A surveillance camera mounted high on a wall in the booking room of Tulsa County’s jail captured Elliott Williams walking into a holding cell in 2011.
Ten hours after Williams entered holding cell No. 10, an inmate wheeled a gurney across the deserted booking area, past the doors Williams traveled through earlier that day.
Minutes later, jail staff emerged from the cell pushing Williams on the gurney, paralyzed from a broken neck.
During the third day of a civil trial in federal court over Williams’ death, attorneys for his estate played a video for jurors showing the last time Williams walked in Tulsa’s jail. It shows Williams, a 37-year-old veteran, sitting in the booking room without handcuffs, cooperating with jail staff.
Billy McKelvey, a former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office captain, testified for several hours Friday, focusing on Williams’ treatment and whether jail staff followed protocol. Defense attorneys argue that Williams’ injuries were his own fault and that jail staff weren’t indifferent to his medical needs.
The lawsuit over Williams’ death names Sheriff Vic Regalado in his official capacity and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz in his individual capacity and alleges violations of his 8th and 14th Amendment rights.
The jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., was previously named but has already settled with Williams’ estate for an undisclosed amount.
U.S. District Judge John Dowdell set aside 15 days for the federal trial, which began Wednesday. It is the first of several civil rights lawsuits being tried this year over deaths and injuries in the jail under Glanz.
Williams died from complications of a broken neck and showed signs of dehydration, a medical examiner’s report states.
A 12-minute video recorded during his last days alive depicts him lying on the floor of a cell while detention staff tossed trays of food at his feet and placed a cup of water out of reach. One juror wiped tears from her eyes as the jury watched Williams attempt to dip his fingers into the cup of water.
A TCSO investigation found that Williams repeatedly told jail medical and detention staff he could not move and that he begged for help and water. The video shows Williams received no medical treatment and that jail staff did not help him eat or drink.
On Oct. 27, 2011, a visiting doctor performed a simple test on Williams’ feet to confirm he was paralyzed. Dr. Khadja Limbu had no authority to order treatment for Williams but told the jail medical staff the inmate needed to be taken to a hospital immediately.
The jail’s medical director, Dr. Phillip Washburn, took no action and Williams died three hours later, records show.
When asked during a deposition about Williams’ death, Washburn said: “People just die sometimes.”
McKelvey started his testimony largely focusing on a 2012 investigation he conducted into Williams’ death. McKelvey worked at the sheriff’s office from 2008 through August 2015 and is now an assistant police chief at Tulsa Community College.
Dan Smolen, an attorney representing Williams’ estate, began Friday by asking McKelvey about policy violations involving Williams’ booking at the jail.
“Did Mr. Williams ever have a mug or prints taken?” Smolen asked.
“He did not,” McKelvey answered.
Williams didn’t go through the booking process, which was a violation of jail policy, McKelvey said. As a result, Williams never received a mental health screening.
“That’s not optional is it?” Smolen asked of the screening.
“No,” McKelvey said.
Jail staff should have been aware of Williams’ mental health issues because Owasso police indicated he was suicidal on paperwork when they brought him to the jail, McKelvey noted.
McKelvey said he was not aware of any detention staff being disciplined for failure to follow booking policies.
After Williams refused to sit down in the booking area, a group of jail staff escorted him to a holding cell out of camera view. Several hours later, Williams began telling jail staff he thought his neck was broken, McKelvey’s investigation found.
For the next 10 hours, Williams was left alone in the holding cell, he said. Williams came into contact with 24 detention staff and four jail medical staff during that time but none of them sought or provided medical attention, the investigation found.
Exactly how Williams broke his neck is unclear. An Owasso police officer slammed Williams to the floor by his head and neck in the jail’s booking area.
Another inmate said he believed Williams rammed his head into his cell door. However, Smolen questioned why that claim did not surface until more than a month after Williams’ death.
McKelvey’s investigation found that Capt. Tommy Fike and Sgt. Doug Hinshaw dumped Williams several feet off of a gurney, causing his head to strike the concrete floor.
During McKelvey’s investigation, Fike estimated Williams was in the shower for about 30 minutes. Smolen showed McKelvey a hand-written logbook that indicated Fike and Hinshaw actually left Williams in the shower for just under two hours.
McKelvey agreed with Smolen that it would be a policy violation for the officers to lie about how long they left Williams in the shower but said no disciplinary action was taken.
An inmate told investigators that Williams was lying in the shower screaming for help the entire time. Detention officers also told investigators that Williams’ skin tone was purple, which could indicate a lack of oxygen.
An inmate trustee, Derek Latham, told investigators that detention and medical staff repeatedly told Williams they thought he was faking paralysis. Latham was in the medical unit and witnessed Williams being dumped off of the gurney.
“They was all laughing, talking about he was faking and all this and that,” Latham said, according to McKelvey’s report.
McKelvey said Latham told him: “I feel the man was ignored, neglected and I feel he was treated unfairly.”
Smolen also asked McKelvey about the statements of a jail nurse, LPN Kimberly Hughes, who Williams had told about his paralysis the day he was booked.
