The call came into Grass Valley police about 4:30 p.m. Jan. 11: a heavyset man was drinking beer along Highway 20 near the Mill Street off ramp.
Officer John Herrera rolled to the scene, where he found 41-year-old Christopher Joshua Howie leaning against the concrete barrier of the freeway overpass.
“When Howie spoke to me, he slurred his words and I could smell the strong odor of alcohol coming from his mouth,” Herrera later wrote in an incident report. “I also noticed his eyes were bloodshot and watery.”
A 25-ounce beer can was sitting behind Howie, and after a few minutes of trying to talk to him, Herrera concluded, “it was very obvious to me that he had consumed alcohol and was very intoxicated.”
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What happened to Howie in the hours that followed may end up being decided by a federal jury.
The Grass Valley police report says Howie was taken to jail and “became violent and uncooperative,” then had to be “taken to the ground,” restrained and escorted to a sobering cell.
Howie’s version of events is decidedly different.
He says he was walked into the booking area of the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility with his hands cuffed behind his back and was complying with officers’ orders when one pushed his head into a wall twice, then placed all of his weight atop Howie and forced him to the floor.
“This all happened in just a few seconds,” Howie wrote in a claim against Nevada County filed May 29. “As I went down, I felt my leg breaking.”
Then, despite repeatedly asking for medical attention, Howie says he was placed in a cell, left overnight and told the next morning he was being released.
“I asked to be transported to an emergency medical facility to obtain treatment for my leg because I could not walk,” Howie wrote. “At first, my transport by ambulance was authorized by the deputies, but this was countermanded.
“I was rolled out the back door of the jail in a wheelchair and was given no further assistance.”
Howie says he called a taxi on his cell phone to get a ride to a hospital, but that he was so badly hurt he couldn’t make it into the taxi even with the help of the driver.
Finally, he called an ambulance that took him to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley, where he received emergency treatment and was found to have a broken right leg.
Last week, attorney Patrick Dwyer filed a lawsuit in Sacramento federal court on Howie’s behalf against Nevada County, Sheriff Keith Royal and the Correctional Medical Group Cos. Inc. that provides medical care in the jail.
Royal’s office did not respond to a request for comment; the medical firm, now known as Wellpath, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The suit, which is accompanied by a video from jail security cameras, alleges that jail staffers ignored obvious signs of Howie’s injury and engaged in a “cover up” to mask the fact that Howie was injured shortly after arriving at the jail.
He was seen by jail staffers several times after his leg was broken, the lawsuit says, with one nurse making notations on jail records an hour and 40 minutes after his injury that he was “awake and alert,” “appears well” and that his gait was “steady.”
In reality, Howie claims, he was in pain, his leg was swelling and he could not walk.
Howie was seen a second time at 9:17 that night, about four hours after his leg was broken, and placed in a chair.
A nurse recorded notes that he was “lethargic but responds to verbal stimuli” and was “non-cooperative.” The lawsuit contends Howie’s “serious leg injury and his inability to stand or walk would have been obvious to anyone,” but was not noted in jail records.
The same nurse saw Howie again at 1:23 a.m. that night, about 8 hours and 15 minutes after his leg was broken, and wrote that he was “awake and alert” and “appears well” but that his gait was “*unstable.”
There is no explanation for the inclusion of the asterisk, the lawsuit says, but he was moved to a second cell after that visit by jail staffers who held him on each side as he hopped on one leg.
By around 9 or 10 a.m., Howie was helped out of his cell and placed in a wheelchair, then taken to the booking area, where his lawsuit says he asked for a ride to a hospital.
“Don’t see why not,” one staffer said, according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after that, he was given a medical exam by a nurse who noted he was having swelling in his right knee and was in pain, but made no reference to an injury to his leg, the suit says.
“At the time of this medical exam, plaintiff was unable to stand on his feet, his right leg was very swollen and he was experiencing serious pain,” the lawsuit says.
The medical notes say Howie was “getting released and going to hospital,” the suit says, but the notion that he would be taken in for treatment was “apparently countermanded” by jail supervisors and Howie sat there in his wheelchair until about 1 p.m.
Then, jail staffers wheeled him out the back door, took him out of the chair and “sat him on a street curb in back of the jail.”
The suit claims Howie suffered an estimated $1.5 million in damages that include pain and suffering, cost of treatment and the “emotional and mental distress caused by the rough handling, demeaning taunts, physical beating and having his leg broken while handcuffed.”