Family members gather in the quest for answers in the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a protest rally at the Lynnwood City Hall on July 26, 2021 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family members gather in the quest for answers in the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a protest rally at the Lynnwood City Hall on July 26, 2021 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family of woman who killed herself in jail sues Lynnwood, jail staff

Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, hanged herself in her cell while corrections officers did not check on her for nearly three hours.

LYNNWOOD — The family of a woman who killed herself in the Lynnwood Jail after being left alone for almost three hours sued the city in federal court this week.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleged the actions of jail staff led to the suicide of Tirhas Tesfatsion.

The complaint names the city and five staffers as defendants.

Lynnwood city spokesperson Nathan MacDonald said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

Tesfatsion’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In July 2021, Tesfatsion, 47, moved a plastic chair into the jail’s restroom and used her uniform to hang herself. According to an independent investigation by Kirkland police, custody officers checked on her more than 20 times during her stay at the jail. But after jail staff gave her food at 12:06 p.m., no one had contact with her until she was found unresponsive at 3:01 p.m.

Lynnwood police policy required safety checks on inmates once every hour. During her 32 hours in jail, staff committed 16 violations of safety check policy, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit frequently cites Kirkland police’s investigation — a nearly 200-page report that used jail logs, witness interviews, phone call recordings, emergency radio communications and surveillance footage to understand the circumstances that led to Tesfatsion’s death.

Lynnwood police had arrested Tesfatsion for investigation of driving under the influence. She was assigned to a cell designed to hold multiple inmates, according to the lawsuit. The unit had white walls and bright lights that stayed on at all times.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (Photo provided by GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (Photo provided by GoFundMe)

When she was booked into jail, she provided information that should have “raised red flags” about her safety, the lawsuit said. She reported she suffered from depression, and had consumed prescription medication in the prior 24 hours and would be going through withdrawals. In the “high risk” category of the screening, the box for “Mental Health” was checked, the Kirkland investigation found.

Jail staff prescribed her several medications, including antibiotics, antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory — but no antidepressants, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit noted “significant and noteworthy time lapses” when the jail staff should have conducted safety checks on Tesfatsion. There were several cameras in the cell where she was held alone. In the hours before her death, she can be seen getting undressed and presumably trying to find a place where she could hang herself, according to the lawsuit.

She also reportedly tried to make at least nine phone calls while in jail, that all went unanswered, declined, or did not go through.

Security footage showed on-duty jail staff scrolling or talking on their phones in the hours between Tesfatsion’s last check up and the time she died, the charges say.

Between 12:57 p.m. and 2:58 p.m., three minutes before Tesfatsion was found dead, one corrections officer was gone, and “no logs could account for him,” according to the lawsuit.

“The Defendants were more focused and concerned with their own personal entertainment, watching videos on the internet and their cell phones that were not worked-related, rather than doing their duties as custody officers, such as providing for the general health, welfare and safety of Ms. Tesfatsion,” the complaint reads.

Family members gather in the quest for answers in the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a protest rally at the Lynnwood City Hall on July 26, 2021 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Family members gather in the quest for answers in the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion during a protest rally at the Lynnwood City Hall on July 26, 2021 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

After the investigation, two corrections officers were suspended without pay and one staff member resigned. A contract for a new Lynnwood jail, the Community Justice Center, was signed a couple months later. Outrage from the public and Tesfatsion’s family toward the City Council put the talks on hold, and the final plans included a separate mental health facility.

The lawyers for Tesfatsion’s family, James Bible and Jesse Valdez, argued in the lawsuit the suicide was emblematic of Lynnwood’s “inadequate and reckless policies and procedures” regarding custody officers performing their duties.

The attorneys claim the city of Lynnwood still has not implemented any policies that would fix these flaws.

Bible has represented the Tesfatsion family since the beginning. During a July council meeting shortly after she died, Bible said the city of Lynnwood “is no place to house human souls for profit.”

Jonathan Tall: 425-339-3486; jonathan.tall@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @EDHJonTall.

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