DA: Decision on charges in NC jail inmate’s death to take several weeks

Going to jail shouldn't be a death sentence

BY KATE MARTIN, Carolina Public Press

Cherokee County Detention Center

The Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy serves as the jail for local inmates, in addition to housing some state and federal prisoners. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

District Attorney Ashley Welch will likely need several weeks to review State Bureau of Investigation findings and decide on potential criminal charges stemming from the death of a Cherokee County jail inmate from a methamphetamine overdose last summer, she told Carolina Public Press last week.

“The SBI spent a while investigating it, and I am sure they did a thorough job,” Welch said.

Given her other duties in the coming weeks, including a murder trial, “it will take me a while to review it,” she said.

In addition to potential criminal charges in the death of Joshua Shane Long, Welch will also consider whether separate misdemeanor charges should apply if jail officers failed to follow procedures outlined in the Cherokee County Detention Center’s medical plan.

“Anytime you are dealing with somebody who passes away, that takes a while to really look and dig into it,” Welch said. “That’s about as serious as it gets.”

Last summer, deputies arrested Long after 911 callers reported a man screaming and acting erratically. Several hours later, he collapsed in his holding cell. He was eventually pronounced dead at a Tennessee hospital.

Sheriff Derrick Palmer has so far declined to release incident narratives related to Long’s arrest. Palmer said the county attorney, Darryl Brown, is advising him to not release the records. According to state law, incident narratives are not automatically public record, but officials can choose to provide them, and some of the information in those narratives is legally public information.

Independently, Carolina Public Press has obtained some of the records in question, including the narratives related to Long’s arrest and death. This includes a two-page report by the arresting officer, deputy Michael Faggard, and a paragraph authored by the sheriff’s second in command, Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen.

Right before Long was arrested, Faggard walked toward Long’s vehicle, according to the deputy’s account, which was time-stamped a few hours after Long was pronounced dead. Faggard wrote that he saw Long reach over near the passenger side of his red Ford Explorer. He feared Long was reaching for a weapon and stepped back for cover.

“Deputy Faggard then saw the male grab a little tin can and pour it into his mouth and then grab a full cup of water and drink it,” Faggard wrote.

After a short struggle, Faggard secured Long in handcuffs and asked him if he had taken drugs. Long said no, the report says. He also declined an ambulance.

A second deputy also asked Long if he had taken drugs and if he wanted an ambulance. Long said no to each question, the report said.

“Deputy Faggard did advise Sergeant (Frank) Daly at the Cherokee County Detention Center that Long did swallow something but was unsure of what it was,” the report stated.

Long also arrived at the jail high on something, according to Joe Bateman, a magistrate in Cherokee County who visited Long in the jail to set his bond.

A former guard who discussed the situation with CPP has said procedure required that intoxicated inmates should instead go to the hospital for an evaluation.

Had Long gone to the hospital rather than simply being booked into the jail, Long may have lived, said Dr. Don Teater, a Waynesville-based physician who specializes in addiction treatment and mental health.

Teater said an additional concern was that jail officers did not send Long to the emergency room until hours later after he had lost consciousness.

“I would think that if he was still conscious when he arrived at the (emergency department), there would have been a different outcome,” Teater told CPP in January.

After Long collapsed, a variety of records shows that deputies opened his holding cell and started to perform CPR on him. Around that time, Chief Deputy Thigpen started trying to get Long’s bond unsecured.

It is a long-held but false belief that unsecuring an inmate’s bond means a jail is no longer responsible financially for his or her medical care, according to Jaime Markham, an expert on jail issues with the UNC School of Government. Not only does the legal precedent not support this belief, according to Markham, but the failure to provide urgently needed care could land jail officials in serious trouble.

“Failure to follow the plan is a crime,” Markham wrote, “and having a policy or routine practice of releasing sick or injured inmates could give rise to civil liability.”

Welch said she considers advice from the School of Government very seriously.

“I usually don’t disagree with the School of Government,” Welch said. “If we have a complicated legal issue or something’s come up in a trial, we reach out to the School of Government.”

She said she’s interested to see what the school has said about unsecured bonds and plans to research it.

At some point after Long’s collapse, emergency medical personnel working on Long said that he had a strong pulse. Around 12:43 a.m., a helicopter took off with Long, bound for a hospital in Knoxville, Tenn.

A few minutes after takeoff, the medical examiner’s office was notified, according to a medical examiner’s investigative report.

“The victim was declared deceased upon arrival at Erlanger Medical Center,” Thigpen’s report says. “The State Bureau of Investigation was contacted to conduct an investigation of the incident.”

An autopsy and toxicology report released months later show Long died of a methamphetamine overdose several hours after he was booked into the jail. Teater said it is unlikely he had such a high level of methamphetamine in his blood so long after his arrest “without taking more in the jail” after entering Cherokee County’s custody.

The SBI investigated Long’s death in the intervening months, turning in its work to the District Attorney’s Office in mid-November.

Since then, a number of people have left employment at the sheriff’s office. Former Jail Administrator Mark Patterson left last year after CPP published an Oct. 29 investigative report into the jail’s culture of inmate abuse.

Tom Beasley, who was initially named as Patterson’s replacement, resigned after he was told he would have to train his successor. Former assistant jail administrator Jeremy Bresch said he was forced to resign last year. Several other lower-ranking officers have also left or been fired.

Earlier in the year, two detention officers were fired, and one has been charged with two misdemeanor assault charges after an assault on an inmate.

Libby Thigpen, a former narcotics investigator and wife of Chief Deputy Thigpen, was fired in December, according to the county personnel office. A report in the Cherokee Scout of Murphy said Palmer told the local newspaper that he fired Libby Thigpen for resisting a transfer to the county’s Department of Social Services as part of a departmental reorganization.

Since then, the chief deputy has been using some comp time, a type of time off with pay that he cannot cash out without approval if he leaves or is fired from the department. Thigpen has around 400 hours of comp time left, according to the county human resources department.

Palmer said Thigpen is using some comp time but also coming to work.

“He is continuing to do his job, and if there is any plans to leave, he has not shared that with me,” Palmer wrote in an email to CPP.