Elliott Williams’ treatment at Tulsa’s jail ‘complete failure,’ former TCSO captain testifies

Former TCSO Capt. Billy McKelvey testified he believes Tulsa jail's "system failure" resulted in Elliott Williams' death.

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Courtroom sketch by Evelyn Petroski

Elliott Williams’ treatment by the Tulsa jail’s medical and detention staff “was a complete failure,” a former Sheriff’s Office captain testified Tuesday.

The former captain, Billy McKelvey, said detention and medical employees at the jail failed Williams, due to a lack of follow through and a breakdown in communications about his medical care. McKelvey’s testimony came during the fifth day of testimony in a federal civil rights lawsuit over Williams’ 2011 death in the jail from a broken neck.

Dan Smolen, an attorney representing Williams’ estate, pointed to a statement that John Bell, a mental health counselor at the jail, made to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation regarding Williams’ death.

Smolen asked McKelvey whether he believed that “system failure” caused Williams’ death.

“I believe, yes,” McKelvey replied.

The lawsuit over Williams’ death names Regalado in his official capacity and Glanz in his individual capacity. The jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., was previously named but has settled with Williams’ estate for an undisclosed amount.

Williams died from complications of a broken neck and showed signs of dehydration, a medical examiner’s report states. A video depicts him lying on the floor of a cell over 51 hours while detention staff tossed trays of food at his feet and placed a cup of water out of reach.

Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office have argued Williams’ death wasn’t caused by deliberate indifference within the Sheriff’s Office, a key standard in such civil rights lawsuits. Attorneys for TCSO have argued that the jail’s former medical provider was responsible for ensuring Williams had proper medical care, not the detention staff.

However McKelvey testified Tuesday that the system within the jail failed Williams.

Smolen asked McKelvey whether someone, such as jail staff, should have stepped in if the system was failing an inmate.

McKelvey said yes.

“What stops someone from calling an ambulance?” Smolen asked.

“Really, nothing,” McKelvey answered.

McKelvey’s testimony has focused mainly on a 2012 internal investigation he conducted on Williams’ death.

During cross-examination, Guy Fortney, an attorney representing the Sheriff’s Office, asked
McKelvey whether jail staff followed policy when they referred any concerns they had about Williams’ health to the jail’s medical staff.

In cross-examination Monday, Fortney pointed out the jail’s policy regarding detention officers handling situations in which inmates appear to need medical care. In situations when staff is concerned about an inmate’s medical or mental health, policy requires them to notify medical staff.

McKelvey agreed jail policy directs detention staff to forward health concerns to medical.

Fortney then asked McKelvey what he found jail staff’s response to Williams’ injury was during his investigation. McKelvey said jail staff contacted medical staff.

“They relied on medical, didn’t they?” Fortney asked.

“Yes,” McKelvey answered.

Records and interviews with jail staff paint conflicting pictures of what kind of care Williams received at the jail.

On Monday, Smolen highlighted several policy violations that occurred while Williams was in the jail.

Smolen pointed out that the jail’s policy required inmates on suicide watch to be evaluated by mental health staff within 24 hours. McKelvey said Williams wasn’t evaluated, and he didn’t believe anyone was disciplined for the policy violation.

Smolen also referenced another jail policy that required possibly suicidal inmates to be kept under continuous watch until seen by mental health staff.

Owasso police paperwork indicated Williams was suicidal when they brought him to the Tulsa County’s jail on Oct. 21, 2011.

During cross-examination Tuesday, Fortney pointed out no one interviewed in McKelvey’s report indicated they believed Williams was suicidal when he first came into the jail’s custody.

McKelvey agreed.

Fortney then asked McKelvey whether jail staff saw Williams make preparations for a suicide attempt.

“No,” McKelvey replied.

Fortney asked McKelvey whether jail staff would have had to see Williams act suicidal to follow the policies.

McKelvey said they wouldn’t have had to observe Williams behaving as if he were suicidal because they were told by Owasso police.

As part of McKelvey’s investigation into Williams’ death, an inmate told McKelvey he believed Williams rammed his head into his cell door shortly after entering the jail’s custody. Smolen has questioned why that claim did not surface until more than a month after Williams’ death.

Fortney asked McKelvey before Williams allegedly injured himself in the holding cell whether any jail staff saw evidence Williams was suicidal. McKelvey said they didn’t.

“From your report, it seems Elliott caused his own injuries,” Fortney said.

“Correct,” McKelvey said.

During opening statements Thursday, Clark Brewster, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, said Williams didn’t die in Tulsa’s jail from a lack of medical care, but instead committed suicide.

On Monday, Smolen asked McKelvey whether anyone notified Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette, who was supervising jail operations when Williams died, of Williams’ neck injury. Jail policy required inmates’ self-inflicted injuries to be reported within 24 hours.

“I would say no, they didn’t probably,” McKelvey answered on Monday. He said to his knowledge, no one was disciplined for the violation.

During cross-examination Tuesday, Fortney pointed out that jail staff didn’t believe Williams had hurt himself in his cell because nurses said he wasn’t injured.

Fortney asked McKelvey whether it was necessary for detention staff to report to Robinette if they didn’t believe Williams to be injured. McKelvey said no and agreed it wouldn’t be a policy violation.

When Smolen asked McKelvey whether there was any indication Williams was faking his injury, McKelvey said no.

In an interview with McKelvey, detention officer Carmelita Norris said Williams was able to feed himself breakfast the morning he died.

“We’ve watched the video, was Mr. Williams feeding himself?” Smolen asked.

“No,” McKelvey said.

McKelvey’s report found records from Norris indicate she gave Williams drinks of water because he was paralyzed and couldn’t get a drink by himself.

Smolen said because Norris falsified records about Williams feeding himself breakfast, the incident raises questions as to whether she lied about giving him cups of water.

“Why would you believe her when she falsified those records?” Smolen asked.

“I don’t believe I ever said I did,” McKelvey answered.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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