Lawsuit blames Snohomish County for 2018 jail overdose death

Jailers ignored signs Denise Huffer wasn’t OK, her sister says. The county is reviewing the claim.

Denise Huffer (Photo courtesy of Tracy Gielski)

Denise Huffer (Photo courtesy of Tracy Gielski)

EVERETT — Addiction and petty crime fueled the cycle that consumed Denise Huffer’s life by the time it was tragically cut short.

When her sister learned she was arrested in Everett in January 2018, she felt relief.

“The sad thing is, when she went to jail, I thought, Good — at least she’ll be clean,” recalled sister Tracy Gielski.

“And then, all this happened.”

Huffer died from a methamphetamine overdose at the Snohomish County Jail in February 2018, her death certificate shows, more than two weeks after she was booked into the facility for the last time on suspicion of trespassing. She was 62 and homeless.

Gielski is now suing the county, saying the jail failed to protect Huffer from dangerous contraband and heed warning signs that she was suffering from lethal drug intoxication — even though corrections staff knew of her serious addiction and mental health problems.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Courtney O’Keefe said the agency “cannot comment on any pending litigation.” She cited several Sheriff’s Office policies outlining steps that jail staff take to prevent contraband from entering the facility.

Attorneys from the Civil Division of the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office are reviewing the allegations.

The case comes at a time when social justice activists in the county and beyond have called on governments to spend less on law enforcement and more on human service programs that address substance abuse, mental illness and other issues that underlie criminal behavior.

Amid a nationwide movement to end police brutality, advocates for vulnerable communities have argued that law enforcement and corrections officers often don’t have the knowledge and training to adequately respond when someone is in crisis.

The Sheriff’s Office called the jail “the largest de facto mental health facility in Snohomish County” in a memo to the County Council last June.

“It is estimated that 60% of our inmates suffer from some form of mental illness requiring medications to control,” says the memo, meant to inform the council about the agency’s programs and priorities ahead of budget season.

After a string of deaths between 2010 and 2014, former Sheriff Ty Trenary implemented a number of reforms at the jail to make conditions safer for inmates.

Huffer died in a solitary confinement cell, hours after medical staff advised deputies to move her to the jail’s observation unit for closer monitoring, according to the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court on Jan. 29.

The allegations raise questions about whether the deputy who found her, Magellan Anderson, and other jail employees did enough to prevent her death.

The day she died, she was “babbling,” “yelling,” and “confused” Anderson told an officer who investigated the death. At one point, Huffer was rolling around on the floor of her cell naked, he reported.

Anderson is named in the lawsuit as a defendant.

He has faced claims of neglect in connection to another jail-related death that occurred less than two months before Huffer’s overdose.

The county eventually agreed to a $3.1 million settlement to end a lawsuit filed by the family of Piper Travis, a Whidbey Island woman who became gravely ill while in custody in late 2017.

EMTs arrived at the jail to find Travis lying on a mattress in her own urine, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth with seizure-like symptoms and a temperature of 102 degrees, according to the federal lawsuit filed by her family. She died at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett days later.

Since Huffer’s death, another inmate has taken a deadly amount of drugs within the jail’s walls.

Christopher W. Hankins, 34, died of a heroin overdose in September, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. His death was ruled accidental.

Hankins was discovered unresponsive in a cell by himself in the jail’s general housing unit, the Sheriff’s Office has reported.

He was booked into the facility months earlier on suspicion of second-degree assault after he allegedly threw a firework at another person.

An ex-jail staffer resigned from her post in December while under investigation for bringing drugs into the jail. The former employee, Alexis Wafstet, has claimed that inmates threatened her into smuggling the drugs.

Inmates are typically searched for drugs and other contraband when they are booked into the jail and on a routine basis afterwards.

Sheriff’s Office policies require that pat-down searches be performed on a variety of occasions, such as when an inmate leaves or returns to their housing unit. Corrections officers also must search inmates when they suspect that contraband is being concealed.

