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Jail death sparks state investigations

It was about 5:15 p.m. on March 13 and Mark Leamon, a jailer at the Jackson County Jail, was in the midst of his routine visual check of the male inmates incarcerated there. It’s an oft-repeated exercise, a quick check to make sure that everybody’s safe and obeying the rules.

This time, everybody wasn’t safe. Steven Allen Ross Jr., 38, was hanging in his cell. 

A call went out to 911 at 5:17 p.m.

“We need an ambulance,” the officer, who identified himself as Sean, told dispatch according to a 911 transcript. “We’ve got one that hung himself and no pulse.”

The ambulance whisked Ross away to Harris Regional Hospital, but it was too late. The father of five eventually died of his injuries. 

Ross, a Sylva resident, had a long history with the courts in Jackson County, as evidenced by the plastic tote in the clerk’s office devoted entirely to his past brushes with the law. Most recently, Ross had been arrested for allegedly possessing a laundry list of illegal drugs and a stolen motorcycle. 

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His injuries were self-inflicted, but it’s possible the outcome could have been averted. State regulations require jailers to visually check on inmates at least twice per hour, increasing the frequency if an inmate is suicidal, mentally ill, intoxicated, violent or dealing with some other issue. 

According to the jail log from that day, Leamon did not check inmates at all between 3:51 p.m. and 5:18 p.m., when he found Ross — a period of 85 minutes. Other intervals between checks that day had ranged from 20 minutes, between 6:55 and 7:15 a.m., to 106 minutes, between 11:39 a.m. and 1:25 p.m., the log showed. 

Two state investigations — one from the State Bureau of Investigations and another from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services — surrounding the incident are under way. The DHHS began its investigation shortly after the incident occurred, with the SBI investigation following when District Attorney Ashley Welch requested one on March 26. 

“Anytime that something is going on with a law enforcement agency, you don’t want them investigating themselves, so that’s what the SBI’s there for,” Welch explained. “The sheriff’s office can call themselves, the DA’s office can call, we can call together. It just depends on the situation.”

In this case, Welch made the call, though Sheriff Chip Hall said he “welcome[s] the investigation.” 

 

Deja vous

March was not the only time in the past year that a suicide occurred in the Jackson County Jail. The same thing happened last November, when Charles “Chuckie” Moose, 36, was also found hanging. 

“At the time it happened, I was up here in North Dakota,” said Moose’s stepfather Joe Kays, who works on the oil fields there. “I received a call from one of my other stepchildren, and he’s kind of callous. He’s not a real emotional type. He was just, ‘You hear what Chuckie did?’ ‘No, now what?’ ‘Oh, he hung himself.’ ‘No really, what did he do?’ ‘No really he hung himself.’”

Once the line went dead, Kays was calling his office, looking up flights to get home to Robbinsville and heading to the airport. Moose was on life support for a week before doctors deemed him brain dead. He was the second son his mother had lost that year — the other had suffered from a terminal illness. 

As it happens, the same three jailers on duty during Ross’s hanging staffed the jail when Moose was found, part of a total staff of 19 jailers. Just like in March, Leamon was the jailer tasked with checking on the male inmates in November. According to the jail logbook, he had last looked in on the inmates at 3:13 p.m., 33 minutes before beginning the check that revealed Moose’s hanging body. 

Following Ross’s death, the two male jailers — Leamon and Brian Wellmon — were given five days’ leave without pay. Danielle Wittekind, the county’s human resources director, said she has not received any communication as to whether the men would see a change in position upon their return to work next week. 

Kays said the family is still grieving for Moose who, despite being a repeat offender with a drug problem he couldn’t seem to shake, was generally happy and well-received in the jails where he stayed. 

“He preferred to be in jail because he did have an issue with drugs, and he knew it. There was no denying it and he would tell people if he was there, he was straight,” Kays said. “He wasn’t into anything. He was healthier, he was happier — you could look at him and see the difference.”

Jail staff was generally happy to see Moose too, Kays said, because he was well-behaved and a great cook. At the time of his suicide, Kays said, Moose hadn’t been on drugs for about a year. 

For Kays, several parts of the story he was told by the sheriff’s department don’t add up. He believes Moose’s death should have merited an SBI investigation. 

For instance, he believes that the gap between checks could have been longer than the 33 minutes recorded or that maybe the checks weren’t done very thoroughly, because when he saw the strangulation markings he had a hard time believing they could come from a bed sheet unless the person had plenty of time to prepare the pieces. The autopsy report, done by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said the rope was made of a “torn segment from a bed sheet that had been twisted/folded into a thin ligature.” 

Hall, however, said that’s not true and that the proper procedures were followed. 

The sheriff’s office did request an SBI investigation at the time. The SBI declined to investigate but expects that witnesses interviewed during the investigation into Ross’ death will talk about both incidents, SBI spokesperson Teresa West said. The current criminal investigation does focus solely on Ross’s death, though. 

Kays said the family plans to take legal action.

“I have no respect for anybody that goes hunting money on somebody else’s life and somebody passing away, but we want to get this out in the open so it doesn’t happen again,” Kays said. “Well unfortunately, it did happen.”

If a lawsuit resulted in a monetary award, Kays said, he’d donate it to charity. 

 

A time of transition

The suicides come at a time of transition for the sheriff’s office. When Moose hung himself on Nov. 21, Hall was a few weeks past the election that had delivered him a landslide victory for the sheriff’s seat but wouldn’t be sworn in for another 10 days. Technically, the jail was still under the command of outgoing Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. 

By March 13, Hall was four-and-a-half months into the job. Long enough to have much of the day-to-day under him, especially considering that his 25-year career with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office had most recently included four years as chief deputy, a position he held up to his swearing-in as sheriff. 

But not long enough to have made all the institutional changes he’d run on. For instance, it was January when Hall first told commissioners that he needed to hire a jail captain to oversee things, pronto. 

The appointment was made last week, five months into Hall’s tenure but three months before the first budget he’d propose as sheriff would go into effect. Hall hired John Buchanan, a veteran law enforcement officer with more than 21 years’ experience in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Sylva Police Department, for the job. Buchanan’s charge will be to make sure that jailers are adhering to protocol, to develop needed policies and procedures and to push for the jail to have the latest technology. 

Hall will be part of that revamp process too. He spoke at length during the campaign about how the jail desperately needed a technology update — the facility uses the original equipment installed in 2000 and 2001, including analog cameras — and said that one of his first acts as sheriff was to start work on a new policy and procedure manual. Following Ross’s suicide, the department will also be working toward developing protocol to better predict when someone is at risk of suicide. Neither Ross nor Moose were on suicide watch, Hall said. 

“I’ve asked our administrative staff to do a complete review of our intake procedures, our screening process,” Hall said. “Our jail supervisors will report back to me what direction needs to go forward in the future.”

When the SBI investigation concludes, the report will land on Welch’s desk. If charges should result from the findings, Welch said, the case would be handled at home. 

“At this point we’re not farming it out to another DA’s office,” she said, “unless there’s something I’m just not aware of at this point.”

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