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Family of man who died of hypothermia at DeKalb County Jail seeks $15 million in lawsuit

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Family of man who died of hypothermia at DeKalb County Jail seeks $15 million in lawsuit

Anthony Walker, 34, was one of nine inmates who died in 2022.. Photo obtained via the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office.

This story has been updated.

DeKalb County, GA — The family of a DeKalb County Jail inmate who died of hypothermia on Dec. 26, 2022, is suing DeKalb County and Sheriff Melody Maddox for $15 million, according to records obtained by Decaturish.

Anthony Walker, 34, was one of nine inmates who died in 2022. A DeKalb County Medical Examiner report concluded that Walker’s death was caused by hypothermia and was accidental. Another inmate who died a day after Walker, Jackson Orukpete, 57, was also found in a cold cell. The Medical Examiner said cold temperatures may have contributed to Orukpete’s death, but it couldn’t be proven.

Decaturish published an investigative story on May 23 examining all the deaths at the jail in 2022, the deadliest year at the DeKalb County Jail since 2012. Walker, like many of the other inmates who died in 2022, had a mental illness. Walker had schizophrenia and a substance abuse problem. He was arrested on Dec. 18, 2022, on charges of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Sheriff Maddox has declined repeated interview requests concerning the 2022 deaths in the county jail. After Walker and Orukpete died, Maddox asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into those deaths, but the GBI declined.

An email obtained via an open records request shows that Kareem Martin, the jail’s manager of mental health services in December, emailed Maddox on Dec. 28 regarding the two deaths. The cold temperatures cited in the Medical Examiner’s reports were not mentioned in this email. Martin discussed a conversation with a GBI agent about the incidents.

Martin wrote that, according to the GBI agent, “there are no preliminary signs of criminal activity leading to the death of both inmates.”

Walker was considered “disruptive” by the jail staff, many of whom are named defendants in the lawsuit. One of the named defendants, James Ragazino who worked for the jail’s contractor, is accused of showing “animosity” toward Walker “by inserting verbatim text from a previous note he made during [Walker’s] 2021 detention, relating to a time when Defendant Ragazino filed a complaint against [Walker] because he was offended by remarks made to him by [Walker].”

Other records obtained by Decaturish support many of the lawsuit’s allegations regarding the circumstances surrounding Walker’s death. An attempt to reach an attorney for Walker’s family for comment was unsuccessful.

Maddox’s office did not provide comment, saying the sheriff had not seen the lawsuit filed on May 22. The sheriff was sent an ante litem notice on May 18 by an attorney for Walker’s family, notifying the sheriff and the county of the family’s intent to sue and offering to resolve the matter in an out-of-court settlement.

The notice describes the actions of the jail staff as “malicious” and accuses the jail staff of covering up the facts of Walker’s death. According to the lawsuit and the medical examiner’s report, Walker was naked and wet, both factors that contributed to his death by hypothermia. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the temperature in Walker’s cell was 50 degrees. Between Dec. 23 and Dec. 26, the temperature outside the jail was 10 degrees to 18 degrees.

The Medical Examiner’s report said, “Investigative reports indicate that the ambient temperature was significantly cold (not measured), and the decedent’s skin was reportedly wet due to flooding in his cell resulting from his reported obstruction of the toilet outflow with his clothing, which was subsequently confiscated.”

Two experts in hypothermia, both doctors, said that assuming the lawsuit’s allegations are accurate, and accounting for the Walker being naked and wet, it’s likely that someone would’ve died from hypothermia under those conditions.

Dr. Terrell Swanson, an emergency physician who specializes in wilderness medicine, noted that water conducts heat 25 times faster than air.

“If you’re in water, and it’s 60 degrees, you can die from hypothermia,” Swanson said.

Dr. Keith Pelletier, who serves as an expert witness in cases involving hypothermia deaths, agreed with that assessment.

