MUSKOGEE, Okla. — A local nonprofit and four of its employees settled civil claims arising from the December 2016 death of a teenager being held at the Muskogee County Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Muskogee County Council of Youth Services and the employees were dismissed from a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Billy Woods' estate pursuant to undisclosed terms of the agreement. Claims against the Muskogee County Board of Commissioners, which owns the facility, remain pending and are scheduled for trial on Oct. 1.
Woods, 16, was found hanged to death inside his cell, the result of what was ruled a suicide. Testimony provided during pretrial depositions allege MCCOYS employees falsified logs documenting inmate checks, failed to render aid after they found Woods "hanging from a sheet and apparently dead," and waited more than 20 minutes before calling for emergency medical workers.
A motion seeking summary judgment in favor of the board of county commissioners blamed Woods' death on MCCOYS' employees. An investigation conducted by the Office of Client Advocacy, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, unearthed "substantiated findings for neglect" due to a "lack of supervision."
Lawyers representing the board of commissioners cite deposition testimony of MCCOYS' employees who were trained to render aid and recognize and assess "signs and symptoms of suicidal ideation" in their defense of the case. They cite the testimony of an expert witness who said "it was more likely than not" that Woods' "suicide attempt would have been discovered and interrupted" had MCCOYS' employees conducted inmate checks at 15-minute intervals as required.
"Plaintiff's expert witness even testified that he did not have a problem with the RJDC's policies," Andy A. Artus states in the board's motion for summary judgment. "Rather, his criticism is that the policies were not followed" by the MCCOYS employees present the night Woods died.
Lawyers representing the board of commissioners argue that because of MCCOYS' 19-year history of operating the facility without prior problems, "there was no factual basis from which the Defendant (board) could have determined the RJDC was being operated in such a manner as to constitute a substantial risk of harm."
The 10-bed juvenile detention center is owned by the county and operated by a third-party contractor with funding allocated by Oklahoma Juvenile Affairs. The OJA temporarily revoked the license that allowed facility to operate after Woods was found dead inside his cell.
MCCOYS Executive Director Cindy Perkins, who did not return calls Thursday seeking comment about the settlement agreement, terminated the nonprofit's contract with the county in April 2017 under the direction of the nonprofit's directors. In her resignation letter to District 3 Commissioner Kenny Payne, Perkins states MCCOYS was "unable to absorb the ongoing occupancy expenses with no opportunity for reimbursement due to the temporary closure of the facility."
The MCCOYS employees named in the lawsuit filed by Bobbie Emery Burke on behalf of Woods' estate are Jerrod Lang, Brandon Miller, Angela Miller and Marietta Winkle.
Lawyers representing Woods' estate allege "Lang enhanced the risks to this vulnerable boy by humiliating and belittling him, only to later refuse to check on him for hours." Lang allegedly stopped his cohorts from rendering aid and "took an extended cigarette break" after finding Woods "was found unresponsive in his room with a make-shift noose tied around his neck."
Daniel Smolen, who represents Woods' estate, alleges in the complaint the teen's "death was no freak accident," it "was as foreseeable as it was preventable." Smolen alleges the "County and MCCOYS disregarded known and substantial risks to the health and safety of inmates."
Attempts on Thursday to contact lawyers representing MCCOYS and its employees named in the lawsuit were unsuccessful.
Smoot writes for Muskogee Phoenix, a CNHI News Service publication.