On May 23, three days after the third inmate suicide on his watch in two months, Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman held a press conference at Hamilton’s county courthouse. He told the crowded courtroom that “My chief goal as sheriff is the maintenance of trust…We do our best to protect [inmates] from each other and themselves.” He went on to say at least four times that neither his office nor jail staff had indications that any of the inmates—Scott Lewis, Brad Palin, Ryan Heath and Mark Wilson, a fourth inmate who committed suicide 15 months ago—were dangerous to themselves. Hoffman insisted that his office was doing its best to halt the trend. He said, “No one is more motivated to stop this phenomenon than our staff,” and “our incidents have been out of the blue.”
But the Independent has obtained copies of department documents that appear to tell a different story, at least in the case of Lewis, the most recent suicide. They show the Sheriff’s Office had records detailing Lewis’ two suicide attempts in the last six months, yet he was not afforded extra security or mental health care that might have protected him.
Hoffman did not return multiple calls from the Independent seeking comment on the apparent disparity.
A Dec. 3, 2004, sheriff’s incident report describes Lewis’ arrest following a suicide attempt and includes as evidence a suicide note Lewis had written Nov. 29, 2004. A supplemental report from the same date details what happened: Sheriff’s Deputy Jesse Jessop responded to a call from Lewis’ wife, Gem Wysel, claiming Lewis had overdosed on Xanax in an effort to kill himself. When Jessop arrived, Lewis and Wysel emerged from a Hamilton alley; when Lewis saw Jessop he jumped from his car and ran at the deputy, yelling for Jessop to shoot and kill him. Jessop pulled his gun and commanded Lewis to stop, but when the deputy saw that Lewis was unarmed he and a backup officer handcuffed Lewis and took him to Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. Jessop determined that “Scott [Lewis] was attempting to force me to shoot and kill him” and charged him with intimidation and criminal endangerment. Another deputy arrested Lewis after he was released from the hospital.
Lewis, 39, had been in the Ravalli County jail since then, awaiting trial. He asphyxiated himself the morning of May 20 by wrapping a bed sheet around his neck and anchoring it to the door of his cell. He was found still breathing, but died at the hospital. The three other inmates who committed suicide employed similar means, according to Hoffman.
At the press conference, Hoffman, flanked by the Ravalli County commissioners, two detention center officers and mental health workers, maintained that his office had no knowledge Lewis was suicidal. Wysel angrily confronted him: “He was arrested on a suicide attempt and you had no idea he was suicidal?” Hoffman continued to maintain that neither he nor his staff knew Lewis was suicidal, and that his department would have taken action if they had.
On the other side of the courtroom, Marian Palin and her family held framed pictures of Brad Palin, 42, who committed suicide March 21 after being in jail five days on charges of arson and criminal endangerment. Steven Stoker, Brad Palin’s stepson, says Palin had both threatened and attempted suicide in the months leading up to his death. Ex-wife Marian Palin, seeking help for her then-husband, says she gave Ravalli law enforcement Brad’s suicide note in fall 2002 after they told her it would ensure he received a mental health evaluation. And when Brad Palin was arrested March 17 on arson charges, Chief Deputy County Attorney Geoff Mahar asked for and received maximum bail because, Mahar said, “Mr. Palin has a pattern of recent behavior that not only endangers the community but himself,” according to a Ravalli Republic article about the hearing.
“If Geoff Mahar thought he was such a danger to himself, why didn’t the detention center?” Marian Palin asks. “They knew he needed help and he didn’t get it. It’s a shame he wasn’t protected and put in a safe place.”
Just as he denied knowledge of Lewis’ suicide attempts, Hoffman denied knowledge of Palin’s past.
Asked by several audience members what he was doing to prevent future suicides, Hoffman gave few details. He said the jail is updating its procedure manual for dealing with suicide risks, but didn’t reveal any specific changes. He said he had asked the National Institute of Corrections to assess the jail and make recommendations for change, but didn’t know when such an assessment might occur. He said mental health-care workers have increased their work at the Ravalli County jail since the suicides, but couldn’t say how much time they spend with the inmates. He said the jail’s protocol for dealing with potentially suicidal inmates calls for evaluation by a mental health provider and placement on suicide watch, but that since jail officials hadn’t considered the four inmates suicide risks, none were so treated.
Hamilton clinical psychologist Colleen Wall-Hoeben, who has years of experience assessing inmates’ suicide risk, told the Independent Tuesday she had gone to Hoffman after the second suicide to offer free mental health services to inmates. She says Hoffman seemed enthusiastic and said he’d call her about it, but she never heard back.
Since Hoffman did not return the Independent’s calls, other questions generated by the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office records concerning Lewis’ suicidal tendencies remain unanswered as well.
Near the end of the press conference, Hoffman, clearly trying to keep a handle on the aggressive questioning, said, “We’re not sitting on our hands; we’re being proactive; we have a phenomenon going on that we must absolutely stop.”
At least one of those statements rang true.