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Joshua Shane Long “suffered a terrifying, preventable and totally unnecessary death” because Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office workers failed to get the clearly intoxicated man medical help until he had collapsed to the floor without a pulse, a federal lawsuit against the office says.
The lawsuit also alleges “an illegal cover-up” due to a “conspicuous lack of documentation” related to Long’s arrest. The paper trail is long when jailers book someone into the jail, but the forms used in Long’s arrest and booking are largely blank.
Attorneys Ellis Boyle and Winslow Taylor filed the suit Wednesday on behalf of Long’s estate at the federal courthouse in Asheville, the U.S. Western District Court of North Carolina. Long is survived by a young daughter.
Boyle said he filed the lawsuit now because North Carolina has a two-year statute of limitations on wrongful death lawsuits. Long died late on July 11, 2018.
The lawsuit names Sheriff Derrick Palmer, two other current employees and seven former employees, three of whom were either fired, retired or forced to resign.
Palmer’s office and actions are the subject of multiple probes by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Two of those investigations — one of which was the Long case — were completed last year, and District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch said in January that she was working with “partner prosecutorial agencies to determine what, if any, criminal actions might be taken and who the appropriate agency is to handle that prosecution, if there is one.”
The other prosecutorial agencies she often works with are the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with whom she met in July of last year, according to her mileage reimbursement report.
The state or federal law enforcement agencies may be looking into a practice at the Cherokee County Detention Center, where former guards told CPP that inmates were ordered to beat up other inmates.
The federal lawsuit in Long’s death alludes to that abuse. In another instance at the Cherokee County Detention Center, inmate Steven Douglas Hall was chained naked to a holding cell drain possibly for hours, before he was eventually transferred to Graham County’s jail without the proper paperwork. When the jail refused to take Hall, Cherokee County officers “abandoned him out there, they left him on the street,” said Graham County Jail Capt. Edward Cable in 2018. Hall died in 2017, unrelated to his jail confinement.
The response of the named defendants, “even after repeated instances of injury or death to other inmates and detainees, was so inadequate as to show deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of the offensive practices described herein,” the lawsuit in Long’s death states. “In fact, by their conduct, these defendants created and encouraged a culture of neglect and indifference toward inmates and detainees in the jail that shocked the conscience.”
Events surrounding Long’s death
The lawsuit says Sheriff’s Office employees had multiple opportunities to prevent Long’s death.
The lawsuit cites the account of arresting officer Deputy Michael Faggard, who responded to the initial 911 call. Faggard said he saw Long swallow something from a metal tin. When Sgt. Patrick Williams arrived and placed Long in the back of his car, Faggard told him about it. Both asked Long if he had swallowed drugs, and both times Long said no.
Officers cited Long for resisting arrest, possession of a schedule VI substance and possession of marijuana paraphernalia, records show.
Williams took Long to the jail, the lawsuit said, and shortly after he arrived, around 7 p.m., Magistrate Joe Bateman received a call from the jail asking for a secured bond, which means someone else would have to bail Long out of jail, “because he was obviously intoxicated on some drug or substance.”
Faggard also told Sgt. Frank Daly that he saw Long swallow something before Faggard arrested him.
Sheriff’s Office policies say deputies must collect an array of documentation when booking an inmate. The forms related to Long’s arrest are mostly blank, the lawsuit says, and one note about a record says “deleted?”
“This may be some evidence that Mr. Long’s jail record was tampered with such that his original record was destroyed and replaced with this overwhelmingly blank set of forms,” the lawsuit says.
The watch logs are blank, the lawsuit says. Several boxes about Long are not marked on several forms. And though anyone booked into the jail has a mug shot taken, none exists for Long. CPP asked the Sheriff’s Office for the mug shot.
“Not possible to supply you with a record that does not exist,” said Roger Williams, an investigator with the Sheriff’s Office.
Minutes before officers found Long collapsed and unresponsive on the cell floor, Long shoved a folded piece of paper beneath the door. Long’s last words may well have been on the piece of paper he nudged under the door, but whatever was on the paper, the Sheriff’s Office never kept it, the lawsuit says, referencing the jail surveillance video recorded from outside Long’s cell.
“Nobody from the Sheriff’s Department ever collected that piece of evidence from the scene,” the lawsuit says. “It is entirely possible that someone from the Sheriff’s Department looked at the piece of paper and destroyed it after seeing what was written on it.”
