Deputy's negligence indicated in suicide at Hernando County Jail

BROOKSVILLE — For months, Nancy Stanton had waited for confirmation of what she felt in her bones was the truth: Negligence on the part of county jail staffers allowed her son to take his own life last year.

On Wednesday, Stanton got word that a Hernando County Detention Center deputy may have contributed the suicide of her son — 47-year-old Charles Michael DeHart — by failing to check on him as often as required.

"He killed my son," a tearful Stanton said, "just as sure as if he had put a noose on him himself."

An internal affairs investigation found that Deputy Stephen Sirmones had not checked on DeHart in the hour and 45 minutes before he wrapped a bed sheet around his neck, leaned against the wall of Cell 108 and sat down, according to a report released Wednesday.

The sheriff's unit had not identified DeHart as a suicide risk, but because of a recent outburst had put him in a special unit that requires checks at 15-minute intervals.

"There were issues identified in the course of the investigation as deficiencies in practice that may have alerted staff to the inmate's actions sooner," Hernando sheriff's Maj. Michael Page wrote in a memo after the investigation concluded.

Sirmones resigned before the investigation concluded. He told internal affairs investigator Sgt. Kathleen Reid that the deputy who trained him said that inmates in the unit were to be checked every 30 minutes. But surveillance video shows that Sirmones did not check DeHart even that often in the hours leading up to his suicide on April 20, 2011.

The video shows Sirmones checked DeHart just four times between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. After the 9 a.m. check, Sirmones did not visit the cell again until about 10:45 a.m., when he rushed to help a nurse who found DeHart unconscious.

The video evidence conflicted with written log Sirmones filled out showing he'd conducted checks every half hour between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. There was no record of him checking after 9:30.

Sirmones told internal affairs investigator Sgt. Kathleen Reid that sometimes deputies fill in the log ahead of time. He said he didn't conduct all the checks because he got "tied up" with computer training, according to Reid's report.

Sirmones started working at the jail the month before DeHart's suicide but had worked in corrections since the early 1980s, including a stint as assistant warden at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. Attempts to reach him on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Stanton, of Brooksville, insists that she warned jail officials that her only child, whom she called Michael, could be suicidal and needed to be closely monitored.

"I told them every time I went to visit, 'My son is going to hurt himself,' " she said.

The Sheriff's Office decline to comment further on Wednesday.

DeHart had been blinded two years earlier when he shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber pistol after leading Hernando sheriff's deputies on a chase. The injury caused brain damage, and doctors initially determined he would not be fit to stand trial on charges of armed robbery, battery and driving under the influence, among others.

DeHart was sent to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, where residents with mental health issues who face criminal charges are trained about the legal process and, if deemed competent, sent back for trial. That's what happened in DeHart's case, and he was sent to the Hernando jail in July of 2010.

That surprised those who knew DeHart, including staffers in the Public Defender's Office, who told the Times last year that DeHart never regained the mental capacity needed to contribute to his defense.

While in jail, DeHart was taking psychotropic medication and was prone to verbal outbursts, the report shows. On April 14, he submitted a service request stating that no one would help him get in touch with Lighthouse for the Blind to enroll in a course "to assist him in coping with life and not die." The day before he was found, DeHart told a mental health worker that his problems were getting worse and he wanted to talk to his doctor about adjusting his medication.

Jail staffers interviewed by Reid, including the mental health worker who periodically evaluated DeHart, said he never said anything about suicide or tried to harm himself. Had he done so, staffers said, he would have been sent for a mental health assessment to determine if he should moved to the medical unit and placed on 24 hour surveillance.

But inmates Reid interviewed said DeHart had talked about suicide. One inmate said he recalled DeHart making statements such as, "If I had a gun in front of me I'd grab it and shoot myself."

A jail sergeant said that an inmate reported after DeHart was found that he had said, "his mother would be well taken care of when he committed suicide in jail."

The day before his suicide, the report states, DeHart was talking to a nurse when he began yelling and waving his arms and then threw himself to the ground. Jail staffers subdued him and put him in the administrative segregation wing.

The morning of his suicide, DeHart told Sirmones that he wanted to make an emergency phone call to his mother. A corporal told Sirmones that DeHart could make the call later in the day.

When the nurse found him unresponsive, he was still "very warm" to the touch. Jail staffers tried unsuccessfully to revive DeHart, but he never regained consciousness and died five days later at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

A doctor in the medical examiner's office told Reid he felt comfortable saying only that DeHart had been hanging for a matter of minutes when he was found. Reid noted that studies show brain death can occur after four to six of minutes of oxygen deprivation.

To Stanton and attorneys who defended him, DeHart is a casualty of legal and health care systems that failed him — an indigent, brain-damaged and blind man who needed to be in a secure facility, but not in jail or prison.

Stanton said her son never said anything about killing himself in jail as a strategy to help her financially. She said she isn't sure if she will take legal against action against the Sheriff's Office.

"No matter what I do," she said, "it's not going to bring my son back."

News researcher Natalie Watson contribute to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Deputy's negligence indicated in suicide at Hernando County Jail 06/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 9:42pm]

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