Pottawatomie County jail officials apparently defied state laws and a judge’s order when they concealed information on the unexplained deaths of seven vulnerable detainees.
All seven people arrived at the jail with medical and mental health or substance use complications that required care. None of them made it home alive. Most of their families still don’t know why.
An Oklahoma Watch investigation found that the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center withheld public records and defied court orders to produce them. It ignored families’ requests for medical records. And it reported only two of the deaths to state regulators — all under the charge of jail director Breonna Thompson, better known by her middle name, Rochelle.
“When you take the least of us and you treat them with this kind of disrespect to the point that it leads to their demise, that’s just inhumane,” said attorney Ronald “Skip” Kelly, who is suing the jail on behalf of one of the families. “I have never experienced the kind of ruthless disrespect to families that I’ve seen from this jail, refusing to give them any information. If there was ever a jail that needs to be under investigation by the U.S. justice department, it’s that one.”
Unexplained Bruises and Broken Ribs
When Shelly Cailler arrived at St. Anthony Hospital in Shawnee on July 10, 2021, her wife, Kellie Wright, was on life support. Wright had five broken ribs and was covered in bruises Cailler had never seen before.
A doctor told Cailler that Wright was brain dead after she went into cardiac arrest three or four times in the ambulance that delivered her from the Pottawatomie County jail. Cailler’s mind flooded with questions: Why was she in jail? What caused the bruises and broken bones? How could this happen?
Wright was the education chair for the Oklahoma Society of Accountants, which held its annual conference that weekend at the Grand Casino Hotel and Resort in Shawnee. That’s where she experienced a mental health emergency that led to her arrest and, ultimately, her death. Wright, 50, had a history of alcohol abuse, hypertension, depression and was treated for an episode of delirium in 2020. The episode “was a pandemic thing,” Cailler said.
Wright had been stable for nearly a year.
After Wright’s death, Cailler pleaded for medical records, video footage, incident reports, anything that would fill the gaps in her wife’s final hours. But the jail refused or ignored her calls.
Two years later, Cailler still doesn’t have the answers.
In July, Cailler sued the jail in search of information. She alleged in the lawsuit that jailers ignored signs of Wright’s mental health crisis and failed to provide treatment or even assess Wright’s condition; instead, Cailler said, they let her languish in a cell. A Tulsa judge ordered the jail to release video, medical records and other documentation of Wright’s detention by Aug. 5. No records were released. Cailler’s attorney, Dan Smolen, said it’s likely the jail will appeal the decision.
“We deserve to know what happened to her,” Cailler said. “She wasn’t no one. She was someone to us and we’re going to make them answer for what happened to her.”
Wright’s family isn’t the only one demanding answers from the Pottawatomie County jail. It took four years and a federal appellate court ruling to pry free the video of jailers’ struggle with another detainee, Ronald Given, that led to his death.
Although Given’s family members finally have some answers, they still seek justice. No one was charged in his death. Cailler, and Russell Gage, whose father died after being beaten by his cellmate, have neither.
Details about how other detainees died and what role the jail played are scarce. Oklahoma Watch reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from arresting police departments, the state health department and the medical examiner. Here’s what we learned:
Stacey Garrett, 39, died at a hospital of a rare stroke in 2018, according to a report by a state medical examiner. The autopsy report listed substance use as a contributing factor and could not determine if her death was natural, accidental or intentional.
Michael Morton’s death was reported to the state health department. Jailers found Morton, 67, not breathing and without a pulse on the floor of a cell in 2018, according to the health department report. He died of a heart attack, according to an autopsy report, which cited a seizure disorder as a contributing factor. Morton’s siblings said he struggled with mental illness.
Ronald Given, 42, had a history of alcohol abuse. He died at a hospital in 2019 one week after an altercation with jailers that began while Given was experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a report by a medical examiner who ruled his death a homicide.
Kellie Wright, 50, died the day after she was booked into jail in 2021 from a brain injury caused by cardiac arrest, according to a medical examiner’s report, which cites hypertension and alcohol use as contributing factors.
