allegation was that (Smith) died while in our care and perhaps that could have been prevented” with different care and treatment, said Mark Kennedy, chief of the civil division of the Hays County district attorney’s office. He said the county is insured through the Texas Association of Counties for such cases.

Cynthia Smith declined to comment when reached by telephone, directing questions to her attorney, Nadine Nieto, who did not return multiple calls for comment.

In interviews soon after her husband’s death, Cynthia Smith said Hays County officials waited more than 24 hours after Torrey Smith died to notify her. She was trying to arrange bail for her husband when she got the news, she said.

“I kind of figured they weren’t taking care of him well,” she said in 2009. “I wasn’t getting any phone calls (from him). I thought something must be wrong.”

Torrey Smith had turned himself in to Hays County officials in December 2008 after he failed to make several payments on a $2,000 fine on a charge of endangering a child. Officers had found Smith intoxicated in a parked car in 2006 on the side of a road with one of his sons in the back seat, court records say. Smith also had been charged in August with assault in Travis County. At his death, he owed about $1,600 for the fine and $600 for probation services .

The Travis County medical examiner’s office ruled in a March 2009 autopsy that Smith’s death was the result of an acute vaso-occlusive crisis, often referred to as a “pain crisis” that is caused by blood cells “sickling,” changing from round to sickle-shaped.

In Smith’s case, sickling occurred in multiple organs, including the brain, lungs and heart, the autopsy report said.

In 2008, Cynthia Smith told the American-Statesman that her husband wasn’t ill when he got to jail, although he was on medication for his sickle cell anemia. She said her husband was in good spirits the last time she heard from him

Dec. 4 . She was waiting for a prosecutor to sign off on a bail amount and anticipated picking him up on Dec 9.

‘Carrying a dying man’

Inmates began alerting jailers on Dec. 5 that Smith was in need of medical attention, corrections officers told investigators . Smith complained of severe back pain, had trouble breathing, wasn’t walking straight and was refusing food.

Meanwhile, inmates said, Smith moaned in pain while he was in jail and could not keep food or water down. In a letter to the Statesman and in a jail interview shortly after Smith’s death, inmates said jail officers ignored Smith’s pleas to call 911. As Smith became weaker, inmates tried several times to get help by calling guards repeatedly and by forming a circle around him, hoping their actions would attract the guards’ attention.

At 1:30 a.m. Dec. 5 , officers took Smith to the infirmary, where he stayed until about 10 p.m. Dec. 7, when jail medic Lois Wagner told the night shift supervisor, Sgt. Ron Eby , that Smith had no legitimate reason to be housed in the infirmary and was “faking” a medical condition, according to investigators’ reports.

Smith took his medication three times that day and refused it on the fourth time, the documents said. Wagner told investigators that he had cursed at medics and banged on the door.

Officer Paul Eichholtz and another jailer carried Smith out of the infirmary by his pants and shirt the night he died . Before taking him to his cell, they brought Smith to the booking area. Eichholtz then laid him on the floor, he told investigators, to get county-issued underwear for Smith.

Eichholtz told investigators in retrospect that he realized “he was carrying a dying man.”

When Eichholtz asked Wagner about blood on Smith’s mouth, the medic told him and other officers present that Smith’s lips were chapped, Eichholtz and Eby told investigators.

Cpl. Ernest Sierra said he had a “gut feeling” that Smith was getting worse but told investigators that Wagner said repeatedly that Smith’s vital signs were fine.

In his interview with investigators, Sierra said Wagner told Smith: “Quit faking it. I don’t have time for this.”

The officers placed Smith in a wheelchair and took him back to his cell, but jailers would later tell investigators that he did not seem coherent. Although officers thought he was being purposefully difficult — so-called noncompliant inmates are common, officials said — Eby told jailers that Smith was to be put on medical watch, which dictated that they check on him every 15 minutes, according to an investigative report.

However, officers later told investigators that they thought the order was to put him on sleep watch, in which they only check to see whether an inmate is asleep.

Inmate Scott Sebby said in a signed statement that Smith was left facedown on a mattress in the cell with blood and mucus coming out of his mouth.

The internal investigation report did not explicitly address inmate complaints.

Eby told investigators that he went to Wagner and asked her to examine Smith later that evening. Shortly thereafter, about 11 p.m. Dec. 7, Wagner came into the cell and checked Smith’s blood pressure, pulse and eyes, which were not reacting, she told investigators.

Detectives interviewed Wagner hours after Smith’s death, and records show that her account of what happened before and after Smith’s death differed from what jailers reported. For example, Wagner told investigators she didn’t recall accusing Smith of faking an illness the day he died. She also reported that his blood pressure was within a normal range, even as Smith was found not breathing in his cell.

