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Jail suicide investigation on D.A.’s desk

jacksonAn investigative report looking into the March suicide of Steve Ross, who at the time was incarcerated at the Jackson County Detention Center, is now in the hands of District Attorney Ashley Welch.

“There’s quite a bit to it,” Welch said of the report, completed by the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. 

Welch had ordered the investigation on March 26, after details of Ross’ March 13 suicide began to surface. According to a report from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources, jailers hadn’t checked on Ross for 85 minutes at the time he was found hanging from a bed sheet. Legally, jailers must visually check all inmates at least twice an hour, but over the course of the day, the jail log showed gaps as large as 106 minutes. 

The DHHS report also found that the jail did not follow proper detoxification procedures in Ross’s case. Ross was arrested nine days before his suicide while in possession of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, Xanax, clonazepam and drug paraphernalia. Court documents do not show whether Ross was under the influence of any of these drugs at the time of his arrest or what his state of mind was at the time of his suicide, but the state requires even more frequent checks for prisoners who are intoxicated or behaving erratically. 

The SBI report deals specifically with Ross’ death, Welch said, but the case won’t necessarily end there. 

“It’s entirely possible that I may ask for additional investigation and information, but I have not determined that yet,” she said. 

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Ross’ death sparked the investigation, but another suicide at the Jackson jail came under scrutiny as a result. That was the death of Charles “Chuckie” Moose, who was found hanging from a bed sheet on Nov. 21 last year, under the watch of the same two of Jackson County’s 19 jailers who were on duty at the time of Ross’s death. The jailers are still employed in those positions, receiving five days’ leave without pay as discipline. 

A May DHHS report found deficiencies in jail protocol surrounding Moose’s death, as well, finding gaps in jail rounds far exceeding the required two checks per hour. 

Welch said she has read the SBI report but will have to look through it a few more times — and get another attorney to do the same — before deciding who to charge with what, or whether charges should be filed at all. It won’t be “months and months” before a decision is made, she said, but by the same token it’s hard to put a deadline on something that might require unprecedented follow-up or get interrupted by another case. 

“In the past I think it’s kind of rare that the elected D.A. actually reviewed the stuff,” she said. “I said I’d do it, so I’m doing it, but I want to make sure another pair of eyes is looking at it as well. 

“It’s not something that we want to rush through.” 

Welch did affirm that she plans to prosecute any resulting case in her home district, “as uncomfortable as it may be.” The sheriff’s and D.A.’s offices often collaborate on investigations, so Welch would have the option to outsource a case like this that deals with possible wrongdoing in the partner agency.

However, she said, “I feel like ultimately it’s my responsibility.”

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