Crime - Sacto 911

Suit says El Dorado County jail failed inmate who committed suicide in cell

From left to right: Theresa Spies, Lawrence “Jake” Spies Jr., Stephanie Spies and Brian Spies.
From left to right: Theresa Spies, Lawrence “Jake” Spies Jr., Stephanie Spies and Brian Spies. courtesy of Spies family

Lawrence “Jake” Spies Jr. had a long history of depression, hospitalizations for mental illness and failed suicide attempts.

Yet, he hanged himself while an inmate at the El Dorado County jail in Placerville and nobody noticed for several hours, according to a wrongful death complaint filed last week on behalf of his parents in Sacramento federal court.

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages as compensation for alleged deliberate indifference to serious medical needs; wrongful death; professional negligence; medical malpractice; and failure on the part of the county and its medical provider to supervise, investigate and discipline those responsible for Spies’ death. The suit names several defendants including the county and California Forensic Medical Group.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. Tasha Thompson said the office declined comment “since a lawsuit is pending.” CFMG General Counsel Ben Rice said last week “we do not comment on ongoing litigation.”

After his arrest on suspicion of drunken driving the night before, Spies was placed alone in a general population cell at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 19, 2015. His body was discovered at 4:43 p.m. that day when dinner was being delivered to him, the complaint says.

Several days later, an internal report of the county Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, said it was “unknown at the time of this report” when Spies was last seen alive by a member of the jail’s staff. He had fashioned a ligature out of torn bedding and attached it to a ladder leading to the top bunk, the federal complaint says.

The coroner, whose office is overseen by the sheriff, did not indicate a time of death, “further suggesting that Jake Spies had expired significantly before his body was discovered,” adds the complaint, filed by attorney Stewart Katz.

Inmates in general population cells must be checked hourly by correctional staff. All checks must be documented. The suit alleges the jail “is systemically understaffed, which results in a failure to perform required cell checks. Correctional supervisors do not ensure or require their subordinates make these checks.”

Spies, 34, should have been placed in a safety cell, the complaint alleges. Safety cells, which house potentially suicidal inmates, are padded, have large windows to facilitate officer observation, and do not have points of attachment for ligatures.

State law requires that occupants be checked on at least every 15 minutes, and medically assessed within 12 hours after placement in the cell or at the next daily sick call, whichever comes first. For retention in the cell, a mental health assessment is required within 24 hours of placement.

Placement of Spies in a sobering cell would have been less of a risk than general population, according to the complaint. Sobering cells are used to house drunken inmates until they are sober. Staff is required to check on these inmates every half hour.

California jails are required to have sufficient staffing to meet these mandates.

In addition to a documented history of depression, Spies had made two attempts at suicide within the 12 months before the arrest. One was a 2012 attempt to hang himself at the jail where he ultimately died, and the other was in 2014 in Coloma, El Dorado County, where he jumped off a bridge. Later in 2014, he attempted to leap from a hotel window in Irvine. He had a track record of psychiatric hospitalizations.

His mother shared much of this information with officers on the night of Sept. 18, 2015, as her son was being arrested on a rural private road two miles from her home in Lotus, an unincorporated El Dorado County community. Spies lived there with his parents, Linda Spies and Lawrence Spies Sr.

According to the suit, Deputy Mark Hangebrauck told Linda Spies he remembered details of her son’s suicide attempt at the Coloma bridge, when he was flown by air ambulance to Sutter Roseville Hospital. She recounted to the deputy her son’s numerous hospitalizations, including multiple psychiatric holds due to the danger he posed to himself.

Hangebrauck assured her that he had special training in suicide prevention, and would make sure that information regarding her son’s precarious mental state would be passed on to jail staff. Their discussion lasted between 20 and 30 minutes, according to the complaint.

Spies had lived in El Dorado County virtually his entire life, the complaint says. He graduated from Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs in 1999. After working various construction-related jobs, he enlisted in the Army and was honorably discharged in 2010. His marriage ended in divorce in 2011, and he attempted to deal with the subsequent depression by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, the complaint recounts.

Many of the risk factors associated with Spies’ incarceration were independently and readily verifiable at that time, the complaint claims.

“There was the jail’s own records of the prior 2012 in-custody attempted suicide with a ligature,” the complaint notes. “Deputy Hangebrauck was personally familiar with the 2014 Coloma bridge jump suicide attempt. Spies had been treated extensively and recently by El Dorado County’s Health and Human Services Mental Health division for his depression and suicidal tendencies.”

After Spies’ arrest, he was taken to Marshall Medical Center in Placerville to be medically cleared for incarceration. He was evaluated by two physicians, who noted that he was depressed and intoxicated.

According to the complaint, there is no indication they reviewed the hospital’s records, which include a 2012 entry when doctors at the hospital cleared Spies for incarceration after he set all of his clothing on fire and was arrested in the middle of the night, naked and suffering from hypothermia.

They declared him fit for incarceration, the complaint says.

When Spies was booked into the jail, Robin Hope, a licensed vocational nurse employed by the California Forensic Medical Group, was on duty, the complaint says.

Hope recorded Spies’ answers to a medical questionnaire. He said he was suicidal, had attempted suicide in the past year, and had been treated for mental illness.

“Hope did not and legally could not provide custody staff with any guidance as to Jake Spies’ suicidality and could not even recommend that he be referred to a mental health professional,” the complaint says.

The complaint says that the jail is medically staffed solely by LVNs Friday afternoon to Monday morning.

“This is the same time that brings in the greatest numbers of arrestees. For someone who, like Jake Spies, is taken into custody on a Friday night, there will not be a scheduled medical or mental professional available to perform or recommend a suicide risk assessment until Monday morning,” the complaint reads.

In addition to El Dorado County, CFMG, the Marshall Medical Center, Hangebrauck and Hope, the Spies lawsuit names as defendants Sheriff John D’Agostini; Undersheriff Randy Peshon; Captain Matt Foxworthy, corrections chief in the Sheriff’s Office; Lt. Jackie Noren, commander of the jail; Dr. Raymond Herr, CFMG’s medical director at the jail; Lisa Isaacson, CFMG’s program director at the jail; Dr. Taylor Fithian, CFMG’s mental health director at the jail; Dr. John Skratt and Dr. Alexis Lieser, both of whom examined Spies at Marshall that night.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189