More than a week later, she would change her story, the internal investigation report showed.

Wagner recorded Smith’s blood pressure as 120 over 64 and his pulse as 60 beats per minute, but she knew it was incorrect , she told investigators in a Dec. 17 interview. She told investigators that “she smelled death and deep down she knew he was dead.”

As jailers started emergency treatment for Smith, Wagner stood crying in the hallway, “panicking and not knowing what to do,” jailers told investigators.

Wagner did not know where the facility’s defibrillator was or how to use an oxygen machine, the report said. Some jailers said she “froze.” She later expressed to investigators that she lacked training on how to use emergency medical equipment, the report said.

John Henry Cavanaugh , the jail’s senior medical officer , told investigators that Smith should have been sent to a hospital. Cavanaugh told investigators that Wagner, now 54 , had more than 20 years of experience and there was no reason she was unable to perform her duties that night.

In the report, investigators identified Wagner as a certified medical assistant with more than 30 years of experience. Medical assisting is offered as a 12-month program at some Texas community colleges, after which students may take an exam to earn certification.

After officers had no success in reviving Smith with a sternum rub or CPR, they called paramedics about 11:20 p.m., the internal investigation report said.

San Marcos paramedics told investigators that when they arrived, Smith had no pulse. His jaw was rigid, and blood was not moving through his veins. One paramedic told investigators he believed that Smith had been dead at least 30 minutes, despite Wagner having reported a pulse minutes earlier.

Paramedics told investigators Wagner didn’t brief them or identify herself as the jail medic. EMS Cmdr. Scott Robinson told investigators it appeared that Smith had been “deceased for some time.” Smith was pronounced dead at Central Texas Medical Center , where detectives began their internal investigation.

Aftermath

Sheriff’s detectives identified several policy violations that might have led to Smith’s death, they said in their report.
Wagner failed to check Smith’s vital signs at crucial times, failed to make a sound medical judgment and gave a false report of Smith’s blood pressure and vital signs. She also failed to “operate basic emergency lifesaving equipment,” such as an automated defibrillator and an oxygen machine.

Corrections officers told investigators that they had found Wagner to be incompetent on the job before Smith’s death.

“Sgt. Eby advised in his opinion Lois Wagner is not qualified to fill the position as a medic in the jail. He advised she seems confused on a regular basis in reference to medical decisions,” the internal investigation report said. “Officer Eichholtz advised he believes medic Wagner is incompetent and unable to fulfill her responsibilities as a medic.”

Eby failed to address Smith’s lack of treatment and didn’t document or investigate complaints of Wagner lacking competence, investigators said.

Cavanaugh failed to ensure that Wagner was properly trained, Eichholtz violated policy by carrying Smith by his shirt and pants, and Sierra violated policy by not providing guidance to Eichholtz, the report said.

Wagner and corrections officers mentioned in the report either did not respond to requests for interviews or could not be reached for comment.

Wagner was terminated as of Dec. 31, 2008, county records show. She had been employed at the jail since March 2007. According to her personnel file, Wagner was fired for making false statements of medical procedures, including inaccurately reporting Smith’s blood pressure and pulse the night he died.

An earlier performance review of Wagner was mostly positive, and she was named 2007 Support Person of the Year by the sheriff’s office in February 2008.

Opiela said that Eby also left the sheriff’s office but that his exit was not related to Smith’s death. Eby and his wife now live in Missouri, said Opiela, who added, “He just up and left.”

Smith’s death isn’t the only time the Hays County Jail and its procedures have garnered negative attention. State officials nearly closed the jail in 2009 after it was found to have deteriorating conditions, including rust, mold and holes in the walls. Officials at the Texas Commission on Jail Standards ordered the kitchen closed until repairs were made.

The kitchen was reopened this month after a state inspector said the jail was back in compliance with commission standards.

Smith’s death occurred days after the unexpected death of then-Sheriff Allen Bridges. The Hays County Commissioners Court appointed Ratliff to lead the department. Opiela said no changes in policy have resulted from the incident.

“It’s just an unfortunate event,” he said.

By Patrick George, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF, pgeorge@statesman.com; 512-392-8750

http://www.statesman.com/news/local/mistakes-in-inmates-death-771529.html?cxtype=rss_ece_frontpage

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1 Comment
Anonymous
10 years ago

The medic oughta be charged. Too many instances where they think the inmate is “faking it” but in reality they really need medical assistance. She needs to be punished more than just losing her job.