Cindy Salazar’s death was reported to the state health department. Salazar, 39, died at a hospital in 2021 after her cellmates told detention officers she was having seizures, according to the health department report. She was being held for the U.S. Marshals.
Jerry Gage, 78, had trouble breathing, had hypertension and gastrointestinal complications. He died at a hospital after being beaten by his cellmate in 2022, according to a medical examiner’s report that ruled his death a homicide.
Carrie Stewart, 48, died at a hospital from infections caused by intravenous drug use in 2022, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Pottawatomie County prosecutor Adam Panter’s investigators are reviewing Given’s death to determine whether any jailers will be charged, he said. Gage’s cellmate was charged with murder. He was found incompetent to stand trial and remains incarcerated at the Pottawatomie County jail where he is receiving treatment, according to the jail’s website and court documents.
About 30 miles east of Oklahoma City, the jail, which can house up to 366 people, sits south of I-40 in Shawnee, which acts as a gateway to the rural communities of eastern Oklahoma. This summer, Red Rock Behavioral Health Services opened an urgent care center aimed at meeting the needs of small-town Oklahoma where long commutes hinder mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Like those who died in Pottawatomie County, people often arrive in jails with untreated physical and mental health conditions worsened by incarceration, according to a 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that studies mass incarceration.
“Even a few days in jail can be especially devastating for people with serious mental health and medical needs, as they are cut off from their medications, support systems, and regular healthcare providers,” researchers found. “Jailing people with serious mental illness and substance use disorders has lethal consequences.”
According to the nonprofit, Oklahoma jails admit about 96,000 people each year, many in the midst of a mental health crisis or substance use withdrawals. That was the case for Morton, Given, Wright and Gage.
People behind bars are disproportionately poor and reliant on social services for medical and mental healthcare. In November, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a federal investigation to determine whether those services are adequate in Oklahoma. Sheriffs across the state have pointed to their jails as evidence they’re not, calling them de facto mental health hospitals that are underfunded and ill-equipped to care for detainees who often need treatment, not incarceration.
Jeff Dismukes, who recently retired from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and now runs a nonprofit that supports people with mood disorders, agreed. He said in order to create solutions, we need to examine why they ended up there, whether police were needed and what could be done to prevent the crisis that triggered their emergency.
“We aren’t treating people like people,” Dismukes said. “We aren’t understanding that these are our friends and neighbors. These are people in the community who deserve opportunities to be productive members of our society, but we’re labeling them as something different and depriving them of the care they need.”
‘This is a Safe Place’
Wright needed care when her crisis began inside a hotel elevator. Instead, she got police.
Wright was yelling into the lobby when Citizen Potawatomi Nation police officer Orrin Beckham asked for her identification, Beckham’s incident report states. According to court records, Wright refused to provide her identification and said, “I have talked to God about this. I’m going to die.”
Beckham persuaded Wright to exit the elevator and join him in the lobby, but as the elevator began to close, Wright turned and ran toward it. Beckham restrained her on the ground and handcuffed her, court records show. Wright kicked Beckham’s left calf six times, according to court records. Wright was still yelling when McLoud police officer Stephanie Nappier arrived, her body camera video shows.
Wright alternated between cursing at officers and begging them not to hurt her as they loaded her into the back of a police truck, video shows. Wright, who lay face down across the seat with her wrists and ankles bound, didn’t answer when officers asked what drugs she had taken. It must have been methamphetamine, they said.
“The only thing I can get her on right now is public intox,” Beckham said in the video.
Seconds later he told Wright she was under arrest for public intoxication. Nappier suggested charging Wright for kicking him. According to Beckham’s incident report, he arrested her for assaulting an officer.
Nappier’s body camera was still recording at the jail when detention officers carried Wright inside the Pottawatomie County jail with minor visible injuries. Beckham assisted by holding the chain restraining Wright’s feet. Wright begged officers not to kill her. Beckham wiped blood off of himself in the video but its source is unclear.
“You ain’t gonna get hurt,” Beckham said. “This is a safe place.”
