Ronald Gene Given was hallucinating again. He stripped off his orange jail scrubs and banged on the door of a holding cell at the Pottawatomie County jail.
Given, 42, was known around Shawnee by the nickname “Happy” for his friendly and joking manner. But in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2019, Given seemed paranoid and told jail staff that someone was trying to kill him.
Given thought he saw his father dying in the hallway outside his cell and repeatedly called out for him. But no one was there. He became so agitated at one point that he bit another arrestee. These new details come from detention officers’ written reports that The Frontier obtained after suing Pottawatomie County officials to release video and other public records from the incident. The Frontier also obtained an investigative report of the incident that reveals one detention officer told authorities that a Taser weapon was used on Given before he went limp while jailers pinned his handcuffed body to the floor.
Another jail worker told a state investigator that she had concerns about the techniques Pottawatomie County detention officers used on prisoners in handcuffs, and that the jail training director told her not to mention Given’s bruised and swollen face in her written report about the incident.
The state medical examiner ruled Given’s death a homicide in May 2019 but no one has been criminally charged.
Wellon Poe, attorney for the public trust that operates the Pottawatomie County jail, denied that a detention officer used a Taser on Given at the jail, but declined to comment further because of an ongoing lawsuit that Given’s aunt has filed over his death.
“…We will address any factual allegations in course of the ongoing litigation,” he said in an email.
A new prosecutor now says he’s reviewing whether criminal charges are warranted. Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed Adam Panter as district attorney over Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties in October. He said he was unaware of the case until after The Frontier successfully sued for the release of the surveillance video. Panter released a copy of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s report on Given’s death to The Frontier because it had been considered a “closed case” and the previous district attorney didn’t file charges.
Panter said he would meet with state officials and members of Given’s family before making a decision on whether to charge any of the detention officers involved.
A mental health crisis leads to jail and death
Oklahoma has a shortage of inpatient mental health facilities to handle rising demand. People in crisis often end up in county jails ill-equipped to handle those with severe mental illness.
Shawnee police took Given to a local hospital for a mental health evaluation on Jan. 8, 2019, after he rammed a shopping cart into the windows of a Tractor Supply Co. store, telling employees that someone was trying to kill him. Hospital workers said Given should be held in emergency detention at a mental health facility. But he landed in jail hours later after shoving a police officer at the hospital while waiting for a bed to open up.
At the jail, one detention officer, identified in public records as Corporal Edward L. Bonar II, a floor supervisor, tackled Given, slamming his head into the floor, jail surveillance video shows.
Bonar wrote in a jail incident report that he took Given to the floor after he refused to comply with officers’ commands. He rolled Given onto his stomach because he feared being bitten. Another officer helped handcuff the prisoner.
The video shows the officers leading a handcuffed Given out of the cell. One jailer attempted to trip Given, causing him to fall to the floor, according to another officer’s account. The move is also visible on video.
As Given struggled, Bonar placed a knee between his shoulder blades to keep him still so he could be unhandcuffed, he wrote in the report. Detention officers pinned Given to the floor on his stomach for more than four minutes. As many as four officers held Given down.
Detention officers wanted to place Given into a safe restraint device, used to keep prisoners from harming themselves or others, but they had a hard time removing the handcuffs, according to jailers’ accounts of the incident.
Another detention officer, identified in records as Alexander Barnett, pressed a Taser against Given’s back, and said he would use it if Given didn’t stop resisting. Detention officers gave conflicting statements on whether the weapon was used, and the view in the soundless jail surveillance video is partially obscured. But Bonar told a state investigator that Given was tased “several times,” according to the OSBI report.
In a jail incident report, Barnett wrote that the Taser wasn’t loaded with a cartridge containing barbed projectile darts and that he only pressed the weapon into Given’s back without discharging it. Taser weapons can sometimes be used without a cartridge to deliver an electric shock when pressed to the skin in what is called “drive stun mode.”
In an interview with an OSBI investigator, Barnett said that he never used the Taser on Given. The Frontier sent an open records request to the jail trust’s attorney for Taser usage logs from the jail but hasn’t received a response yet.
“I never give up,” Given reportedly shouted before going limp.
He never regained consciousness and died ten days later in the hospital.
The Frontier reached out multiple times to Bonar and Barnett. Both men declined to comment through the jail trust’s attorney. Bonar left his job at the detention center nine days after the incident with Given, according to the OSBI report.
Both men voluntarily resigned from the Pottawatomie County detention center over time, the jail trust attorney said.
State law allows jail staff to use physical force against prisoners to prevent escape or for protection of people or property, but “only to the degree necessary.” In Oklahoma, detention officers are required to undergo training on this and other minimum standards for jails encoded in state law.
‘Scared to death’
The U.S. Department of Justice has warned of the dangers of restraining people in prone positions since at least 1995. The agency advised that police should immediately get an arrestee off their stomach after they are handcuffed and should not apply weight to a restrained person’s back.
