Jackson County jailers didn’t check on Steve Ross as required before the Sylva man killed himself, documents filed with state regulators show.
All inmates must be checked in person twice an hour; electronic surveillance cannot substitute, according to state law. Those considered at risk of suicide, or who have documented mental illness, must be observed at least four times an hour.
On March 13, a jailer last checked the 38-year-old Ross at 3:53 p.m. The father of five was found hanging by a sheet at 5:18 p.m., almost 90 minutes later, according to an inmate death report filed by the Sheriff’s Office with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Tuesday, Sheriff Chip Hall did not return two voice messages or reply to The Herald’s email seeking comment. The Sheriff’s Office has been tightlipped since Ross’ death, only saying that he died from self-inflicted injuries and that they would release no additional information out of respect for the family.
There was another jail suicide in November. It did not become public until this week. Readers notified The Herald that Charles “Chuckie” Moose, 36, of Robbinsville, had been found hanging in his cell on Nov. 21. He died Nov. 24 at Asheville’s Mission Hospital, a medical examiner’s report shows.
Moose’s death came as the Sheriff’s Office prepared to change leadership. Hall, a former detention supervisor and chief deputy for former Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, won election Nov. 4. Hall was sworn in a month later.
Moose’s stepfather wants a state or federal criminal probe into the local jail’s procedures for safeguarding prisoners. Joe Kays, speaking by phone this week from his North Dakota jobsite, said he wants corrective measures in place to prevent more inmate deaths.
The N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation, which is part of DHHS, is investigating the circumstances of Ross’ hanging. Tuesday (March 24), DHHS Press Assistant Alex Lefebvre said the agency also would investigate Moose’s death. She said a death report on Moose wasn’t required, however, because he died in a hospital, not the jail.
The Sheriff’s Office can ask the State Bureau of Investigation to look into suicides. District Attorney Ashley Welch said each case is treated individually. “If the local Sheriff’s Office feels they have a conflict or there is an issue, they let me know and we usually call the SBI together,” she wrote in an email.
N.C. Department of Justice spokesman Teresa West said this week that the SBI has not been asked to investigate either death.
History of mental illness
The Sheriff’s Office didn’t say whether Ross was on suicide watch. If so, jailers would have been required to check four times an hour – not just two. Extra precautions are required for several reasons, including if Ross had indicated he might hurt himself or there were documentation of mental illness.
Court records show intersection between Ross and the state mental health system. Five years ago, Superior Court Judge Brad Letts ordered a mental health examination for Ross through the N.C. Department of Corrections. Drew Nivens, psychological program manager for Piedmont Correctional Institute, wrote Letts on Aug. 10, 2010, that: “Mr. Ross was seen by a mental health clinician and any needed mental health services based on that screening have been recommended. Your interest in the treatment of this individual is appreciated.”
And in 2009, as a condition of probation, Judge Letts ordered Ross to “participate in further evaluation, counseling, treatment or education programs recommended as a result of that evaluation, and comply with all further therapeutic requirements of those programs until discharged.” Ross went to Christian Love Ministries in Murphy as an inpatient. He was told to leave after workers reported they caught him “huffing” an aerosol can of computer cleaner.
When he died, Ross was jailed on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia; possession of drugs including heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine; injury to personal property; larceny of a motor vehicle; and possessing a stolen automobile.
If convicted of a third felony, he could have faced sentencing as a habitual felon. If that had happened, Ross would have received a harsh active sentence under state law. The exact amount of prison time would depend on where he fell within the state’s structured sentencing requirements.
Frustrated, grieving family
Moose’s brother, Joshua, died from a rare illness in April 2013, 17 months before Chuckie Moose killed himself. Grief over losing two sons has devastated his wife, their stepfather said.
“She needs closure about what happened in Jackson County. She can’t cope. She hardly leaves the house and doesn’t sleep. I get home to Robbinsville (every six weeks or so) and there’s hardly any food in the house. There are days I think she’ll never come out of this,” Kays said.
The day Moose died (Nov. 24), the Sheriff’s Office issued a news release stating he was in critical condition after being found “unresponsive” in his jail cell. There was no follow-up release to say Moose had died.
The medical examiner’s report says the Sheriff’s Office found Moose “suspended by a ligature made from a bed sheet and tied to the top of a bunk bed.” An autopsy showed he died of asphyxia due to hanging.
Moose was taken to Harris Regional Hospital and then to Asheville after resuscitative measures returned a heartbeat, according to the report. Kays said his stepson was brain dead. The autopsy revealed “a near circumferential ligature furrow of the neck with features consistent with the description of the ligature that was used (a torn piece of bed sheet that had been twisted or folded).”
Sheriff’s Office Maj. Shannon Queen said in the November news release that jailers initiated CPR. He also said a jailer checked on Moose 30 minutes before he was found. A 911 transcript records a jailer calling a dispatcher, who says, “Hey, how are you?” The jailer responds: “I’m all right. Hey, I got one that is hanging back here in the pods. I need you to send EMS emergency traffic.”
Kays says he received conflicting reports from the jail’s supervisor about whether one or two jailers were on duty and that other questions have gone unanswered. “I’ve burnt the phones up trying to get answers,” he said.
“My wife told (the jail supervisor) she wanted an investigation. He told her, ‘I’ll be investigating.’ She told him she wanted an outside investigation -- we didn’t get one,” he said.
Dissatisfied, Kays said he contacted an SBI agent in this area “and got attitude.” Kays said he next called the Asheville SBI office and spoke with an investigator there. She told him she’d look into the situation and get back in touch in a few days, he said. Kays said several weeks passed. He called the agent, he said, and she told him there was nothing unusual about Moose’s death.
Kays wants to hire a lawyer; however, the family’s savings were wiped out during their other son’s illness. Kays said once he replenishes their funds – he’s a worksite foreman -- he will do everything in his power to push the issue. “We want the truth,” he said.
When Moose died, he was jailed on misdemeanor charges for failing to appear in court. Kays said Moose was scheduled for release in two weeks. The suicide doesn’t make sense, he said, because his stepson was getting out, and he generally seemed to enjoy his jail stays.
Moose had an extensive criminal history, with charges ranging from illegal drug use to car theft. “He’d been in jail on and off since he was 16. He just seemed to thrive in that environment,” Kays said.
Detention got Moose off drugs, which Kays called his stepson’s “big weakness.” He said Moose didn’t want to use – he had strong religious convictions – but that he couldn’t seem to stay clean, either.
It’s not known yet whether Jackson County keeps tabs on jailer rounds using a computerized system. Some area jails now monitor employees using handheld data loggers that activate at checkpoints. Without them, authorities – and the public -- are left to rely on jailers’ truthfulness when recording their check times.
There have been problems with the jail’s security cameras. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office listed a new system as a department goal. County Manager Chuck Wooten said the cameras are original to the jail. This means they were installed in 2003. “The system is an analog system and has reached the end of its life cycle,” Wooten said.