The following day, Wright was found unresponsive in a cell and died hours later at a hospital, according to an autopsy report. Cailler’s lawsuit alleges Wright’s broken bones and bruises were a result of excessive use of force by jailers or another detainee.
Wright’s blood alcohol level was less than half the legal limit, according to the autopsy report. The only drugs found in her system were from prescriptions she was taking at the time.
Deaths Not Reported
When a detainee dies, jails are required to report the death to the State Health Department’s jail division, which triggers a safety inspection. An inspection was not conducted after Wright died because her death wasn’t reported. Neither was Garrett’s, Given’s, Gage’s or Stewart’s.
“The (health) Department shall be notified no later than the next working day if any of the following incidents occur,” the law states. Five incidents are listed, the last of which is death.
State Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee, said some argue that jails don’t need to report the death of a detainee who dies somewhere outside of a detention facility, such as a hospital. The language needs to be clarified, he said.
Dr. LaTrina Frazier, who runs the health department’s quality assurance and regulatory division, said in a July interview that the department was unaware of the unreported detainee deaths at Pottawatomie County jail. Inspectors typically investigate complaints within a year of the alleged violation, but not after. Failure to report is a violation of state law, but a difficult one to enforce because inspectors don’t know what they don’t know, she said.
The goal is educating and working with jails to improve conditions, Frazier said.
Consequences for violations are rare, placing the burden on lawyers to hold jails accountable, said Kelly, who represents Gage’s family.
“Jails don’t feel like they have to answer to anyone because there aren’t any impacts so why would they change anything?” Kelly said. “Somebody has to stand up to them or nothing is going to change.”
Health department employees found no violations during an annual health inspection on May 25, according to the latest inspection report. No violations have been found at the jail since at least 2018, according to health department records.
The jail’s oversight authority, that jail trust, is ultimately responsible for inmate safety and required to report deaths, Frazier said.
The Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center is one of 18 jails in the state overseen by appointed trustees instead of elected county sheriffs and commissioners. Five men appointed by county commissioners oversee the jail and the $7.6 million in public funds that last year paid for its operations. Although jail officials have not responded to a request for the names of the trustees, Oklahoma Watch was able to identify them through other sources and confirmed their identities at the trusts’ monthly meeting on Aug. 23.
Chairman Rick Stiles is an automotive paint supply dealer who developed a gun safety device. David Henry is a pastor at Higher Ground church. Bill Torbett served on the Shawnee city council in the 1980s. Bill Horacek is a retired Air Force pilot and horse rancher. Victor Lee is a former Shawnee police officer and state highway patrolman.
At the meeting, Stiles, Henry, Horacek and Lee refused to discuss the unreported deaths or respond to questions. Torbett was absent from the meeting and did not respond to calls or messages.
The Pottawatomie County Board of Commissioners relinquished its oversight of the jail to the trust in 2002, prompted by efforts to fund and build a new jail and lessen the county’s liability when the jail is sued.
The Married Couple That Runs the Jail
Eva Kopaddy, Given’s aunt, is suing the jail trust, jail employees, and police who arrested Given at a hospital where they had taken him for a mental health evaluation. While Given was waiting for a treatment bed to become available he began hallucinating and pushed an officer who arrested him for assaulting an officer and took him to jail where he was restrained by jailers.
For four years, the family fought for video footage showing what happened to Given in the jail’s care. The video of Given’s altercation was released in January after an appellate court judge affirmed a ruling in favor of The Frontier, which sued to obtain the video.
The jail has refused to produce similar records of the other six detainees who died. Their families are looking to the courts for help.
Director Rochelle Thompson refused to open the door when an Oklahoma Watch reporter showed up to the jail Aug. 7 to request public records related to the seven detainees who died and the trust. The jail accepts such requests only between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., a jail employee said, though its business hours were posted on the jail wall as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Oklahoma Open Records Act says, “At least one person shall be available at all times to release records during the regular business hours of the public body.”
One week later, that sign was removed when Oklahoma Watch reporters returned before 1 p.m. to submit requests, which were accepted after Thompson consulted an attorney. The jail provided a handwritten receipt stating, “We will research and obtain legal advice for the records which meet open records law.”