Almost a half-hour later, at 11:12 p.m., the lawsuit says, again referencing the video, officers Larry Bolen and Glenn Holloway observed Long in the holding cell. Two minutes later, Bolen saw Long on his back, yelled and kicked at the door. He went to retrieve the cell key and entered. Officer Tiffany Enloe then called 911.
CPP was unable to reach the named officers. Bolen, Holloway and Enloe do not work at the Sheriff’s Office anymore, according to recent county employment records.
An ambulance arrived at 11:30 p.m., according to 911 records obtained by CPP. About that time, the lawsuit says, someone at the jail called Bateman to try to unsecure Long’s bond. That person, according to CPP reporting, was then-Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen.
With an unsecured bond, inmates can leave the jail after signing their name, with a promise to return for a future court date. Counties are under the mistaken impression that if they unsecure a bond before a medical crisis, they are not liable for medical bills.
In fact, failing to follow the medical plan, which is what the lawsuit alleges, could pave the way for criminal charges, said UNC School of Government scholar Jamie Markham.
“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.
Though Bateman refused to unsecure the bond, an assistant district attorney did unsecure the bond about a half an hour later.
“Only after the Sheriff’s Department had Mr. Long’s bond converted from secured to unsecured did the medevac helicopter depart at approximately 12:40 a.m.,” the lawsuit says.
The scramble to unsecure Long’s bond delayed his departure by 35-40 minutes. When Long arrived at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., he was dead. It is unclear what Long’s condition was before and during the flight.
A later toxicology report indicates that he died of a methamphetamine overdose. Long had been detained at the jail for hours before he collapsed and died.
Throughout Long’s stay, jail employees failed to follow policy, the lawsuit alleges, saying that, if they had, Long would be alive today.
Instead, “Mr. Long suffered a terrifying, preventable and totally unnecessary death.”
There is also a “conspicuous lack of documentation” in Long’s jail files, which “suggests that his jail records may have been tampered with either in the late evening of July 11, 2018, or after he was taken to the hospital and died,” the lawsuit states. “If that happened, it would be an illegal cover-up meant to hide the truth of what Mr. Long actually suffered while in the sheriff’s custody and control that night.”
The lawsuit claims violations of several of Long’s rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution: violations of jail policies, failure to train deputies on those rights and policies, and failure to ensure jail workers actually followed policy.
One common defense used by law enforcement is called qualified immunity, which protects them from lawsuits unless their actions violate “clearly established” law.
“Indeed, if they had merely knew of and complied with the sheriff’s safety policy, Mr. Long would not have been ignored until he died,” the lawsuit says. “As a result, the defense of qualified immunity is unavailable to, and has been waived by, these defendants.”
Where defendants are now
Attempts to contact most defendants were not successful on deadline.
Thigpen said he had not read the lawsuit as of late Wednesday. Sheriff Palmer fired the former chief deputy in March 2018 “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Palmer later said he fired Thigpen because he allowed his wife, Libby Thigpen, to continue to use a county-issued cellphone months after Palmer fired her from her position as an investigator.
Former jail Capt. Mark Patterson abruptly announced his retirement in November 2018, days after CPP published a story revealing allegations of inmate abuse and neglect from former guards at the Cherokee County Detention Center. Speaking on a local radio show about inmate mistreatment, Palmer said at the time, “If these things are true, and if these things did happen, I am ultimately responsible for it. I have no one to shift the blame to. I have nobody else to point a finger at even if I may not have known about it.”
Former Lt. Jeremy Bresch said he was forced to resign in October 2018 and not given a clear reason.
Daly, Bolen, Holloway, and Enloe no longer work at the Sheriff’s Office, records show. Faggard and Patrick Williams remain employed.
Not only did these employees fail to follow Sheriff’s Office policies while Long was in the jail, the lawsuit alleges, but their actions went further. “These defendants’ acts were so careless, wanton and reckless that it demonstrated a thoughtless disregard of the consequences and a heedless indifference to Mr. Long’s safety, rights and even his life,” the lawsuit said.
The Sheriff’s Office and Cherokee County did not respond to a request for comment. The county’s contracted attorney for civil litigation, Sean Perrin, also did not respond prior to publication of this article.