MILWAUKEE – Three Milwaukee County jail staffers are facing criminal charges for their role in the dehydration death of a mentally ill inmate who spent a week without water, prosecutors said Monday.
The charges announced by the Milwaukee District Attorney's Office come almost a year after jurors recommended jail staff should be liable after prosecutors presented them with evidence. An investigation revealed 38-year-old Terrill Thomas had water to his cell shut off as punishment for flooding it with a mattress in April 2016.
Supervisor Kashka Meadors and jail deputy James Lee Ramsey-Guy are both charged with neglect of a resident of a penal facility, a felony that punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors say Meadors ordered Ramsey-Guy to shut off the water.
Jail Cmdr. Nancy Lee Evans is charged with felony misconduct and misdemeanor obstructing an office. Prosecutors say she failed to preserve surveillance video showing the water turned off and lied to police about what the footage showed. If convicted of both charges, Evans could face more than four years in prison.
Meadors, Ramsey-Guy, and Evans had their initial court appearances Monday, but they don't have attorneys listed and The Associated Press couldn't find working numbers for them.
Thomas' family has said he was having a mental breakdown when police arrested him April 14, 2016, for shooting a man in front of his parents' house and later firing a gun inside a casino.
"Our expectation when Mr. Thomas was brought into custody was that he would be kept safe. The allegations set forth in the criminal complaint document that that did not happen," District Attorney John Chisholm said.
At the time of Thomas' death, the jail was overseen by conservative firebrand Sheriff David Clarke, who resigned in August to join a political action committee in support of President Donald Trump. Clarke was not the target of the inquest because he wasn't directly involved in Thomas' death.
Police detectives asked Evans in a questionnaire during their investigation whether there was any documentation showing whether the water was turned off the whole time or intermittently. The document Evans signed off on answered that "there is no documentation indicating this." However, prosecutors say Evans was aware of the tape and that it showed the water to Thomas' cell being turned off and never turned back on again.
"My heart bleeds for these people," said interim Sheriff Richard Schmidt, who was not in charge when Thomas died. "I'm a human being, I have family members. If this turns out to be exactly the way they've been written, it's horrific."
Thomas' case wasn't the only time an inmate was punished by being deprived of water. Prosecutors presented jurors with jail logs documenting two cases in which disobeying inmates had water to their cells turned off -- both within a month of Thomas dying. One of the cases happened a week after Thomas' death.
Schmidt said the three staffers charged were suspended Monday and that he will determine by Friday if further discipline is warranted after his office conducts an investigation separately from Chischolm's.
Jurors had also recommended charges against four other staffers -- JorDon Johnson, Thomas Laine, Dominique Smith and John Weber -- but Chisholm concluded they shouldn't be prosecuted. He said, however, that charges are possible later against the company the jail contracts with to provide health care to inmates.