A security gate at the Cherokee County detention center, in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

The family of a man who died after deputies did not seek timely medical help while he was detained has settled a lawsuit with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, according to documents filed in federal court Tuesday morning.

Joshua Shane Long “suffered a terrifying, preventable and totally unnecessary death” because Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office employees 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 filed last year said.

Long had not been convicted of a crime and was awaiting a court hearing related to his arrest when he died.

The settlement details are expected to be filed in the Western District of North Carolina’s federal court in Asheville within 30 days, in preparation for judicial approval.

Attorney Ellis Boyle, who represents Long’s estate administrator, said he is glad the case has neared its end.

“We believe in every citizen’s right to be protected and have safe conduct, even if they are arrested,” Boyle said. 

“Certainly, Shane was not convicted of anything and didn’t deserve to die. … I think this (settlement) came about because they understand it would be hard to go to trial and justify their actions.”

County Manager Randy Wiggins said he has not seen a copy of the settlement agreement.

The lawsuit named a slew of current and former public officials as defendants, including Sheriff Derrick Palmer, who has said he does not intend to run for reelection next year.

History of problems at jail

Former guards of Cherokee County Detention Center told Carolina Public Press in 2018 there was a pattern of inmate abuse in the jail in Murphy, in North Carolina’s far-western mountains.

Long arrived at the Cherokee County Detention Center on the evening of July 11, 2018, after locals called 911 about a man screaming and cursing while hitting his vehicle. A 911 call log of the incident suggests someone thought he was under the influence of drugs.

Long allegedly ingested something from what looked like a tin of mints shortly before a deputy detained him.

Deputies tried to convince a magistrate to release him from jail with an unsecured bond; however, the magistrate who observed Long via a video call said Long looked too intoxicated to be released safely and asked the deputies to keep an eye on him.

Hours later, Long collapsed in a holding cell. A deputy found Long at 11:14 p.m. July 11, 2018. A report said his eyes were open and he had no pulse. Emergency responders arrived nine minutes later.

Around that time, the then-chief deputy of the jail, Mark Thigpen, called Magistrate Joe Bateman and tried to convince him to unsecure Long’s bond. Bateman refused.

An unsecured bond means someone can go free without posting bail by signing paperwork and promising to show up for the next court date. But Bateman was not going to allow an unsecured bond. He questioned the appropriateness of Thigpen’s request and refused to sign, he told CPP in 2018.

“I said, ‘I’m not unsecuring his bond,’” Bateman said then. “‘If you want the bond unsecured, call the DA and have them call me.’”

That’s what Thingpen did, records show. About 30 minutes after his initial conversation with Thigpen, an assistant district attorney called the magistrate to ask for an unsecured bond, which Bateman granted. Minutes later, a jail worker released Long from the jail. In the meantime, a helicopter had arrived at the jail around midnight to take Long to a Tennessee hospital.

That helicopter was cleared to take off about 12:40 a.m., according to the lawsuit, which said the scramble to unsecure Long’s bond delayed his departure by up to 40 minutes. A National Weather Service meteorologist told CPP in 2019 the weather at that time was clear enough for a helicopter to fly, and there was no fog at that hour.

 Long was pronounced dead at 1:21 a.m. when he arrived at the hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Autopsy records later showed Long died of acute methamphetamine toxicity

Later, Boyle’s lawsuit accused the Sheriff’s Office of an “illegal cover-up” due to 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.”

Boyle said there is an amount in mind for the settlement, but he did not reveal it, as Chief Judge Martin Reidinger of the Western District Court of North Carolina has yet to review the settlement agreement.

Several staff members at the jail resigned, retired or were fired after CPP reported allegations that inmates were encouraged to fight one another and other practices at the jail.

Former jail Lt. Jeremy Bresch, who is named in the lawsuit, told CPP he was forced to resign in mid-October 2018.

Former jail administrator Mark Patterson announced his resignation shortly after CPP’s initial report in October 2018. 

Tom Beasley, who was named jail administrator for a short time after Patterson resigned, quit that November after he was asked to train his replacement.

Sheriff Palmer later fired Thigpen in March 2019, for allowing his wife, Libby Thigpen, to use a county-issued cellphone after Palmer fired her in December.

Mark Thigpen, Patterson and Bresch were named in the lawsuit, along with six other current and former detention officers.

The State Bureau of Investigation dug into Long’s death through last summer. At one point the SBI and District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch were in regular contact about the case, according to an SBI spokeswoman last year. At some point, the case and others may have been passed to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The U.S. Attorney “released a statement that he had reviewed the file and there would be no (federal) criminal charges,” Quintin Ellison, spokeswoman for Welch’s office said.

County’s legal woes

One county commissioner contacted Tuesday was not aware the county’s civil attorney had decided to settle the lawsuit.

Emails seeking comment sent to Sheriff Palmer, County Attorney Darryl Brown and the county’s attorney for civil litigation, Sean Perrin, were not returned.

Sheriff Palmer is the husband of Cindy Palmer, who was the director of the county’s Department of Social Services while social workers separated parents and children with documents called a Custody and Visitation Agreements, all of which were rendered void by judges in 2018 and 2019. 

Cindy Palmer, a former attorney and the county are being sued in multiple federal lawsuits for the use of CVAs. Brian Hogan and his teenage daughter won a $4.6 million jury verdict in May related to the use of CVAs in their case.

However, the county’s insurer disputes its responsibility to pay out multiple multimillion-dollar awards and has sued its client in Wake County court.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.