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Louisiana Sheriff Coughs Up $2.75 Million After Falsely Claiming Detainee Died From Accidental Fall

by Jacob Barrett

On October 18, 2022, officials in Louisiana’s Bossier Parish agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a federal suit filed over the 2017 death of a detainee in the parish jail. Collin James Fletcher, 24, died five days after arrest for minor drug possession charges. The cause was his untreated drug withdrawal in custody, though the Bossier Police Department (BPD) originally claimed – falsely – that Fletcher died from an “accidental fall.”

On September 7, 2017, Fletcher was traveling from New York to Texas to assist in recovery from Hurricane Harvey when he was stopped by BPD officers, who found over 200 Xanax bars on him. Fletcher had struggled for several years with addiction to the powerful sedative. Because withdrawal can cause fatal seizures, the U.S. Department of Health Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends hospitalization. Moreover, SAMHSA guidelines provide that Hydroxyzine should not be used to treat Xanax withdrawal symptoms.

After Fletcher’s arrest, he was booked into the Bossier Maximum-Security Facility, (BMSF) Intake records indicated that Fletcher suffered from psychiatric problems and was taking both Zoloft and Xanax nightly. He informed processing nurse Katrina O. Chandler that he also suffered from a seizure disorder, adding that he was afraid he would suffer withdrawal symptoms due to the amount of Xanax he consumed daily.

While awaiting video arraignment, Fletcher stood up, screamed and clenched his body, falling backwards and striking his head on a rail before going into a seizure. Despite the need for immediate emergency medical treatment, no medical evaluation or treatment was provided. Rather, Fletcher was taken in a wheelchair to the jail’s medical department. There Dr. Russell W. Roberts prescribed Hydroxyzine to treat Fletcher.

Fletcher was then taken back to his video arraignment, where he appeared “lethargic and drowsy” in his wheelchair, according to the complaint later filed on his behalf. He was then returned to a cell with a surveillance camera for “medical watch.”

Surveillance video showed Fletcher began acting abnormally, throwing himself against the wall and floor. BMSF guards entered the cell and restrained Fletcher, who was screaming incoherently and spitting. Rather than being treated, he was placed in a restraint chair with a spit mask over his head and moved to a padded cell with another surveillance camera.

For the next several hours video showed Fletcher lying on the floor, vomiting into a drain, acting like he was swimming or running. Rather than treatment, Fletcher was given a higher dose of Hydroxyzine. But he wasn’t watched closely; guard Jared Vicenta admitted he gave Fletcher the Hydroxyzine without opening the detainee’s cell door.

Late on September 7, 2017, video showed Fletcher crawling on his knees toward the cell door, where he collapsed and hit his head. He attempted to stand up, stumbled and fell, striking his head again. Fletcher then had a seizure and ceased moving.

Guard Matthew D. Creamer looked into the cell but did not render medical aid. A few moments later Fletcher started to move but again collapsed. Video showed Fletcher did not move again or make any noise after 11 :45 pm on September 7, 2017. However, guards Jeff Smith and Cody Collicoatte both falsely wrote in review logs that Fletcher was seen moving and making noise at 1 :45 p.m. on September 8, 2017.

A few hours after that, Fletcher was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed that he died of a brain bleed from head injuries, and his body was covered in untreated abrasions from thrashing in the cell.

Fletcher’s parents filed a suit in federal court for the Western District of Louisiana in September 2018. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, they accused Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington and his jailers and medical staff of denying Fletcher medical care, in violation of his civil rights. They also made state-law claims for negligence and wrongful death.

Between August 17 and August 23, 2022, the suit was narrowed to denial of medical care claims and claims for negligence and wrongful death against the jail doctor and nurses, as well as vicarious liability claims against Sheriff Whittington. See: Fletcher v. Whittington, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147424 (W.D. La.); 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149366 (W.D. La.); and 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151493 (W.D. La.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included fees and costs for Plaintiffs’ attorneys, Sarah R. Giglio of Gilmer & Giglio in Shreveport and Devon M. Jacob of Jacob Litigation in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The terms also included an agreement to implement medical policies at the jail guiding treatment for drug withdrawals and head injuries. See: Fletcher v. Whittington, USDC (W.D. La.), Case No. 5:18-cv-01153.

In local media at the time, Fletcher’s death was blamed on an “accidental fall.” But calling his fatal fall an accident is incorrect; he died due to mistreated withdrawal from a powerful prescription drug – something far too common in U.S. jails.

Additional sources: KSLA, KTBS, Shreveport Times