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Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

An imperfect life, a tragic death at the county jail

  • Lyndsey Lason

    Family photo

    Lyndsey Lason

EVERETT -- When Angel Katchka was handed a copy of the death certificate, she put it in a plastic protector for safekeeping.
At the time, the Mukilteo paralegal knew little about the young woman's 2011 death in the Snohomish County Jail and the allegations that her pleas for medical attention had been largely ignored.
Her marching orders from Everett attorney Royce Ferguson were to chronicle the imperfect life and premature death of Lyndsey Lason.
The task proved profoundly sad. In many ways, it seemed that Lason's life -- 10,171 days in all -- was as tragic as her death.
Lason was 27 when her stiffened body was found in the lower bunk of her jail cell. Her chest was infected and filling with fluid that eventually collapsed her lungs. Records show she asked for a chest scan, but there is no evidence one was ever done.
The Snohomish County Medical Examiner told detectives that an X-ray would have found the lung abscesses. Lason would have been admitted immediately to an emergency room.
Another medical professional concluded that her death could have been prevented by people working at the jail.
"The complacency of the medical staff and the corrections officers resulted in Lason's death," wrote forensic pathologist Carl Wigren.
Wigren found that jail staff "purposely frustrated Lason's repeated attempts to gain access to medical care that would have saved her life."
His conclusion: "Lason slowly suffocated to death over the course of her incarceration."
Katchka spent more than 400 hours over seven months trying to piece together the jagged fragments of Lason's life story. Today, the paperwork fills a 3-foot long drawer in a black filing cabinet inside her office. The documents include medical, court and Child Protective Services records. There are counseling and police reports along with transcripts and declarations from friends and family as well as inmates who watched her condition deteriorate over a 13-day stay inside the jail.
It would be easy to boil down Lason's life into labels: She was a dropout, drug addict and prostitute.
To Katchka, that would ignore the context of her upbringing. Through interviews and exhaustive records searches, bolstered by legal authority that cut through layers of red tape, Katchka gained access to documents that provide a deeper perspective, a peephole into the life of an abused child who often felt helpless.
Lason's mother was 19 and single when her water broke in a Hoyt Avenue apartment she shared with her mom. Without a driver's license or a car, she gathered a few essentials and, alone, caught a bus to the hospital where she gave birth on a January evening in 1984.
When Lason was 3, her mom began a relationship with a new boyfriend. A few years later, the couple had a son of their own.
There were happy memories of a smiling Lason roller skating and trick-or-treating. Yet, beneath the surface, often behind closed doors, there was suffering.
Medical records show Lason was 10 when she was first evaluated to determine whether she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. She reported being molested during a sleepover at a friend's house. She said that a man living with her friend's mother had abused her.
By the time she was in middle school in north Everett, others outside the home were beginning to suspect Lason was being mistreated by her mother's boyfriend.
A classmate's mother called a school counselor in March 1996 to report that she believed Lason had been assaulted.
When the counselor spoke to Lason, she "immediately panicked and burst into tears," fearful of what her mother's boyfriend might do, records show. She was 12.
The counselor asked Lason and her friends to provide statements. Lason wrote about being hit, kicked, thrown and yanked by the hair. She reported that the same man who hurt her also would beat her mother.
Several friends recounted seeing him push, punch and slap Lason. Many said Lason often showed up at school in tears.
Social workers removed her from the home for two months. Her mom's boyfriend was ordered to take an anger management class.
In October 1996, Lason alleged that her mother's boyfriend molested her while she was preparing to shower before school. She told police and a school counselor that she was afraid to go home and she stayed at a friend's house for several days.
Records show the man failed one polygraph and didn't show up for another. Lason's mom, who told Katchka that she regrets it now, sided with her then-boyfriend. He was not charged.
Court records indicate the man, who now lives in California, has convictions for domestic violence assault in 1986 and 1997. Other women in 2001 and 2003 took out restraining orders against him. One alleged he entered a bathroom when she was taking a shower and sexually assaulted her; the other said he broke her nose and ribs. He also has felony convictions for drug possession, assaulting a police officer and eluding.
In November 1996, Lason's family was sent to counseling. One of the goals was to help Lason "in dealing with her mother for failing to protect" her. The counselor later would make a note that Lason "was torn between feelings of guilt" because she was the cause of her brother not being able to see his dad.
The following year, Lason began getting into trouble. One day, her cousin left the keys in the car so Lason could listen to a Pat Benatar song on the radio while she dropped off some tax documents in Marysville. Lason, then 13, drove off to an Everett apartment complex. Shoplifting, misdemeanor assault and harassment charges would follow, along with a citation for driving without a valid license. Lason, still 13, had been pulled over on a highway.
At 14, she was arrested for being in possession of crack cocaine.
Court and social workers wanted to get her into drug treatment in Bellingham. Lason had other ideas. As she was being escorted by a juvenile probation officer and drug counselor, Lason escaped from the back seat at the Island Crossing onramp to I-5. The officer and counselor got out to try to coax her back. They left the keys in the ignition. Lason jumped into the car and hit the automatic locks. She crawled into the driver's seat and took off.
She was given a 35-week sentence in state lockup at Echo Glen.
In some ways, Lason thrived in confinement. Records show that counselors tried to help her deal with her anger toward her mother's boyfriend and resentment toward her mother for not stopping the abuse. They also believed she had turned to drugs to cope with her problems.
