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No charges will be filed in Jackson jail suicides

jacksonNo charges will be filed following suicides at the Jackson County Detention Center in November 2014 and March 2015, District Attorney Ashley Welch announced last week.

“We reviewed absolutely everything they (the State Bureau of Investigation) presented to us, and they did a very thorough job. It’s one reason it took so long to review it because it was a very big case file,” said Welch, who received the initial report in June and the final in October. “I reviewed it personally several times, then I had another senior prosecutor review it in addition to me, without giving my opinion first.” 

Evidence considered included surveillance video, witness statements, radio and telephone traffic, an autopsy report, detention center records, a suicide note, physical evidence, a scene search and a scene diagram. After taking it all into consideration, the prosecutors determined that no one on staff at the detention center was guilty of any kind of criminal negligence. 

Their decision is the answer to a question that has been hanging in the air since 38-year-old Steven Ross was found hanging from a makeshift rope in his cell on March 13, 2015. He’d been arrested nine days earlier on drug charges. 

The jail log showed long gaps in detention officers’ checks on cells in Ross’ pod the day of the suicide — state law requires checks two to four times per hour, depending on the inmate’s condition; the day’s log showed gaps as long as 106 minutes — prompting an investigation. The conversation grew to include an incident that had occurred just four months earlier, when Charles “Chuckie” Moose, 36, was also found hanging from a rope made out of bed sheets. In that instance, too, Moose’s family had questioned whether protocol was followed and adequate emergency response given. 

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched investigations into both deaths, in each case finding that detention officers’ cell checks had not been happening frequently enough. An SBI investigation began was well, at first looking only into Ross’ death but later expanding to gather evidence about the circumstances surrounding Moose’s death. 

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The same two jailers had been monitoring the male inmates on both days. Sheriff Chip Hall handed out five days’ suspension without pay to each of them but delivered no permanent change in salary or job title. However, one of the men did take a voluntary demotion to switch from working in the jail to working security at the newly secured entrance to the Jackson County Justice Center. 

Joe Kays, who’s married to Moose’s mother, said the report and its results have given peace of mind to a family that’s been wracked by what-ifs since that day more than a year ago. 

“He’s still gone. That changes nothing, but to know that they did everything in their power when we were led to believe for a long time they were lax in their duties and just let him lay there … I know that’s cliché, but (it’s) peace of mind and closure to know that the situation was handled properly,” Kays said. 

After coming to her decision, Welch sat down with the mothers of Ross and Moose to talk about the report. Kays, who works on an oil rig in North Dakota, wasn’t present but said it was the first time either he or his wife had seen the surveillance video. Watching it provided some closure, a firm mooring to override all the conflicting stories they’d heard from inmates and law enforcement personnel and investigators. 

“Looking at the videos, he was happy, carrying on, cutting up like nothing was wrong. He went into this cell. The video showed no one else entering his cell until they made their scheduled rounds — on time — and the video showed within just minutes the rescue squad was on site and how much work went into trying to resuscitate him,” Kays said. “They determined absolutely nothing more could have been done than what was done.”

“It was beyond their control,” Kays said. “The only one that could control it was Chuckie.”

The Smoky Mountain News requested comment from Hall and from Ross’s mother but did not receive a response by press time. 

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