But Huffer somehow obtained the drugs while being held in maximum security, the part of the jail where inmates supposedly have the least freedom, according to the lawsuit. Sheriff’s Office policies allow inmates who are “mentally deficient” to be housed there if necessary to protect themselves or others.

“Searching inmates is not enough,” the lawsuit says. “The search policies must be coupled with proper training and supervision of County employees and contractors to assure the Snohomish County Jail is free from those people introducing, or allowing the introduction of, dangerous contraband.”

Huffer, who grew up in Edmonds, had been using drugs on-and-off since she was in her 20s, said her sister, Gielski.

During Huffer’s periodic bouts of drug use, Gieleski and others in their family would cut ties with her until she sobered up, her sister said.

Huffer lived on disability benefits, unable to have a job due to a rare neurological disorder that affected the mobility of her hands and feet. During brighter chapters of her life, she was involved in church communities in Everett, Gielski said.

She suffered from anxiety and depression, according to jail medical records. Those records were provided to The Daily Herald by Brian Sullivan, the Everett attorney representing Gielski.

In the year that preceded her death, she did several jail stints. She was also seen at local emergency departments for “bizarre” behavior, often attributed to drug-induced psychosis, the medical records show.

A mental health professional at the jail noted in fall 2017 that she “should be regarded as vulnerable.”

“She is medically complex with serious mobility challenges and significant mental health concerns,” the staff member recorded in her patient history.

On Jan. 19, 2018, Huffer was arrested on a warrant for trespassing stemming from an October incident in which she attempted to enter her brother’s property, jail records show.

At first staff declined to accept her at the jail because of her medical history, but she was later cleared for booking by Providence hospital, the Sheriff’s Office previously reported.

Huffer was flagged as a “high risk” inmate for “mental health” reasons, according to a questionnaire completed by jail staff soon after her arrival.

She was informed she would be allowed out of her cell just one hour each day for routine tasks, such as showering and using the phone, jail records show.

On the morning of Feb. 1, jail employees noticed Huffer was thrashing about and mumbling in her cell. She was taken to the jail’s medical unit, where staff noted her blood pressure and heart rate were elevated and her extremities were constantly moving, according to the lawsuit.

The inmate was returned to the cell at about 10 a.m.

A nurse recommended that she be moved to the observation unit, where staff could keep better watch because there were fewer cells, records show.

Jail staff were working on the transfer. Other inmates needed to be moved out of the observation unit so that Huffer could be moved in, according to a jail log.

Deputy Anderson checked Huffer’s cell at 2 p.m., he said during the death investigation.

Then, 30 minutes later, he checked again and noticed she wasn’t breathing, he said.

He called the jail’s medical unit and announced a “medical emergency.”

In the more than four minutes between when he saw Huffer lying motionless and when medical staff arrived at the cell, Anderson did not try CPR or any other lifesaving first aid measures, the lawsuit alleges.

“Snohomish County knows how important it is to provide first aid in a timely manner,” says the lawsuit, citing the case of Michael Saffioti, a 22-year-old Mukilteo man who died at the jail in 2012. A lawsuit over Saffioti’s death, which resulted in a $2.4 million payout, alleged that he was denied adequate and timely medical care after an allergic reaction to the breakfast he was served in the jail.

The jail’s medical contractor, Health Pros Northwest, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit over Huffer’s death.

The Olympia-based health care company did not respond to a Wednesday email requesting comment on allegations that it “was negligent in its training and supervision and supply of medical care providers at the jail.”

Gielski still wonders how the jail staff could have missed the glaring signs that Huffer was high.

“The jail deals with probably hundreds of people every day who have drug addictions,” Gielski said. “They should have a better system to help those people. Not just lock them in a cell and throw away the key.”

“Yes my sister did have an on-and-off drug addiction problem,” she said. “But I don’t think she deserved for her life to be shortened.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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