Her behavior at Echo Glen was described as exemplary. She earned A's and B's on her school transcript there. She wrote her middle school counselor in Everett to thank her for all she had done, and to tell her she felt safe. A school psychologist at the state institution wrote that "with an appropriate and supportive living situation Lindsey could be successful in a community school setting."
That didn't happen.
She quit school, abused drugs and eventually crossed paths with a charismatic Everett pimp named Jerome Todd. Federal prosecutors wrote in court documents that Todd preyed on "young women at a crossroads in their lives." Lason chose the wrong path.
Todd set the prices for the sex acts, and provided the women with cell phones so he could manage their activities. He also told the women that he was watching them and they needed to follow his rules or he would beat them. One of the women recalled a time when Todd took Lason into a room.
There was a loud banging. Lason shrieked, "Stop!"
She emerged bloodied and with a black eye, according to court records.
Todd was convicted of sex trafficking in 2008 when a federal jury found him guilty of using "force, fraud or coercion" to control women.
Jurors were convinced Todd forced women to sell their bodies as part of an Internet-based prostitution ring. Todd used the money the women made to support a lavish lifestyle, full of high-end jewelry and expensive clothes, the jury found. He told one witness he pimped women as a way to avoid paying child support for at least 13 children he acknowledges fathering, according to court records.
Todd is the father of Lason's only child.
Lason tried to give her son a better childhood than her own. She got jobs in telemarketing and handing out free food samples at a supermarket. She carefully chose a day care for him, even though it was a long drive from her home. She applied for subsidized housing and was on an Everett Housing Authority wait list for five years, records show.
Katchka believes Lason realized she could not provide her son with the stable home he needed and that she never had. She eventually placed him with relatives in a small town in Idaho. Lason would send money to help meet his needs, once paying for a new stove when the old one died.
She had plans to visit him before she was arrested Oct. 29, 2011. The misdemeanor warrants alleged theft in Everett and prostitution in Des Moines.
Thirteen days later, she was dead.
A couple of days after being booked into jail, Lason said she fell out of her bunk. She began complaining to fellow inmates and jail staff about breathing problems.
During a medical assessment five days before Lason died, a nurse noted she had a high temperature, rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate and "abnormally low oxygen saturation," according to the damage claim. Lason was hyperventilating during the interview, notes say.
Instead of getting a diagnostic exam, she was given stool softeners and muscle relaxants, according to jail records. The medication would have done nothing to fight her infection.
Katchka has read investigation reports and interviewed inmates who were in the unit where Lason died. She believes many people felt Lason was faking.
"People were just acclimated to her cries and they had a pre-conceived idea," she said. "There was something written in her file. It said 'drug seeker?'I wonder if that was a death sentence. It certainly didn't help."
Several inmates told sheriff's detectives that Lason had repeatedly complained about her worsening medical condition.
Some inmates made fun of the "eke, eke, eke" sounds she made when she inhaled.
Her cellmate described how Lason would straddle their toilet backward and put her head down, apparently trying to find a comfortable position to breathe. She also shared how Lason thrashed in her bed at night, keeping her from getting sleep.
She filled out paperwork asking to be transferred to another cell. She also reported an atrocious odor in the cell. Lason's legal team is convinced it was the smell of the infection that had invaded her body.
Two nights before Lason died, the cellmate told her that she looked pale as she watched her labored breathing.
"I swear to God, the Devil was there because I was freaked out," she told detectives.
The cellmate grabbed her Bible.
"I was scared," she recounted. "It was like chills down my spine."
The cellmate remembers waking up refreshed on Nov. 11. She had finally gotten a good night's sleep. It took more than an hour to realize that Lason was dead.
Ferguson, the Everett attorney, is representing Lason's estate in a $10 million damage claim against the county and the cities of Everett and Des Moines. He said the case is about more than money.
In a letter to county prosecutors handling the claim, Ferguson proposed that the county create a 24-hour "Lyndsey Lason Medical Clinic" for inmates at the jail.
"We feel strongly that jail conditions and the delivery of medical care to inmates needs to be addressed and improved in general, which is separate from any monetary award to the specific claimant in this case," Ferguson wrote.
The sheriff's office can't comment on the Lason case since there is an active claim against the county, the agency's spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
Sheriff Ty Trenary, who was appointed in July, has vowed to improve the medical services inside the 1,200-bed jail. Including Lason, eight people have died there since 2010. While some were by suicide or heart attacks, at least three of the deaths are likely to result in legal claims of negligence.
Trenary has brought in outside groups to examine jail operations, including medical care.
One recommendation already is in place. A doctor was hired part time to work inside the jail, and Trenary hopes to find the money to make it a full-time position.
This week, the National Institute of Corrections is scheduled to return to the Snohomish County Jail to audit its medical unit.
Having unraveled some of the knots in Lason's tangled life story, Katchka shares a couple of her own thoughts.
First, she said, she believes the evidence shows that neither drugs nor prostitution ended Lason's life.
Second, she believes Lason deeply loved her son.
Katchka's research took her for four days to the three-bedroom rambler where he lives in Idaho. The modest wood and stone house is clean and well kept.
The boy is now 10 and polite. He misses the frequent calls from his mom on the cellphone she bought him.
The child knows his mom died. He doesn't know the circumstances, or that Lason placed him in a small town with views of the Rocky Mountains to shield him.
There is reason for hope, the Mukilteo paralegal said.
"He's very smart," Katchka said. "He has a chance."
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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