Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

LYNNWOOD — Two years after a death in the city jail, Lynnwood agreed last week to pay $1.75 million in a settlement with the family of a woman who killed herself while in custody.

In July 2021, police arrested Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, for investigation of driving under the influence. During the 32 hours she spent in jail, security footage showed jail guards scrolling and talking on their phones, with one staff member completely unaccounted for while on duty, the complaint alleged.

A day and a half later, Tesfatsion was found unresponsive in the jail restroom.

The lawsuit, filed in July in U.S. District Court in Seattle, noted “significant and noteworthy time lapses” when the staff should have conducted safety checks on Tesfatsion. Staff reportedly committed 16 violations of safety check policy during her time in the city jail.

“During her confinement, (Lynnwood Municipal Jail) failed to perform their duties and violated public trust when they failed to provide the bare minimum jail security and safety for Ms. Tesfatsion,” the lawsuit read.

The settlement was finalized Sept. 14, two months after lawyers for Tesfatsion’s estate James Bible and Jesse Valdez filed the complaint.

In settling the case, the city did not admit wrongdoing.

“The City recognizes the grief this tragic death has caused to the family of Tirhas Tesfatsion and our community,” city spokesperson Maren McKay wrote in a statement. “The lack of in-custody care and supervisory oversight were not in alignment with our values and lessened the public’s trust in our organization. We are committed to doing better and learning from this tragedy.”

“The family of Mrs. Tirhas Tesfatsion has been dedicated to achieving justice for their loved one,” Bible said in a phone interview Monday. “Not only are they achieving justice for Tirhas, but change locally and throughout the state of Washington.”

Bible said he will be meeting with Lynnwood city officials to discuss new mental health training for city employees.

The complaint primarily cites Kirkland police’s independent investigation, a nearly 200-page report on the circumstances that led to Tesfatsion’s death.

Just after midnight July 12, police booked the Lake Forest Park woman into the Lynnwood jail. She reported to staff she suffered from depression and would be going through withdrawal from prescription medication she consumed the day before. 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.

Before her death, security footage showed Tesfatsion undressing and presumably trying to find an area to hang herself, the lawsuit said.

After jail staff gave her food at 12:06 p.m. July 13, footage captured on-duty jail staff on their cellphones in between their last check-up and her death. No one had contact with her until she was found unresponsive at 3:01 p.m. in the Lynnwood jail, court documents say.

Lynnwood police policy required safety checks on inmates once every hour, the lawsuit says.

Between 12:57 p.m. and 2:58 p.m., one corrections officer on duty was gone and “no logs could account for him,” the lawsuit alleged.

“If a member of the Lynnwood City Jail Staff had taken the time to simply lift their heads up from their cell phones and observe the activities Ms. Tesfatsion while she was in the jail, they would have seen that many of her actions warranted immediate protective intervention,” the complaint read.

From 2000 to 2019, suicide accounted for about one-third of all jail deaths, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics data collection.

After the investigation, two corrections officers were suspended without pay. One staff member resigned.

“Ms. Tesfatsion should be alive today,” the lawsuit read. “And through their neglect, Defendants forced her to endure substantial pain and suffering, caused her death and deprived her sons … of the society, companionship, love and other consortium of their mother.”

In October 2021, Lynnwood broke ground on the Community Justice Center, which will include a new jail and a separate mental health facility.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a Lynnwood spokesperson did not comment on the settlement regarding the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion. A city spokesperson did respond Monday, but the response got lost in a reporter’s email spam filter:

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434;; Twitter: @mayatizon.

Help is available

There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.

If there is an immediate danger, call 911.

Care Crisis Chat: (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255,

Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

Everett Herald staff gather and talk in the newsroom after layoff announcements on Wednesday, June 19, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘This breaks my heart’: Over half of Everett Herald news staff laid off

A dozen journalists were handed walking papers Wednesday, in a wave of layoffs mandated by new owners, Carpenter Media Group.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road on Sunday, April 21, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Long live the Speedway! Mukilteo’s main drag won’t be renamed

The public shot down the mayor’s idea to change the name: 77% voted ‘No’ in an online survey, with 95% opposed on Facebook.

Motorcyclist dies in crash on East Marine View Drive in Everett

Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, a motorcycle and a vehicle crashed into each other at the intersection of 11th street and East Marine View Drive.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Darrington in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Motorcyclist dies in crash on Highway 530

Jeremy Doyle, 46, was riding east near Darrington when he crashed into the side of a car that was turning left.

The Marysville School District office on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘Financially insolvent’ Marysville schools to get unprecedented oversight

Superintendent Chris Reykdal will convene a first-of-its-kind Financial Oversight Committee, he wrote in a letter Tuesday.

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett’s first Black principal retires after 51 years

In her office, Betty Cobbs kept a black-and-white photo of herself at age 5: “I am right there, with dreams of becoming an educator.”

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.