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Grand Jury Report, Four Nebraska Jail Guards Indicted in Prisoner’s Death

by David M. Reutter

Finding there was probable cause that four guards at Nebraska’s Omaha Police Detention Unit (OPDU) failed to render medical care to a prisoner which contributed to his death, a Douglas County grand jury indicted the guards on charges of official misconduct – a Class II misdemeanor. The grand jurors also found the city culpable, calling the situation at the jail “inadequate,” “irresponsible” and “appalling.”

The grand jury was convened to look into the death of Alexander Simoens, who was arrested on September 7, 2007 on suspicion of felony driving during suspension. Simoens, 47, did not exhibit or indicate any medical problems upon arrest and said he was not taking any medications.

After being booked into OPDU, however, Simoens began moaning, begging for help for stomach pain and vomiting blood. Jail employees ignored his pleas and refused to provide medical care. Guard Joachim Dankiw, a 17-year veteran, reportedly told Simoens to “Go ahead, lay down and die.”

It was not until September 9, when Simoens lost consciousness after writhing in pain in his cell, that an ambulance was finally called. By then it was too late. Simoens died two days later. The grand jury found the cause of death was a gastroin-testinal hemorrhage and a ruptured ulcer.

After hearing from 13 witnesses and viewing multiple hours of videotape and documentary exhibits, the grand jury spent six hours deliberating. It indicted Dankiw; jail supervisor Jeanele Moore, a 23-year veteran; Andrew Freeman, a five-year employee; and Mark Haefele, a nine-year employee, on charges of official misconduct in connection with Simoens’ death. Each faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s regretful, of course,” stated Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren. “In hindsight, we would have prescribed appropriate medical attention.” Warren added the jail staff’s neglect of Simoens did not result from a lack of training, but rather from a breakdown in communication between two jail shifts and a lack of documentation of Simoens’ medical issues. The grand jury, however, found more significant problems.

The jurors concluded that OPDU’s “guidelines are irresponsible in order to hold people without on-site licensed medi-cally trained personnel.”
According to Nebraska jail standards, jail employees must ensure “that proper medical attention is provided as soon as possible.” In the absence of on-site trained medical personnel, OPDU’s training failed to “ade-quately provide skills / knowledge/ expertise required / necessary for basic human needs,” the grand jury reported.

The indifference exhibited by Dankiw may have been cultivated by OPDU’s Standard Operating Procedure Manual. The grand jury found the manual was “unclear, poorly defined and lacks specific instructions,” and further found that jail employees failed to follow the lackluster procedures in the manual because “consequences or repercussions are not enforced.”

The grand jury stated the City of Omaha was also to blame because it failed to properly budget OPDU, which caused inadequate staffing levels. The jurors noted that OPDU’s population “in excess of 50 inmates with 3-4 staff is appalling.” The grand jury’s final recommendation was to close OPDU and have the city direct all future bookings to the Douglas County Correctional Center, which is where prisoners are ultimately sent because OPDU is a temporary holding facility that only keeps prisoners up to 72 hours.

“It’s sad and embarrassing, and not the way we want to do business in the city of Omaha,” said Mike Landow, Chief of Staff to Mayor Mike Fahey. After Simoens’ death, Mayor Fahey began talks with county officials to close OPDU.

As for the four guards who were charged, Dankiw and Moore were fired. At least one of the guards, Andrew Freeman, is seeking to have the misdemeanor charges dropped because although Simeons was allegedly “writhing in his cell for hours,” Freeman wasn’t present at the jail the entire time. OPDU jail manager Charles Benak, who was not charged, re-signed on Sept. 21, 2007.

While the grand jury’s indictments and findings make a statement, readers of PLN will note it is rare for corrections staff to be held responsible for a prisoner’s death – even when they refuse to provide medical care and tell him to “lay down and die.”

Simeons’ surviving family members may have a better chance of obtaining justice through the federal lawsuit they filed against the City of Omaha and OPDU officials on January 11, 2008. See: Higgins v. Dankiw, U.S.D.C. Neb., Case No. 8:08-cv-00015-JFB-TDT.

In May 2008, city and county officials approved the merger of OPDU with the Douglas County Correctional Center, which includes closing the OPDU. The merger is expected to be complete in June.

Sources: World-Herald; Journal Star;;; In the Matter of the Grand Jury Re: Alexander Simoens, District Court of Douglas County, Nebraska, DOC 4-230

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Related legal case

Higgins v. Dankiw