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$3.1 Million Settlement for Washington Jail Detainee’s Death

“Will You Get Back Up?”

by Douglas Ankney

In November 2017, Piper Travis was arrested for failure to appear on two misdemeanor counts of stealing a TV and a $3.48 bag of Easter candy from a Walmart in Washington state. On November 20 the 34-year-old from Whidbey Island was booked into the Snohomish County jail to await trial. On the first day of December she was observed lying on the floor of her cell, foaming at the mouth. Around two weeks later she lost brain activity. Then she died.

When she was two, Travis survived a car crash that killed her mother and older sister. Doctors said a head injury sustained in the accident likely contributed to her later development of bipolar disorder. She was taken in by her aunt, Paulette Beck, who along with her husband raised Travis as their own.

Travis wrote poetry in her adolescence as an emotional outlet. At the alternative high school she attended, she won six scholarships for her writing skills. But timed tests proved too challenging as a result of her bipolar disorder, so she never earned a degree from the community college she attended nor a license after completing cosmetology school.

Instead, Travis managed to get by on Social Security and groceries from a local food bank, where she regularly volunteered “to give something back.” Her friend, Karmen Chastain, described Travis as a bright, bubbly and engaging woman – “just a beautiful mess” – who was “attentive to people’s needs” and had a “sixth sense about when somebody just needed some quiet or a sympathetic ear.”

But after a few days in jail, Travis was no longer bright or bubbly. According to a lawsuit filed by the Becks, on November 28, 2017, a deputy noticed Travis in her cell, crying from what she described as a “terrible headache.”

She then began refusing meals, moaning and screaming in pain. Deputies told her to “quiet down.” Because she was making strange noises and was “very slow to process instructions,” they punished her by taking away her recreation time. Her condition worsened until she was, according to one deputy, “removing her clothing, smearing feces on herself, shaking, breathing fast, and yelling incoherently.”

“She looked like she was in pain, but since she wasn’t talking, I really did not know where she stood,” the deputy added.

Unable to walk, Travis was eventually taken by wheelchair to an observation unit. After continuing to refuse meals and foaming at the mouth, a nurse called an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for a psychological evaluation.

According to the lawsuit, jail staff told responding EMTs that Travis was “faking it.” But the emergency responders discovered she had a fever of 102 and observed seizure activity, and immediately transported her to a hospital.

Doctors there diagnosed sepsis, pneumococcal meningitis and acute respiratory distress. The EMTs attributed “possible neglect” as the cause for Travis’ condition. She was placed in a medically induced coma. When doctors observed she showed no signs of brain activity, the Becks allowed her to be removed from life support, and she died on December 16, 2017.

The program from Travis’ funeral displayed lines from a poem she wrote when she was 18: “Posing for pictures, as the poster child for the rebellious teen, will leave you spinning and kidding around and around, so just remember ... in the end we all fall down.... Will you get back up?”

The county settled the Becks’ wrongful death suit for $3.1 million in September 2019, while admitting no wrongdoing in exchange for the family’s agreement to drop the case. The payout was at least the fourth made in just eight years over deaths at the Snohomish County jail. See: Beck v. Snohomish County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:18-cv-01827.

In the other cases, the family of Marilyn Mowan received a $675,000 settlement for the 62-year-old’s 2014 death after she ingested a lethal quantity of water; the estate of Michael Saffioti was paid $2.3 million after the 22-year-old went into anaphylactic shock due to a food allergy and died in 2012 [see: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.54]; and most of a $1.3 million settlement went to the minor son of Lyndsey E. Lason, 27, following her death from a lung infection in 2011. [See: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.36].

In 2015, the Sheriff’s Office implemented reforms including increased staffing and screening by a nurse during the booking process. No deaths were reported in 2015 or 2016, earning a commendation from Governor Jay Inslee when he toured the jail – prematurely, according to attorney Cheryl Snow, who represented the Becks.

“When you look at this case, you can’t help but scratch your head and think: You have somebody coming in on a minor misdemeanor charge who dies in your care,” she said. 



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Related legal case

Beck v. Snohomish County