“Something that would come into play would be his body mass,” Pelletier said. “If he’s an average size person, that’s going to take quite an extreme situation, especially in a cell that should be normal temperature… I mean, if he was naked and wet, that’s going to drop his core temperature quicker than if he were cool and dry.”

The Medical Examiner’s report says Walker was about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 181 pounds.

The lawsuit alleges that Walker died due to willful neglect by jail staff. Jail staff knew about Walker’s ongoing mental health struggles, the lawsuit says because he’d been admitted to the jail on numerous prior occasions.

“Despite [Walker’s] fragile mental health condition and his calls for help from the inhumane environment in which he was kept, none of the Defendants took any action to protect him from the cold, to treat his ongoing mental distress, or to prevent his discomfort and death,” the lawsuit says. “In fact, the Defendants did just the opposite – they willfully and maliciously ignored him.”

The ante litem notice says that when Walker arrived at the jail on Dec. 18, 2022, staff recommended he should be placed on suicide watch, which requires frequent checks by staff to see if he was OK.

“On December 19, 2022, Mr. Walker was transferred to cell 18, a central, well-lit, and visible cell in the 3A block,” the ante litem notice says. “But the following morning, on December 20, 2022, staff moved Mr. Walker down the hall to cell 10, an unlit cell obscured from the staff’s view by both a temporary partition and a large column. Mr. Walker was placed in the cell wet and with no clothing on.”

Walker stayed in that cell until he died six days later.

“We do not know exactly what occurred during much of that time because the DeKalb Sheriff’s Office and DeKalb County refuse to provide videotape footage for the days of December 21 through 25, 2022, despite our open records request for the same,” the ante litem notice says.

The ante litem notice says records produced by Wellpath, a contractor hired by the county to provide healthcare services at the jail, says that a doctor approved a mental health evaluation on Dec. 20 with a follow-up assessment on Dec. 23.

“The Wellpath records also show that nurses made infrequent rounds to check on Mr. Walker during that period from December 21 through 25, 2022,” the ante litem notice says.

A doctor’s note on Dec. 23 described Walker as “completely naked and agitated,” which the nurses noted as well. Detention officers in Walker’s cell block only made “infrequent, perfunctory checks on Mr. Walker’s well-being,” the ante litem notice says.

A postmortem report quotes Detention Officer Dingwu Jia saying he patrolled the cell block at intervals of one hour or more.

“Even if his report is to be believed, the interval of his patrols violated suicide-watch protocols, which require much more frequent checks by jail staff,” the ante litem notice says. “According to video evidence provided by the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office for December 26, 2022, Officer Jia entered the 3A hall at 3:22 p.m. The video footage then cuts out until 6:22 p.m., when Officer Jia returned to the hall with another individual, presumably nurse [Beverly] Dwyer. At that time, Mr. Walker’s cell was so dark that Officer Jia required a flashlight to look inside to determine whether Mr. Walker was even alive.”

The ante litem notice says that when Jia realized Walker was naked and not moving, he called another sergeant to the scene. Neither of the jail employees opened Walker’s cell door at that time to check on him, even though he was not moving and had been exposed to the cold temperatures for several days without clothing or a blanket.

“Rather, staff returned to patrols as normal,” the ante litem notice says. “Almost two hours later, at 7:50 p.m., Officer Jia again noted Mr. Walker’s stillness and called Sgt. [Martell] Williams back to the scene. At that time, the two agreed to enter the cell and call for medical attention. When the paramedic arrived on the scene, Mr. Walker was already dead. No resuscitative actions were even attempted. Mr. Walker suffered unnecessary physical and mental pain and suffering, and an untimely death from hypothermia at the hands of his jailers and medical staff.”

Pelletier, the hypothermia expert, said every inmate has a reasonable expectation of being given “suitable conditions to live.”

“It is shocking to me it was allowed to happen, especially when it’s something very easily preventable, even in the prison system,” he said.

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