Hughes said she returned to work three days later and noticed that Williams “didn’t look like the same person. … He looked a lot heavier.”
Hughes told investigators that Williams asked her for water but said he couldn’t scoot over to the door to take it from her.
Hughes asked detention officers Rich and Smith to let her into the cell but they refused to open the door “for our safety and your safety.”
Hughes said she told the officers that she was not afraid of Williams because he claimed he couldn’t move but they still refused to open the cell for her.
“I was angry about it and did not push it any further,” Hughes told investigators.
Because Williams was in a video-monitored suicide watch cell, detention staff were supposed to check on him every 30 minutes.
Evidence shows that Detention Officer Ellen Beuttel recorded two checks for every one check she made on Williams, McKelvey said. However Beuttel was not disciplined for recording inaccurate information, he said.
McKelvey’s final testimony of the day focused on his interview with an inmate named Andrew Johnson. Because he was a trustee, Johnson helped detention staff deliver meals to inmates in the medical unit.
According to McKelvey’s report, Detention Officer Lois Bell placed a food tray in the “bean hole” of Williams’ cell door “and told Williams to come and get it.”
“Johnson stated that Williams said ‘I can’t get up, I’m thirsty.’ … Bell said ‘Well, that’s a refusal’ and ‘it’s against policy to open the door’” so Williams did not eat.
McKelvey testified that Johnson saw Williams again on Oct. 27th, the day he died. Johnson described Williams’ behavior as subdued.
“It was like he was just tired of telling people he needed help or something was wrong with him,” McKelvey said.
Tulsa’s jail ‘failed’ Williams
Earlier Friday, the court heard testimony from Dr. Steven Hoge, a forensic psychiatrist based in New York serving as an expert witness for the plaintiff.
Hoge told jurors the Tulsa jail “failed” Williams when jail staff didn’t get him immediate medical attention or refer him to a facility that specializes in mental health care.
Williams was clearly mentally ill and disturbed, Hoge said. He was suicidal, eating dirt and at times talking incoherently prior to his arrest by Owasso police.
While forming his opinion, Hoge reviewed post-mortem photos, videos of Williams’ arrest and death and interviews with medical and jail staff.
Hoge testified that the jail had an inadequate number of mental health staff on duty at the time of Williams’ death. At a minimum, Tulsa’s jail should have had 2 1/2 to three full-time psychiatrists to be on par with national standards, Hoge said.
The correctional facility had 1,500 to 1,700 inmates at the time Williams died and about 350 to 450 of them needed psychiatric care, according to the jail’s own records.
During cross examination, TCSO attorney Clark Brewster pointed out that the national standard was a recommendation, not a written law.
As part of his investigation, Hoge reviewed the work of the jail’s only psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Harnish. Harnish was working only part time at the jail and most of that time was spent supervising lower-level staff or sitting in his office renewing prescriptions, Hoge said.
Harnish initially told investigators he worked one hour a week with patients directly, Hoge’s report found. Harnish later said in his deposition he worked nine hours per week directly with patients.
Either way, it would be “grossly inadequate,” Hoge said.
Don Smolen, an attorney representing Williams’ estate, asked Hoge whether he thought Harnish handled the situation appropriately.
Hoge said no.
Hoge was critical of Harnish’s decision to place Williams in a monitored cell. Williams was put in the cell because jail and medical staff believed he was faking his paralysis. They wanted to catch him moving, Hoge said.
“If you’re wrong, the consequences are enormous,” Hoge said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
During cross-examination, Brewster reminded Hoge that his report was also critical of the Owasso Police Department and asked him whether he believed arresting officers were wrong because they also failed to take Williams to a mental health care facility.
“That is absolutely correct,” Hoge replied.
Brewster asked Hoge whether he would expect jail staff to interfere with medical staff’s duties or make a diagnosis of Williams. Hoge said he would not expect that, but told Brewster he was “completely missing the point.”
“He’s obviously lying on the ground, he’s not eating, he’s not drinking and he’s defecating on himself,” Hoge said. “You don’t need a diagnosis to see something needs to be done.”
“I don’t think we’re here because detention officers didn’t make a diagnosis. We’re here because people knew he wasn’t medically OK. No one knew he was paralyzed because no one bothered to check.”
Brewster told Hoge that Williams’ injuries were his own fault because he rammed his head against a cell door. During opening statements, Brewster opined that Williams’ death was actually a suicide, though he acknowledged that jail medical staff overlooked his paralysis.
When Brewster asked whether anyone knew Williams was paralyzed and intentionally disregarded it, Hoge said no. Brewster then asked whether Hoge found anyone at the jail was intentionally trying to hurt Williams, and Hoge again answered no.
However, Hoge said he believed jail staff interfered with Williams’ medical care.
Don Smolen asked Hoge what he would rate Williams’ treatment in the jail, with 10 being the best and one the worst.
“It’s a one. If that,” Hoge answered.
The trial is scheduled to resume Monday in Dowdell’s court with cross-examination of McKelvey.