‘They treated him worse than a dog’

A trial gets underway in federal court in the 2011 death of Elliott Williams. His brother is hoping for justice.

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Elliott Williams, seen here in an undated family photo, planned to retire early from his wholesale business and start a ministry, his brother said. Photo courtesy of Williams family.

Inmate “states he cannot walk …. Wants to be waited on.” (10/22/2011)

Inmate “acted as if paralyzed, saying, ‘I want water.’ “ (10/24/2011)

“Laying on floor, partially covered by blanket, shaking … Encouraged to inform staff of needs or concerns.” (10/26/2011)

Inmate “refusing to move or admit he can move to this therapist.” (10/26/2011)

“Inmate cold .. pupils fixed and dilated.” (10/27/2011)

These statements by detention and medical staff in Tulsa’s jail will be among evidence in a civil trial over the death of Elliott Williams, which begins in U.S. District Court Wednesday.

During his week spent in the Tulsa Jail, Williams crossed paths with more than 50 detention and medical staff. The 37-year-old told anyone who would listen what was wrong with him: He thought he had broken his neck and couldn’t move.

Williams was placed in a video-monitored medical cell because jailers and medical staff thought he was faking paralysis. However, the jail video shows they did not examine him, take vital signs or provide other medical treatment to find out whether his claims were true.

The jail’s psychiatrist, Stephen Harnish, said shortly before Williams’ death he planned to take a “wait and see” attitude toward Williams’ claimed paralysis.

A jailer told Williams to “keep practicing” when he said he couldn’t reach the cup of water placed just outside his reach.

Trays of food were pushed through a “bean hole” in the cell door, dropping at his feet. The food went uneaten because Williams couldn’t reach it, as jail medical and detention staff were able to see from a video monitor at the nurses’ station.

On Oct. 27, six days after entering the jail, Williams died on the floor of his cell, naked and laying on the same soiled blanket for days.

Williams, who had a history of mental illness, suffered a breakdown after learning his wife was planning to leave him. He was arrested by Owasso police Oct. 21, 2011 on a municipal complaint after he began acting erratically at a hotel and would not follow an officer’s orders.

Prosecutors filed no charge against Williams until after his death. He also had no mugshot or fingerprints taken and no bond set. Records show his last words were to beg for a telephone but he wasn’t allowed to call his family.

The lawsuit by Williams’ estate names former Sheriff Stanley Glanz in his individual capacity and Sheriff Vic Regalado in his official capacity as defendants. Regalado filled Glanz’s term after the former sheriff was indicted and resigned.

The plaintiff has already settled claims with the jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., for an undisclosed amount.

[Read The Frontier’s ongoing coverage of deaths and other serious issues in Tulsa’s jail.]

Williams’ brother, Kevin Williams, told The Frontier in a recent interview he will attend the trial, along with his sister and two brothers.

“It has been six years. I’m anxious for this to come out because it’s almost like he can’t rest until you find out what’s going to happen,” he said.

Kevin Williams, who bears a strong resemblance to his brother, wept as he discussed what it has been like to hear the details of Elliott’s death for six years. He said he wants jurors to know “the type of person he was and as well that no one deserved that.”

“They treated him worse than a dog. I would like them to know that he was a good person.”

He said the family is relieved that the trial is finally getting underway but the expected publicity is also difficult.

“The reliving it over and over again, it’s pretty hard. I started crying today and trying to hold back tears. … Now that it’s starting to get a little bit of publicity, it brings it all back up again.”

Kevin Williams said he does not understand why no criminal charges were ever filed against jail detention and medical staff who could have helped his brother but did not.

He was shocked to learn that Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette, who was supervising jail operations when Elliott died, was recently given a new civilian job in charge of mental health programs at the jail.

Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette leads a media tour of the jail’s new mental health pods in January. The pods were financed by a sales tax extension. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“It’s almost like you’ve got a toothache and you don’t go to the dentist. Eventually, you’re going to have to confront the problem. … It’s definitely systemic. You have to be blind not to see it.”

Key witnesses in the lawsuit include Glanz, Regalado, Robinette, former TCSO Capt. Billy McKelvey and medical experts.

In a deposition, Robinette said Williams’ death was a failure by the jail staff.

“They did not follow the training that was given. They did not follow the procedures that were in place. And in my opinion, they lacked human decency to take care of another human being,” she said.

However, she said she did not believe her staff tortured Williams, saying his treatment was not intentional.

A number of factors have combined to put the county at risk of suffering a defeat that could cost taxpayers millions:

  • Williams was an Army veteran with no felony record or pending charges whose suffering was videotaped over more than 50 hours. Jurors are expected to watch a condensed version of that video.
  • The video shows jail detention and medical staff made no serious attempt to determine whether Williams was paralyzed and provided no mental health treatment.
  • The jail has a documented history of systemic deficiencies in medical and mental health care. One month before Williams’ death, the federal government found a “prevailing attitude … of indifference” among jail staff.
  • Jail staff apparently falsified records claiming they were providing care for Williams and that he was eating.
  • Unless the judge reverses his prior decision, attorneys representing the county won’t be able to present their own experts because they missed a deadline to certify them.

Attorneys for the Sheriff’s Office have argued that the evidence does not support a finding that the sheriff was deliberately indifferent to Williams’ civil rights. They say Williams injured himself by banging his head into his cell door and they’ve challenged the reliability of the jail video.

U.S. District Judge John Dowdell will oversee the trial and is expected to rule on admissibility of the video.

A jury finding of deliberate indifference is a key requirement in such lawsuits.

During a trial last year, a federal jury found Glanz and Robinette were deliberately indifferent to the civil rights of a woman who was a 17 when she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a detention officer in the jail.

Attorneys Clark Brewster and Guy Fortney, who have represented the Sheriff’s Office for many years, represent the county in the Williams suit.

Attorneys Dan Smolen, Don Smolen and Bob Blakemore represent the plaintiffs, with assistance from attorneys Tom Mortenson, Louis Bullock and Greg Denney.

The suit alleges violations of Williams’ Eighth and 14th Amendment rights at the jail because he was denied medical treatment for his injuries.

“Defendants failed to provide Mr. Williams with adequate and timely medical and mental health care, protection or supervision in deliberate indifference to his health and safety,” the lawsuit states.

“Defendants’ deliberate indifference to the excessive risks to Mr. Williams’s health and safety was a direct and proximate cause of his death.”

The suit also alleges the jail has a history of systemic deficiencies and that the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and its private medical provider at the time, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., were repeatedly placed on notice of those deficiencies but did not address them.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Williams’ estate, represented by its court-appointed administrator, Tulsa attorney Robbie Emery Burke. Williams’ widow, Elia Patricia Lara-Williams, is no longer a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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