After weeks of not answering Oklahoma Watch’s calls and messages, Thompson agreed to an interview, which she canceled 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Thompson’s assistant explained that the cancellation was at the recommendation of the jail’s attorney. Jail employees refused to provide the name of the attorney and no one at the jail has responded to a recent open records request that would provide the attorney’s name.
Oklahoma Watch submitted eight requests for public information in August, including minutes from trustee meetings, booking information, incident reports, and video of the detainees. The jail has not responded to the requests.
Thompson began working at the jail as its assistant director in June 2009, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her husband, Capt. Bobby Thompson, was hired as the jail’s investigator four months later, according to his profile. Rochelle Thompson was promoted to jail director in May 2017. Second in command is her husband, who trains and supervises detention officers and conducts internal investigations when an inmate is injured or dies.
A sergeant who accompanied Given to the hospital after his fatal altercation with jailers told state investigators that Bobby Thompson directed her to exclude bruises and swelling on Given’s face from her written report.
State investigators also assisted the jail in its investigation of Gage’s beating but did not look into the other five deaths, according to State Bureau of Investigation spokesman Hunter McKee.
Panter, the county’s prosecutor who was elected in November after the deaths occurred, said in an emailed statement that his office will investigate the unreported jail deaths.
“Information provided to my office by Oklahoma Watch concerning multiple deaths at the Pottawatomie County Safety Center from 2018-2022 raises obvious concerns,” Panter wrote. “Due to potential litigation, I cannot comment on the facts of the alleged incidents. But I can affirm that the allegations are taken seriously and will be investigated by the appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Along with the deaths of Morton and Salazar, the jail reported an inmate injury to the health department after Gage was beaten by his cellmate but did not report his death.
Dodging Responsibility with Medical Releases
Gage was arrested by Oklahoma City Police on Jan. 12, 2022, on a warrant for failing to appear in court. Police were called to a nursing home where Gage used to live and receive treatment for his disabilities and mental health conditions, said Kelly, the family’s attorney. According to Kelly and court records, Gage’s cellmate was arrested for felony assault of a police officer and was awaiting a competency hearing when the pair were housed together.
Jailers were unaware of the attack on Gage until his cellmate notified them using an intercom, the health department report states. Kelly said he plans to file a lawsuit against the jail soon.
While Gage was in the hospital, a county judge released him from detention at the jail’s request with the agreement Gage would appear at his next court date, court records show. Kelly said the request should have been denied because Gage was unconscious and unable to agree to anything.
The jail made the same request for Stewart while she was hospitalized, which was granted, according to court records.
Attorneys Kelly and Smolen said jails across the state use medical release bonds to deflect responsibility and medical costs for the sickest and most vulnerable detainees.
One Bad Night
Wright was a mother who owned an accounting business and spent weekends at Keystone Lake with family and friends. But video footage shows that’s not the person that law enforcement and jailers met the night Wright needed their help. They met someone they suspected drank too much and used drugs. Someone who threatened and disrespected law enforcement. Someone who was violent, paranoid and uncooperative.
State law requires police academies to provide prospective officers at least 600 hours of training. A minimum of four hours must focus on recognizing and managing people who may require mental health treatment or services. The state Department of Mental Health has trained nearly 2,900 officers in crisis intervention, a specialized 40-hour program that teaches officers to identify mental illness and substance abuse, and respond by taking people to treatment instead of jail whenever possible.
Wright was taken to jail.
Wright was kind and funny, Cailler said. She loved going to the casino with her daughter and volunteering at Tulsa’s annual arts, chili and bluegrass festivals.
“She was a good person,” Cailler said. “She had one bad night and she needed help. She didn’t deserve this. None of them did.”
Oklahoma Watch is part of the Mental Health Parity Collaborative, a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity, and newsrooms in select states across the country.
Whitney Bryen is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. Her recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence and nursing homes. Contact her at (405) 201-6057 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SoonerReporter.