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Unreported Jail Deaths: There have been two apparent suicides, one of which remains a mystery.

By Rick Anderson

Gas-station robber Ronald Ray Hicks went to sleep in his King County Jail bunk just before 10 p.m. July 25 and never woke up. His cellmate noticed Hicks still lying on his left side on the lower bunk, facing the wall, as the downtown jail was stirring at 7 a.m. The cellmate touched Hicks' ankle, then shook his shoulder. Hicks, 43, who had been on suicide watch in the past, was dead.

Though cause has yet to be determined, authorities think he may have intentionally overdosed on a drug illegally imported into the jail. Hicks had been convicted in 2003 for a poorly planned holdup of an Issaquah gas station—nabbed after running out of gas 200 yards away. For his third felony, he received a life sentence under the state's "three strikes" law. A week before he apparently committed suicide in his two-man cell last month, he learned his appeal was rejected.

Unreported until now, Hicks' death is considered the jail's first of 2005. "We've had no other jail deaths since the first of the year," says Maj. William Hayes, spokesperson for the county's Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which runs the county jails.

However, another inmate died in May, also apparently the result of a suicide. Because she was alive when transported from the jail to Harborview Medical Center, where she died a few days later, her death is not considered a jail death. Officials would not release her name. However, a King County Medical Examiner's report shows that Sabrina L. Owens, 36, of Seattle, apparently attempted suicide in a jail intake room two hours after being booked May 9 for investigation of vehicular assault and car theft. The report says she suffered anoxic brain injury—lack of oxygen to the brain—and died at Harborview on May 11. A Public Health department spokesperson says the "cause and manner of death are strangulation by ligature."

A jail employee, worried about "lack of transparency" by officials, tells Seattle Weekly, "There have been several suicides the past few years but . . . they died at Harborview Medical Center. They were never reported as [jail] suicides." The employee also notes "there were no e-mails or memos to inform staffers about" Hicks' recent death. The employee suspects that jail officials preferred to keep details quiet.

Jail spokesperson Hayes, asked why the public isn't informed when county inmates die, says there's no strict policy on it. "We do not usually" issue press releases, he says. "We have procedures we do follow, but they are more towards notifying the family, making sure their wishes are taken care of."

The unreported deaths come as county officials deal with another jail controversy, the alleged sexual misconduct between male guards and female inmates. Two guards were arrested in May but have not been charged in the case, and several others are being questioned in an ongoing probe.

Jail management has also been in turmoil this year. Detention director Ken Ray resigned in January over allegations of "workplace concerns" related to his management style and treatment of his staff. His departure came just four months after King County Executive Ron Sims announced Ray's hiring, calling him "an innovative leader." Sims subsequently put the county's jail system—one of the largest in the U.S. with 2,300 adult inmates and 120 juvenile offenders—under the temporary command of 29-year custody veteran Reed Holtgeerts. Last month, Sims officially appointed Holtgeerts permanent director, saying he was "uniquely qualified to lead the department."

The precise cause of Hicks' death is so far unknown. Jailers told police that Hicks, who has been in local custody since his state conviction and during a long appeal, had been on suicide watch twice in the past. In December 2003, he was reportedly suffering from depression and anxiety, jailers said. In June 2004, he was on suicide watch three days. But jailers say Hicks revealed no recent mental-health problems.

However, he received crushing news on July 18. The appeals court turned down Hicks' bid for a new trial and sentencing, sending him to prison for life under the persistent-offender "three strikes" law. He had earlier convictions for assault and second-degree rape. His final strike was second-degree robbery. Pretending to be armed, he held up an Issaquah gas station for $240 and was quickly arrested a quarter-mile away when police encountered his car, out of gas, being pushed by a good Samaritan's SUV. In his appeal, Hicks claimed there was no probable cause to arrest him—that he was stopped only because he was an African American in a predominately white area. He also claimed diminished capacity due to alcohol intoxication at the time. The appeals court ruled "none of his arguments . . . are persuasive."

Seattle Police homicide detective Cloyd Steiger says there was no sign of physical trauma at the jail death scene. "We suspect he died from an overdose," says Steiger. "There was no obvious physiological reason for his death." A police report notes, "There was a small spot of blood where [Hicks'] head was laying, but there was nothing else out of the ordinary." The source of the blood spot hasn't been revealed.

A King County Medical Examiner's spokesperson says an exact determination of the cause of death won't be made for six to eight weeks, pending a toxicology report. An examiner's incident report says Hicks was "heard snoring very unusually loud" at 1 a.m. He was clad in socks, briefs, and jail-issue pants. Still, "Inspection of the cell did not reveal any signs of drug use or suspicious devices," the report states. A county review of the death continues.

Originally published in the Seattle Weekly on August 10, 2005. Posted on with permission.

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