Records that the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office released this week regarding the death of a jail inmate in July, which is already the subject of a State Bureau of Investigation probe, raise new questions about the department’s actions at the time.
Carolina Public Press had requested the records in August but only received a version so heavily redacted that the nature of the incident remained unclear.
The complete report, made available Monday, described detention officer Larry Bolen finding Joshua Shane Long lying face up and unresponsive about 11:14 p.m. July 11 in a holding cell at the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy.
Long wasn’t breathing, his eyes were open, and he had no pulse, the report said.
The report described the frantic minutes afterward as jailers called 911 and tried to revive Long by multiple means without success.
Magistrate Joe Bateman received a call at home sometime before midnight from Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen, Bateman told CPP this week. Bateman recalled stepping out to sign a search warrant for an unrelated drug case, then going inside to watch the rest of the late news when he received a call from an unknown number.
“I said, ‘Who the hell is this?’” Bateman told CPP.
The magistrate said the voice on the other end was one of the last people Bateman expected to hear from: “He said, ‘This is Mark Thigpen. We got one that needs to go to the hospital. You need to unsecure his bond.’”
Bateman said Thigpen’s tone included no sense of urgency or the information that an inmate might face a life-threatening situation. He said he only receives a couple of these requests each year. Bateman questioned the appropriateness of Thigpen’s request and refused to sign, he told CPP.
“I said, ‘I’m not unsecuring his bond,’” Bateman said this week. “‘If you want the bond unsecured, call the DA and have them call me.’”
The late-night call from Thigpen was not the magistrate’s first interaction with the case of Joshua Shane Long that day.
Late that afternoon, 911 logs describe phone calls about a man behaving erratically. When officers arrived on the scene, they reported finding Long shirtless and yelling and screaming.
Officers detained Long about 5:45 p.m.
According to statements Sheriff Derrick Palmer has given to the news media several times, the officers thought they saw Long swallow a pill while holding a breath mint tin.
Bateman said an officer called him shortly after the arrest to ask him to set a bond for Long, who had been charged with three misdemeanors: resisting a public officer, a drug charge and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.
But the officer who called seemed concerned with Long’s behavior, according to the magistrate. “He said, ‘If you are going to give him an unsecured bond, can we hold him until he’s sober because he’s pretty messed up?’” Bateman said.
Bateman said he observed Long on a video call and did not like what he saw.
“When I did see him, he was talking crazy stuff, like the FBI was out to get him or he just got out of prison — stuff that didn’t make sense,” Bateman said. “That was when I asked to give him a secure bond.”
He set the secured bond for $1,000. That means a “sober responsible individual,” Bateman said, would have to bail Long out.
“He was impaired, I have no doubt in my mind,” said Bateman, who had been a police officer for 20 years and is nearing his 18th year as a magistrate. “What the impairment was from, I ain’t got a clue.”
If the bond were unsecured, that means the inmate could sign a piece of paper and walk out of the jail. The signature is a promise he will return for a court date.
Booked and held
Asked this week whether medical staff saw Long before he was booked, Sheriff Palmer declined to say. Sheriff’s records show Long was placed in a holding cell near the booking area.
Former guard Tom Taylor told CPP that nobody would be placed in a holding cell unless there was a reason to keep a close eye on the person.
“Right there they knew he was on something,” Taylor said this week. On regular rounds, officers are supposed to look at inmates to make sure they are breathing. Officers would have passed Long’s cell roughly every 15 minutes, Taylor said.
Some five hours later, during one of those rounds, Bolen saw that Long was lying on his back and not moving. It’s unclear how long the inmate had been in this condition. Bolen wrote in his report that he kicked the door and yelled twice, but Long didn’t move. Lacking a way to get in and help the inmate as he did his rounds, Bolen had to run back to the booking desk to grab the cell door key.
Upon entering the cell, Bolen was able to see the severity of Long’s condition.
The reports and 911 logs showed that officers quickly started CPR and called 911. Officer Frank Daly tried to give Long a dose of Narcan — a drug that counteracts the effects of opioid overdoses and can work even if people have stopped breathing.
Unsecuring a bond
All the while, the jail pressed its case to unsecure Long’s bond, Bateman said.
Why would a jail try to unsecure a bond for an inmate in a medical crisis?
“So the county doesn’t have to pay the medical bills,” District Attorney Ashley Welch told CPP. “If somebody is in custody and they are being transported to the hospital, that hospital bill becomes the responsibility of the county.”
Jails often ask to have a bond unsecured for women who are about to give birth so they do not have to foot the bill, she said. Her office has to weigh that request with the seriousness of the charges, Welch said.
