Family seeks answers after son’s death in Grady County jail

“Help me, please,” were Justin Thao's last words to a jailer before he was found unresponsive.

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Justin Thao’s shoes are shown on the floor of the shower cell where he was held in the Grady County Law Enforcement Center. PROVIDED

Update: This story was updated Dec. 18, 2018 to include additional details about the results of a toxicology screening. 

Oklahoma and the Grady County Law Enforcement Center was only supposed to be a short layover for Justin Xaochay Thao.

Instead, Thao died in an Oklahoma hospital after jailers found him unresponsive in a jail shower. He never regained consciousness, leaving his family with unanswered questions about what happened.

“Help me, please,” were Thao’s last words to jailers, before he was found hanging from a door handle with a towel.

Thao, 20, a federal inmate, was almost finished with his prison sentence and was on his way back home to California, where he was making plans to go back to school to study real estate.

Thao’s death has been ruled a suicide by hanging. Jail officials refuse to release all of the surveillance video that his family hopes would help them understand the circumstances leading up to his death.

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The Grady County Criminal Justice Authority, the trust that oversees the jail, claims it cannot release the video, because it would violate the privacy of other detainees in the jail.

At the time of his death, Thao was serving a year-long sentence on federal drug distribution charges after he and a friend were caught trying to bring 26 kilograms of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017.

U.S. Marshals were transporting Thao from a federal prison in New Mexico to a facility closer to his family in California to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

Justin Thao’s shoes are shown on the floor of the shower cell where he was held at the Grady County Law Enforcement Center. PROVIDED

Thao’s mother, May Kou Heu, talked on the phone with her son most days during his incarceration.

With just a few months left on his sentence, Thao talked of making a fresh start in life and studying to get his real estate license.

Heu sent her son books to read in prison, ranging from The Little Prince and Fahrenheit 451 to a California real estate manual. It was private book club of two.

Heu hoped the books would push her son intellectually. Talking about reading also helped her to bond with her son during a difficult time in his life.

Thao talked about going back to school, she said.

“He said ‘yeah, Mom, I have a lot to look forward to. I have big shoes to fill,’” Heu said. “‘I’m not going to let you down.'”

Justin Thao and his mother May Kou Heu are shown in an undated photograph. COURTESY

Grady County jailers will not release several hours of video leading up to Thao’s time in the shower cell. According to jailers, portions of the unreleased video include a period of time where Thao struggled with guards, including an incident in a jail elevator where a jailer used a Taser on him.

A toxicology screening performed on Thao after his death would later show a trace amount of methamphetamine in his system.

Awaiting transport to California, Thao was in a cell at the Grady County jail with several other prisoners when he appeared to charge at a nurse who was administering medication, according to a jail incident report.

A jail guard took Thao to the floor and placed him in handcuffs. Later in a jail elevator, guards claim Thao continued to resist. One jailer pressed his Taser against Thao’s right thigh to administer what is known as a “drive stun”— a painful jolt intended to cause pain without incapacitating the target.

The jail did release some portions of video that showed Thao — wearing only one shoe — being led in handcuffs to a shower in the jail that was being used as a makeshift isolation cell.

The Frontier reviewed the video, provided by Thao’s family attorney.

The shower where Thao was held has a heavy metal door. There were no video cameras inside the shower cell. Guards can only see inside by lifting an observation flap on the front of the door.

At one point in the video, a jail guard brings Thao his other shoe and a towel. The guard struggles to open the door to the shower cell.

Thao can be seen either kneeling or sitting on the floor of the cell. The guard admonished him for trying to hold the door closed.

“Help me, please,” Thao says. The jailer does not respond and shuts the door again.

At one point, Thao can be heard arguing loudly with the woman in the shower cell next to him. The woman makes her displeasure known at being held in a cell next to a male prisoner.

Thao is audibly upset and shouts “sorry” before growing quiet.

About an hour and a half after being placed in shower cell, guards found Thao hanging from the door handle with the towel.

“How the fuck did he get a towel,” one jailer asks in the video.

Thao’s family is suing the Grady County Law Enforcement Center to turn over the rest of the video.

“We are simply trying to figure out what happened,” said Spencer Bryan, an attorney for Thao’s family. “There’s no greater public interest than the jail providing for the public welfare of people that it is holding,”

Heu doesn’t believe her son killed himself — she said it’s difficult to reconcile his death with the hopeful son she knew.

She has not watched the video of Thao that the jail will release, saying it’s too painful.

She wants to know what happened to her son before he was placed in the shower holding cell and if he had been attacked or involved in an altercation of some kind with other inmates.

Adding to Heu’s distress, the Oklahoma medical examiner’s office did not do a full autopsy on Thao before ruling his death a suicide.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told The Frontier it’s up to each individual physician’s discretion on whether to perform a full autopsy.

Another Grady County jail detainee died by hanging in August, and — unlike Thao — the medical examiner’s office did a full autopsy on the man before ruling the death a suicide.

Jim Gerlach, administrator for the Grady County jail, did not respond to interview requests.

In court documents, the Grady County Criminal Justice Authority argued that the video falls outside the Oklahoma Open Records Act, because the law does not specifically mention jail surveillance video.

“The only law enforcement agency videos considered open records involve video recordings from body cameras and vehicle dashboard cameras,” the jail trust argued in a legal brief.

In it a letter to the Thao family’s attorney, denying their request for the video, the jail trust said it is withholding any video that shows other jail detainees to protect their privacy.

Grady County officials also initially refused to provide a copy of the jail register that contained the names of the other detainees in the jail the day Thao died on privacy grounds.

Jail register information is a public record and is specifically mentioned as such in the state open records law.

Open government expert Joey Senat, a professor at Oklahoma State University, who reviewed the Grady County denial letter, said it’s concerning that the letter gives only a vague explanation as to why jailers would not release all of the available video or a copy of the jail register.

Government agencies are required to cite the specific exemption under state law that allows them to withhold records — privacy alone is not a valid reason, Senat said.

“If they had a specific exemption, they would be saying that from way one,” he said.

Some media outlets have had their requests for jail video from other countries rejected on the grounds of an Open Records Act exemption for law enforcement records in Oklahoma.

The lack of willingness of jailers to hand over video of in-custody deaths is one reason Senat believes the Open Records Act should be amended.

“This issue of the jail videos keeps coming up and the Legislature needs to solve this by clearly saying unequivocally that any video in a jail is considered a public record period,” Senat said.

Heu knows her son had made some mistakes, but they weren’t worth paying for with his life.

“This wasn’t supposed to be a death sentence,” she said. “He was supposed to be home by now.”

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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