Woman left alone for 3 hours at Lynnwood Jail killed herself

In her final hours, officers didn’t check on Tirhas Tesfatsion as required by policy, an investigation found.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

LYNNWOOD — A Kirkland police investigation released Tuesday provides the fullest account yet surrounding the death last month of a woman in the Lynnwood Jail.

The nearly 200-page report details events that occurred over 36 hours that culminated in the July 13 death of Tirhas Tesfatsion. The county medical examiner ruled her death a suicide.

The release of the report, obtained by The Daily Herald through a public records request, comes one day after the Lynnwood City Council, facing pressure from Tesfatsion’s family and others, delayed for the second time a vote to approve construction of a Community Justice Center worth tens of millions of dollars that would include a new jail.

The inquiry found Tesfatsion, 47, moved a plastic chair into the current jail’s restroom and used her uniform to hang herself. Custody officers checked on her more than 20 times during her stay in the jail, according to documents. However, Kirkland police did not see anyone have contact with Tesfatsion after she was given food at 12:06 p.m. She was found unresponsive at 3:01 p.m. Lynnwood police policy requires safety checks on inmates at least once every 60 minutes.

Video monitoring could be used to supplement the safety checks, Kirkland police wrote in their report, but “shall not replace the need for direct visual observation.”

“You couldn’t even protect one person and that is the reason why you guys don’t deserve to open a new jail,” Tesfatsion’s sister said at a Monday City Council meeting. “First, you need to make sure you keep your eye on the ones you have now and it’s not fair. People’s lives matter.”

The investigation, completed at the request of Lynnwood police, used police and jail logs, witness interviews, phone call recordings, emergency radio communications and surveillance video from 14 cameras to understand the circumstances that led to Tesfatsion’s death.

Lynnwood police officer Brittany Orlosky pulled Tesfatsion over just after midnight on July 12. She had been driving about 30 mph on Highway 99, where the speed limit is 45. She told police she hadn’t been drinking but said she had taken oxycodone and anti-depressant medication, according to the police report. A preliminary toxicology screening from the medical examiner indicated there was marijuana, methamphetamine, amphetamine and fentanyl in Tesfatsion’s system.

Just before 2 a.m. July 12, Orlosky was asked in a pre-booking screening, “Did the arrestee make any statements about suicidal ideations or other self-harm?” The officer circled “N.”

Tesfatsion said she never attempted suicide and said she was not thinking about killing herself, according to officers. She said she did have mental health issues, specifically noting depression. She noted she was seeing a doctor for her mental health and was taking anti-depressants.

She also noted that she’d used narcotics within the last 24 hours and said she may experience withdrawals.

In the “High Risks” category of the screening, the box for “Mental Health” was checked.

After the screening, Tesfatsion was held in the jail’s holding cell No. 1 for a little over an hour before she was taken to Swedish Edmonds for a blood draw. Orlosky returned to the jail with Tesfatsion after 5 a.m. At an 8 a.m. virtual court appearance, a judge found probable cause for DUI and set bail at $7,500.

Previously, Tesfatsion had been arrested for investigation of driving under the influence in December 2020.

At 11:03 a.m. July 12, she was taken from her cell to the nursing station and prescribed a series of medications, including antibiotics, antihistamines and an anti-inflammatory. She was returned to her cell shortly after. She was given medication four times.

Just before 3:30 p.m. Tesfatsion was moved from cell No. 1 to cell No. 7, where she was the only person. She also was the only woman in the jail during her time there. There were three men in custody, but Tesfatsion did not have any contact with them.

Tesfatsion’s new cell had several pieces of movable furniture, including three plastic chairs. It had two mounted surveillance cameras that recorded most everything in the cell, except for portions of the bathroom. It also had two phones. Tesfatsion made nine calls during her detention. Her last calls came just before 1:30 p.m. on July 13, 90 minutes before she was found unresponsive.

Before 2 p.m. on July 13, Tesfatsion grabbed her jail outfit and tied it around her neck while sitting on one of the cell’s bunks, according to a Kirkland police analysis of surveillance footage. She then moved around the cell, testing a couple different places to attach the uniform. Kirkland police say it was difficult to see what she was doing with the clothing on surveillance footage because Tesfatsion had a blanket draped over her body.

Then, she grabbed one of the cell’s plastic chairs and walked into the bathroom with the ligature still attached to her neck, the video shows.

“She did not re-emerge from the bathroom,” Kirkland police wrote in their report.

An hour later, at about 3 p.m., a custody officer entered the cell to give Tesfatsion her medication. They quickly went in the bathroom where they lowered Tesfatsion and unraveled the jail uniform.

