By Beth Lawrence
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is facing a civil suit in the death of a detainee last year.
The suit claims that the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for wrongful death, failure to adequately train and supervise employees, 14th amendment violations concerning life, liberty and due process and violation of NCGS 162-55 barring jailers from harming inmates and holding them responsible for paying triple in damages if they do.
On Jan. 16, 2019, Cashiers resident Melissa Middleton Rice, 49, “was found unresponsive” in the detention center’s bond/booking room. Rice allegedly hung herself with a telephone cord out of range of security cameras.
Her family is suing the Sheriff’s Office.
The suit names Sheriff Chip Hall in his official capacity as sheriff, Western Surety Company on behalf of the sheriff and 10 employees – Patrick McCoy, Ridge Parris, Stephen Watson, Aniyah McMullen, Emily Couvillon, Shondra Collini, Mark Junaluska, Justin Nicholson, Kayla Elliott and Kaitlyn Bradley – all acting in their official and individual capacities, as defendants.
The suit claims Hall “as the final policymaker (is) responsible for the negligent and unlawful practices at the jail.”
It claims he and the facility failed to arrange correct training enabling officers to identify Rice’s suicidal behavior and offer her access to mental health services. Wording in the suit calls the allegations a “systematic failure to comply with North Carolina regulations for jails, local confinement centers and detentions centers.”
Rice was being booked into the detention center on charges of simple assault, possession of a stolen motor vehicle, larceny of a motor vehicle, resisting a public officer, assault on a government official, burning personal property, domestic criminal trespass and breaking and/or entering.
The suit alleges Hall and his officers failed to comply with North Carolina statute 153A-224 requiring detention center employees to continuously monitor inmates, be aware of medical needs and protect them from harm and death.
“The actions and omissions of Defendants, including Hall, were so outrageous as to shock the conscience of the community and violated Decedent’s right to substantive due process,” the suit states.
The suit alleges the Sheriff’s Office, through a series of missteps, failed to realize or acknowledge that Rice was a danger to herself.
Rice allegedly went to the home of Joel Rice and Lindsey Heller and tried to attack Heller.
Deputy Ridge Parris responded to the domestic call.
Parris noted that Rice smelled of alcohol.
After a scuffle with Rice, Parris allegedly locked her in the backseat of his patrol cruiser with a police dog and went into the house to take statements and wash blood off his hands.
The suit claims Rice was alone in the car with the dog for over 10 minutes.
When Parris returned, he found the car on fire.
“While she was handcuffed and locked in the back of the patrol car, Decedent used a cigarette lighter and a one dollar bill, which Parris had failed to secure, to set her clothes and the seat of the patrol car on fire in an apparent attempt to commit suicide,” the suit reads.
Parris pulled Rice from the car and put out the fire. Rice was transported to Harris Regional Hospital where she was evaluated and released to the custody of the Sheriff’s Office.
Rice did not admit to having thoughts of harming herself or others when asked during the evaluation, the suit said.
The suit claims the hospital was not advised of Rice’s suicide attempt.
“At all times during her medical care Decedent was accompanied by Deputy Watson who had been made aware she had attempted suicide by setting herself on fire while handcuffed in the back seat of Parris’ locked patrol car with no means to escape as well as her assault on Parris,” the suit states. “Decedent’s responses were known by Watson to be not true … Watson failed to accurately report Decedent’s erratic and suicidal behavior … to the medical staff. Such failure to truthfully report Decedent’s erratic and suicidal behavior led the medical staff at Harris Regional to determine Decedent was fit for confinement.”
Rice was transferred to the detention center at 1:30 p.m.
By 6:30 p.m. she had completed her final suicide attempt.
The suit claims that several Detention Center officers noted the smell of alcohol on Rice, that she seemingly was impaired, and they were aware of her attempted suicide in the cruiser. It claims that she was placed in the bond/booking room because she might harm another inmate in holding. It also claims that Rice’s suicide attempt was mentioned at a restraining order hearing.
Booking was not meant to be used as a means of permanent detention, according to the suit.
It, “therefore failed to comply with normal detention facility requirements, had only one surveillance camera which did not provide for surveillance of the entire room in violation of North Carolina Detention Center regulations … had a wall mounted telephone with a cord extending several feet from the wall which provided the means for detainees, including Decedent, to hang themselves.”
At 6:15 p.m. Rice was told a restraining order had been filed against her along with the other charges. She was told she would not receive bail and was left alone in the room.
At 6:17 p.m. she stepped out of range of the lone security camera and hanged herself with the cord. The suit claims that she was not checked on again until 7:06 p.m.
Rice was resuscitated and transferred to Harris. She was declared dead on Jan. 18 at Mission Hospital in Asheville. The suit also alleges that the officers did not monitor Rice properly leaving her an opportunity to finish the suicidal act she began in the back of the patrol car.
State law requires detention officers observe inmates in person twice an hour on an irregular basis. Officers’ rounds must be documented; electronic surveillance cannot substitute for physical checks.
If an inmate is combative, verbally abusive, says they will harm themselves, displays erratic behavior or is intoxicated, officers should increase checks to four per hour. If a detainee has a previous suicide attempt, they should be checked at least four times an hour.
Following an SBI investigation, the Sheriff’s Office was cleared of any wrongdoing in July 2019.
“Because the lawsuit is pending litigation, we cannot comment at this time,” said Jackson County Attorney Heather Baker, who is also serving as acting county manager.