Cardiologist Dr. Alon Steinberg, an expert in deaths from prone restraint, reviewed surveillance video and other records from Given’s death at The Frontier’s request.
A person violently struggling with police requires their full breathing and circulation capacity, Steinberg said. When someone is held in a prone position, it will cause trouble with ventilation and compromise blood flow, which can cause death, he said.
“He’s already agitated and fighting with these four officers,” Steinberg said. “You need more energy, thus you are breathing in more oxygen and out carbon dioxide in that situation just like when you’re jogging. You are breathing hard and your heart is beating strong and fast because you need that to survive.”
Weight applied to a person’s back, obesity and other pre-existing medical conditions can also contribute to such deaths, he said.
The state medical examiner’s office ruled that Given died from organ failure caused by an irregular heartbeat from struggling while officers restrained him. Toxicology testing found no alcohol or other drugs in Given’s system.
Policing expert George Kirkham, professor emeritus at Florida State University, said people with severe mental illness who are hallucinating can sometimes die from a combination of physical exertion and fright when they are restrained in jail.
“They’re just scared to death,” Kirkham said. “Your body goes into cardiovascular overdrive and your system just can’t handle it.”
Officers also should not use or hold a Taser on a mentally ill person who is restrained, he said.
“If we were doing a training video on what not to do, that would be the training video,” Kirkham said after reviewing surveillance footage of jailers wrestling with Given.
Waiting for justice
Four years later, family and friends are still waiting for someone to be held accountable for Given’s death.
The previous district attorney Allan Grubb said in a 2021 TV interview that he would ask for a new probe into Given’s death, but state officials say that never happened.
Given was a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe. Members of the local indigenous community protested the lack of prosecution in the case with singing and drumming outside the district attorney’s office in August 2021. Grubb met with Given’s friends and family and said he would ask for OSBI to reopen the case.
“I think he didn’t mean it,” said Given’s friend Michael Deer, who attended the meeting. “He was lying to us, and he was covering this up.”
Brook Arbeitman, a spokeswoman for OSBI, said the agency has no record that Grubb asked for a new review of the case. Someone from the district attorney’s office under Grubb’s leadership told OSBI in October 2019 that it had declined to file charges against anyone in connection with Given’s death, she said.
Grubb resigned last year after the state’s multicounty grand jury accused him of corruption and called for his removal from office, but didn’t indict him on any criminal charges.
Grubb told The Frontier that he wanted to charge Bonar and Barnett with first-degree manslaughter. According to Grubb, the OSBI agent who investigated Given’s death didn’t believe any crime had occurred and was unwilling to sign a court affidavit required to prosecute the case.
OSBI never makes recommendations on criminal charges, Arbeitman said.
“It is the prosecuting attorney’s decision whether or not to file charges,” she said.
Grubb also said he asked the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into Given’s death, but said he never got responses. Grubb couldn’t provide documentation of these requests and said he lost access to emails and other records when he resigned from the district attorney’s office. OSBI and the state attorney general’s office said they have no records of such requests from Grubb. Federal authorities said they couldn’t confirm or deny any requests they received to look into the case as a matter of policy. The Frontier also filed an open records request with the Pottawatomie County district attorney’s office for any documentation of the requests Grubb said he made. But Panter, the new district attorney, said he has been unable to find any records that show Grubb asked any agency for further review.
Grubb also could have presented the case to a county grand jury, but he said the process would have been costly at a time when there was no money to spare. Grubb’s office faced a budget crisis in 2021, after he didn’t remit more than $679,000 to cover payroll for his staff and other fees to the District Attorneys Council, which oversees local prosecutors in the state. At the time, Grubb said he would ask the state auditor for a forensic audit of his own accounts, but failed to do so, according to a statement the District Attorneys Council released in 2021. Grubb paid back a good chunk of the money before leaving office in September 2022, but the district attorney’s office is still on the hook for the remaining debt, said Kathryn Brewer, executive coordinator for the council.
When Grubb took office days before Given’s death in early 2019, the district attorney’s office was in “excellent financial condition” with a budget surplus and multiple federal grants to fund additional positions, Panter said in an email.
“So I seriously doubt money was the issue at the time of the investigation,” he said.
Grubb disputed the characterization that the district attorney’s office was in good financial shape when he took office.
Given’s aunt, Eva Kopaddy, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2020 against the jail trust and its leaders, as well as the Shawnee police officers who arrested Given. The lawsuit also accuses unnamed detention officers of using excessive force against Given at the jail.
“Mrs. Kopaddy is heart-sick and appalled that no one has been prosecuted,’” said her attorney, Kevin R. Kemper.
Shawnee police have asked for the claims against them to be dismissed, citing the broad immunity from liability that U.S. courts allow police officers.
A Pottawatomie County jail supervisor named as a defendant in the lawsuit answered in a court filing that the detention officers’ actions “were reasonable and proper.”