Officers did chest compressions and used a defibrillator. The first emergency responders arrived about four minutes after Tesfatsion was discovered. They moved her from the bathroom to a more open spot in the cell.

“When I walked into (the holding cell), there was jail staff. There was at least two or three people doing CPR and they had an (automated external defibrillator) attached,” South County Fire acting battalion chief Travis Winston told Kirkland police. “They were doing what looked like effective CPR. The patient looked pale.”

Resuscitation efforts ended at 3:29 p.m.

There were five custody officers on duty at the time of Tesfatsion’s death. They declined to be interviewed by Kirkland police. Fourteen medics and firefighters entered the cell.

Kirkland police Sgt. Dave Quiggle called the investigation “independent and unencumbered by anyone from the Lynnwood Police Department” in the report. But Tesfatsion’s family has previously not been satisfied with an investigation by police. Last week, the City Council agreed to ask the state Attorney General’s Office for another inquiry into the death, but that office declined citing, among other things, a lack of jurisdiction.

The family’s attorney, James Bible, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith said Monday that her “heart breaks” for Tesfatsion’s family and called for further explanations for her death. Smith said she authorized an internal investigation into the death.

On Monday, the council pushed back a vote to Sept. 13 on the construction contract for the proposed Community Justice Center, which would house a new jail, a misdemeanor court and the police department.

The vote was 4-3. Council Vice President Jim Smith and councilmembers Julieta Altamirano-Crosby and Patrick Decker voted against the postponement.

In the two hours of public comment at Monday’s virtual council meeting, almost every speaker implored the council to press the pause button on the jail.

The council was slated to vote on the construction contract last week, but delayed the vote one week when confronted by a crowd desperate for answers surrounding Tesfatsion’s death.

The dozens who descended on City Hall last week also pushed the council to not move forward on the new facility.

The crowd, which included members of Tesfatsion’s family, said they would be back in person on Monday to again urge city leaders to stop the new center. But the city announced Wednesday that August council meetings would be held remotely, citing technology issues and renewed fears over COVID-19 transmission.

The family again stood outside City Hall on Monday, anyway.

A liaison has also been appointed to communicate with Tesfatsion’s family, Smith said.

The family was frustrated last week that the city had been uncommunicative with them and that video footage from Tesfatsion’s time in jail had not been released to them. Smith said Bible, the attorney, has now been given a copy of the jail video.

Lynnwood City Council President George Hurst said the biggest reason for him to delay the vote on the Community Justice Center was to get adequate answers for Tesfatsion’s death in the city’s jail.

Lynnwood’s legislative representatives in Olympia urged the council to table the vote for six weeks in a letter Hurst read at the meeting.

“We, your 32nd District legislative delegation, are writing to lend our support to the notion of dedicating a portion of the Community Justice Center to be constructed as community behavioral health beds, rather than jail beds,” state Reps. Lauren Davis and Cindy Ryu and Sen. Jesse Salomon wrote to the council.

The center’s original price tag was $64 million, but bids to build it came in high. So that price could jump up to $69 million. The vast majority of that money will come from bonds and the rest will be from an existing criminal justice sales tax.

The council passed the bond funding unanimously in March.

Lynnwood plans to make up some of the cost by contracting beds in the new jail out to nearby cities, according to a March presentation by financial advisors to the city. One bed for a day would cost another city $175. If the city lent 25 beds to others every day of the year, it would make back nearly $1.6 million annually. In total, the jail could have more than 100 beds.

The city usually earns about $160,000 per year in revenue from its jail beds, according to Lynnwood’s financial advisors.

At the same time, the center would allow the city to save $1.5 million it spends each year to send people to other jails, Hurst said Monday.

The current jail has enough room for 46 inmates. Before the COVID-19 pandemic diminished capacity, the jail was full or almost full most of the time, Lynnwood police spokesperson Joanna Small said.

On Monday, there were two people there.

A vital component of the planned facility is its neighbor, the Community Health Center of Snohomish County. Over three-quarters of the Lynnwood Jail inmates surveyed in 2018 said they had an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The same amount said they would enter treatment.

Meanwhile, a physician assistant at the current jail has had to work out of a repurposed utility closet due to the lack of space. The new center would partner with the community health center, located next door, to bring rehabilitative services to people at the jail.

“It’s a multi-faceted building that will greatly improve the facility that we have,” said Smith, the council’s vice president. “… If we do not move forward and build this Community Justice Center, we still have the old jail. That will stay the same.”

The center was expected to be completed by the end of August 2023.

A person who attended the standing-room-only council meeting last week tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Friday. They urged anyone attending the meeting to monitor symptoms and consider getting tested. The city had not heard of additional cases connected to last week’s meeting as of Monday afternoon, said Lynnwood spokesperson Julie Moore.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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