2015 series: What Jail Can’t Cure
COUPEVILLE — Two former Island County corrections officers have been charged with misdemeanors based on allegations they falsified documents after Keaton Farris was found dead in his jail cell in 2015.
Whatcom County Prosecutor David McEachran, however, has declined to file any charges related to the in-custody death, saying he couldn’t find any one person who was criminally liable.
“The negligence was spread over many different people,” McEachran said Wednesday. “I couldn’t isolate one person with that much power and control,” who caused the death to occur. There was no evidence that any one corrections officers instructed others to withhold water or food, he said.
“It’s amazing this could happen in a jail,” McEachran said. “It’s very sad. It’s just really a tragedy.”
Farris, 25, died of dehydration and malnutrition April 7, 2015, in the jail in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Corrections officers had shut off the water to his cell and failed to do routine checks on him. Farris had been in custody for nearly three weeks, bounced between jails in three counties. He was housed at Island County for about 12 days.
His total fluid intake there was, at best, 185 ounces of water — less than a quarter of the amount considered minimum for survival, according to an Island County sheriff’s detective. Farris also lost about 20 pounds.
His death went unnoticed for hours.
Farris was likely in the throes of a mental health crisis. His family contacted the jail and was assured that he was being monitored by a nurse. Nancy Barker, the former jail nurse, didn’t see Farris until the day before he died. She didn’t go into his cell or touch him. She claimed she wasn’t allowed in his cell because he’d been deemed a problem inmate.
Farris had been charged with identity theft for forging a $355 check in San Juan County. He’d never been in serious trouble before. He was anxious about the case. He lost his phone and missed his court hearing. That day he went to an Edmonds hospital. He was arrested in Lynnwood on the $10,000 warrant. He had a prescription in his pocket for an anti-anxiety medication. He was never given any medication at the Island County Jail.
McEachran met with Farris’ family Tuesday to discuss his decision.
His parents, Fred Farris and Tiffany Ferrians, have pushed for changes at the jail since Farris died. They also have sought justice for their son.
“So depriving a human of sufficient water to survive, when they don’t have access to it themselves, appears not to be a criminal act. What kind of society do we live in?” Fred Farris posted on social media after the meeting with McEachran.
The Coupeville man said Wednesday that it doesn’t make sense that no one is being held accountable because there are too many people to blame.
“They all need to be charged, then,” Fred Farris said.
McEachran was asked to review the case for possible criminal charges at the request of the Island County prosecutor. He said he relied heavily on the investigation done by Island County sheriff’s detective Ed Wallace shortly after Farris died.
McEachran was assisted by a Whatcom County sheriff’s detective. He said they toured the jail and spoke with the coroner. They also attempted to speak with the corrections officers, the nurse and others.
Current and former jail staff under investigation chose not to speak with the prosecutor or the detective, McEachran said.
The corrections officers were compelled to give statements to Wallace as a requirement of their employment. Under the law, they also were guaranteed that those statements couldn’t be used against them later in a criminal prosecution. McEachran said he asked that their statements not be included in the file he reviewed.
“I relied on what I had,” he said.
Without those interviews, the prosecutor didn’t have the full picture, Farris said.
Wallace had determined that Mark Moffit and David Lind forged four jail log entries and lied about when they checked on Farris on April 7. The forged logs indicated Moffit looked in on Keaton at 6:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Lind wrote that he made checks at 10:30 p.m. and an hour later, according to the police investigation.
The coroner estimated that Farris died around 7:30 p.m. April 7.
“We know from the video those checks didn’t happen,” McEachran said.
He charged Moffit and Lind with making a false statement in an official report, a gross misdemeanor, in Island County Superior Court. The former corrections officers could answer to the charges later this month. They face up to 364 days in jail if convicted.
The FBI has said it’s also looking at the jail death. McEachran said the federal investigation is separate from what he did, though the jail visit and interviews were coordinated with the FBI and an assistant U.S. attorney.
Lind and Moffit resigned from their jobs after the allegations surfaced. Barker also resigned from her job in the middle of an investigation by her employer, Island County Public Health. The state nursing commission declined to take action against her license. She continues to work as a nurse.
The jail chief, De Dennis, was placed on paid leave and later resigned.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown placed Lt. Pamela McCarty on paid administrative leave pending the death investigation. By June 23, 2015, he had fired her. The sheriff concluded that the longtime jail officer violated numerous policies, including failing to properly supervise staff, failing to inspect logs to ensure that officers were regularly checking on inmates in segregation, and failing to request a medical or mental health assessment for Farris.
“Unfortunately, in addition to violating policy, your acts and omissions contributed to the systematic failures that may have prevented staff from properly recognizing and identifying and addressing the health conditions leading to the death of inmate (Farris),” Brown wrote in the termination letter.
The corrections officer guild fought back, arguing that the jail policies were in disarray and had been implemented without proper training. They alleged that McCarty was a scapegoat for failings of the former jail chief, Brown and the undersheriff.
An arbitrator later ruled that McCarty shouldn’t have lost her job. The county was required to hire her back last year. Under binding arbitration, the county offered McCarty a job as a corrections officer — a demotion. The arbitrator also awarded McCarty back pay.
Fred Farris and his family reached a $4 million settlement with three counties in 2015.
As part of the settlement, Island County agreed that a corrections expert who was hired to evaluate the lockup’s operations will monitor the jail until later this year. Phil Stanley made a series of recommendations in October 2015 to improve medical care for inmates, including more attention to those with mental illness and serious health conditions.
Brown implemented several improvements, based on Stanley’s recommendations. He hired a new jail chief and the county increased nursing staffing to seven days a week.
Keaton Farris grew up on Lopez Island, where he helped bring home state championships in high school basketball and track. He’d been a storyteller since childhood and aspired to be a writer.
“Keaton’s great love lives through us in our hearts and through his writings and in the loving memories of his family, friends and community,” his parents have said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.