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$1 Million Settlement Reached After Detainee’s Suicide in Washington Jail

by David M. Reutter

In November 2022, a $1 million settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a 23-year-old indigenous woman who committed suicide at Washington’s Fork City Jail in 2019. Kimberly Bender took her own life following weeks of alleged sexual harassment by guard John Russell Gray.

The October 2021 federal civil rights complaint alleged that Bender, a Quileute tribal member, had a history of criminal offenses as well as mental health issues, including depression and past suicide attempts. Jail officials knew or should have known that history, the complaint continued, because Bender was in and out of the jail between July and December 2019.

The complaint alleged that while Bender was locked up in July 2019, Gray sexually harassed her with verbal comments, as well as committing sexual misconduct towards two other prisoners – all part of a quartet of victims he was convicted of sexually assaulting, receiving a 20-month prison term in May 2021.

The jail had hired Gray in April 2019, after he was removed in 2018 from Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) by the state Department of Corrections for making inappropriate sexual comments during Prison Rape Elimination Act training.

Bender was released from the jail on October 10, 2019. But she was rearrested on November 5, 2019. She made suicidal comments four days later, and she was taken to an emergency room after cutting her arms on November 15, 2019. Her after-care instructions indicated a need to watch for suicidal gestures and attempts. Instead, the jail identified Bender as “low risk for suicide” and “moderate risk for self-harm.”

While at the hospital, Bender had told a tribal police officer that Gray made “sexually inappropriate comments and engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct to her,” the complaint recalled. Gray “lurked near her cell,” the suit continued, and “prevented her from getting rest and sleep.” Based upon those complaints, Gray was placed on administrative leave on November 8, 2019. He was subsequently fired in July 2020 and returned to work at CBCC until his arrest.

But Bender’s claims could never be further substantiated because she hanged herself in her cell on December 7, 2019. Her estate, represented by attorneys with Rush, Hannula, Harkins & Kyler in Tacoma, filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and state law negligence. It also alleged that a jail health counselor did not believe Bender was suicidal or making suicidal plans.

Of the $1 million settlement, $400,000 in fees and $57,718.32 in costs went to the estate’s attorneys; $7,500 went to the guardian ad litem representing Bender’s minor son and $4,310 for the related fee; and $530,471.68 went to the claimants, with $79,570.75 for Bender’s mother and $450,900.93 for Bender’s son in a structured settlement that will pay a total of $1,229,338.54 between July 1, 2034, and January 19, 2046. See: Gray v. City of Forks, USDC (W.D.Wash.), Case No. 3:21-cv-05778.

Additional source: Seattle Times