Family files legal claim in Island County Jail dehydration death

COUPEVILLE — The family of a man who died while locked up in the Island County Jail has filed a claim alleging that corrections officers neglected the mentally ill man and withheld basic needs.

Keaton Farris, 25, was found unresponsive in his cell around 12:40 a.m. April 8. The coroner estimated that Farris died at least seven hours earlier from dehydration and malnutrition.

A claim often is a precursor to a lawsuit. This one does not request a specific dollar amount as compensation.

An investigation revealed that corrections officers failed to regularly check on Farris or offer him water. They had turned off water to his cell after he plugged the toilet with a pillow. Records also show that Farris never received any medical treatment during the nearly three weeks he was locked up in Coupeville. A nurse visited him the day before he died but the door to his cell was never opened and she didn’t have any hands-on contact with Farris, according to records.

The death is under review by the FBI. Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks also is reviewing the investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

Two corrections officers resigned after the investigation revealed they had falsified records to make it appear that they had checked on Farris when they had not.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown suspended De Dennis, the jail chief, who then retired. Lt. Pam McCarty, a supervisor, was put on leave and has since been fired. Nancy Barker, the jail nurse, was put on leave pending an investigation by Island County Public Health.

Farris was arrested on a warrant in Lynnwood on March 20. The week before he didn’t show up for a court hearing in San Juan County Superior Court. He was charged with identity theft based on allegations that he forged a $354.72 check. At the time of his death, Farris was awaiting a mental health evaluation at the jail in Coupeville to determine if he was able to assist with his own defense. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2014.

San Juan County has a contract with the Coupeville jail to house its inmates. Farris showed symptoms of being in crisis when he was moved from the Lynnwood jail to Snohomish and Skagit counties’ lockups before being booked into Island County.

“Despite his obvious vulnerability, Keaton Farris was placed in an isolated cell in the Island County Jail, barely monitored by jail staff, deprived of visits from concerned family members, not evaluated by medical staff, and deprived of sufficient water,” Seattle attorney Kathy Goater wrote in the claim.

The claim relies on the investigation by Island County detective Ed Wallace.

Farris’ parents and friends hope to raise awareness about his death at this weekend’s Hempfest in Seattle. The festival’s organizers donated a booth to the cause.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; Twitter: @dianahefley.

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