However, any county that employs that strategy could face legal problems, wrote Jamie Markham, an expert on jail issues with the UNC School of Government, who spoke with CPP about the incident this week and has previously written about the issue in his blog.
“For a pretrial detainee, the prosecutor and the defendant and his or her lawyer would need to be present for a proper hearing in front of the proper judge under the bail article,” Markham wrote in 2014.
Markham also noted that legal precedents show that unsecuring a bond will not get jails off the hook for inmates’ medical expenses.
In addition, Markham wrote, the jail must follow its medical plan when inmates become sick.
“Failure to follow the plan is a crime, and having a policy or routine practice of releasing sick or injured inmates could give rise to civil liability,” Markham wrote.
Palmer declined Thursday to respond to questions on whether the jail’s policies and procedures were followed: “… this is part of the SBI investigation and partly what is being determined.”
After Bateman declined to authorize an unsecured bond for Long, Thigpen called a court clerk and asked her to call the District Attorney’s Office to ask for one, according to Bateman.
After a few more phone calls back and forth — and roughly 45 minutes after Thigpen tried to get Bateman to unsecure Long’s bond — Assistant DA Kimberly Harris authorized an unsecured bond at 12:26 a.m. July 12.
Markham also indicated that the inmate has to cooperate in this process since not all inmates would want to be bonded out and are entitled to lifesaving medical treatment regardless. Since Long was unconscious, no one was able to determine if he wanted to be bonded out. Lt. Jeremy Bresch instead signed an order releasing Long from custody, filling in Long’s name and signing to show that he had acted as a substitute.
Logs of 911 activity show at 11:59 p.m., medical responders said Long had a strong pulse, but records do not mention whether he ever regained consciousness.
A helicopter arrived shortly after midnight but did not appear to depart until 40 minutes later, bound for a hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., where Long was pronounced dead at 1:21 a.m.
The N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet released the results of Long’s autopsy and toxicology report.
When asked whether the attempt to get the bond unsecured would have delayed the helicopter’s departure, Bateman demurred.
“If I had been in jail and I was having a heart attack, or I’d overdosed for whatever reason, I would hate to think they are going to (worry about) my bond and not call me an ambulance,” Bateman said.
County attorney hints at future records fights
For months, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office refused to release unredacted incident reports that CPP has requested in Long’s case and several others involving alleged mistreatment of inmates, described by former guards, internal jail emails and a grand jury indictment of one former guard.
Initially, the Sheriff’s Office released some records without indicating that parts were omitted or explaining why. Last week, County Attorney Darryl Brown asserted that, because the State Bureau of Investigation is investigating all jail incidents from 2014 forward, records within that time frame are no longer public.
CPP has previously pointed out that state statutes specifically say that records do not stop being open to the public when being used in an investigation.
However, Brown responded Monday to CPP’s request by sending two unredacted incident reports requested earlier this year to CPP and several other media outlets, saying he only did so after consulting District Attorney Welch.
Welch confirmed to CPP that she talked with Brown about the records the county wanted to keep from CPP. She said he wanted to keep the records private.
“I discussed with him you can’t just tell the press you are not going to turn something over,” Welch said. “That’s a great way to get yourself sued.”
Brown wrote that the county and Sheriff’s Office have “the ability to obtain a Court order allowing the withholding of ALL public records if the County or the Department believes that disclosure of the information ‘will jeopardize the right of the State to prosecute the defendant or the right of a defendant to receive a fair trial or will undermine an ongoing or future investigation.’ The sheriff and the county have not chosen to petition the Court for such at this time.”
Such a move to ask a judge to withhold all public records would be highly unusual and flies in the face of established state records law, according to Amanda Martin, lead counsel for the N.C. Press Association. “I’ve never heard of any such thing,” she said.
Asked about Brown’s claim that his press release represented the position of both the sheriff and Cherokee County, County Manager Randy Wiggins said, “We cannot confirm that’s the position of the county commissioners. They have not been directly consulted and weighed in on that issue.”
Editor’s note: CPP Managing Editor Frank Taylor also contributed to this article.
Selected previous CPP articles about the Cherokee County jail
- “Guard fired after scrap with inmate questions handling of case as SBI investigates,” June 1, 2018: link
- “Former guards allege pattern of inmate abuse at NC county jail,” Oct. 29, 2018: link
- “Cherokee jail administrator resigns, sheriff promises change,” Nov. 2, 2018: link
- “Emails about naked, chained inmate appear to contradict sheriff,” Nov. 28, 2018: link
- “NC grand jury indicts former guard for kicking inmate in face,” Dec. 6, 2018: link
- “DA says NC jail probe to be immense, could take more than a year,” Dec. 14, 2018: link
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