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Lawsuit claims Lucas County jail staff at fault for inmate death

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The family of a Toledo man who died in 2016 while in the Lucas County jail has sued the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office in federal court, claiming jail staff failed to ensure the man took needed medication, did not monitor his cell as required, and covered up their acts.

Alfred Duane Estis, 34, had been in the jail since March 20, 2016, awaiting trial on charges of rape, abduction, and felonious assault. He was found dead in a medical cell the following May 14.

The case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Western Division was filed by Tabatha Brown and Courtney Aton, mothers of three of Estis’ children, as well as by Alfred Miller, Jr., and DeLois Estis, his parents. It lists the sheriff’s office, Sheriff John Tharp, and eight current or former sheriff’s office employees as defendants.

The family claims wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other charges. The case was originally filed in April.

Joel Levin of Levin & Associates said the family hopes to find out what happened to Estis and to find justice. The law and due process applies equally to everyone, he said, regardless of the severity of crimes they are alleged to have committed.

“We should worry about the rule of law, and we shouldn't just say that a particular victim is an undeserving victim,” he said. “Once we go down that road, we've lost something crucial in America."

The county has denied the family’s claims in court filings, including by saying Estis “intentionally hoarded” his medication without staff members’ knowledge.

“We do not comment publicly on civil lawsuits while they are ongoing, other than the responsive pleadings that we will file in the coming months,” said Andrew Ranazzi, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor.

According to the lawsuit, Estis was blind and suicidal, had depression and a seizure disorder, “and occasionally heard voices, sometimes telling him to take his own life.” The sheriff’s office was aware of his medical issues, and he was prescribed a variety of medications.

Jail nurses crushed Estis’ medication for two days without a doctor’s order, according to the lawsuit. Estis feared his medication had been altered and refused to take the pills. The nurses didn’t properly report that he failed to take his medication, and did not notify any doctors or Estis’ family, according to the civil complaint.

Corrections officers were aware Estis hadn’t taken his medication, according to the complaint, and jail staff did not follow policy by ensuring all medication refusals were in writing by the inmate.

Estis’ family also claims corrections officers failed to check the medical cells or didn’t open the doors to cells to monitor his safety, despite procedures that called for staff to check on him every 30 minutes. A corrections officer who failed to make security rounds falsified documents to “cover up her culpability,” according to the suit.

He was found dead at about 6 p.m. A sheriff’s office spokesman at the time said Estis died of apparent natural causes.

The sheriff’s office disciplined four employees for failing to properly check on Estis; his body wasn’t discovered in his cell for several hours.

Corrections officer Adia Washington, who was on duty when Estis died, received a 65-day unpaid suspension, according to records released by the sheriff's office in July, 2016. Ms. Washington falsely filed reports claiming she completed all of her rounds, the office’s internal review found.

Sgts. Nancy Kowalski and Jim Coleman received two-day suspensions in the case, and corrections officer Erika Molitoris received a written warning for not entering the cell during her initial round and checking the windows.

All four are named as defendants in the civil case.

Mr. Levin represented the family of Carlton Benton in a wrongful-death lawsuit first filed in 2008. Benton, 25, was in custody on aggravated murder charges in March, 2004, when he was taken from jail to the hospital for seizure treatment.

A lawsuit alleged he resisted when he was to return to the jail, leading to deputies assaulting him at the hospital and jail. He returned to the hospital and died the following June.

That litigation was put on hold while several officials, including former Sheriff James Telb, were tried in federal court on criminal charges related to the death. Mr. Telb and Robert McBroom were acquitted, but former employees John Gray and Jay Schmeltz were found guilty.

That civil suit was reactivated in October, 2012, and settled in February, 2017, with the county's insurance carrier paying $1.28 million.

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