LARGO — Negligence by several Pinellas County Sheriff's Office employees caused the death of a 50-year-old woman with a history of mental health issues, according to an attorney representing the dead woman's husband.
Jennifer DeGraw of St. Petersburg was found unresponsive on the floor of her jail cell on March 24, 2009, eight days after Pinellas deputies arrested her on a charge of battery of a law enforcement officer.
In a notice of intent to sue that was sent to Sheriff Jim Coats last month, the attorney representing DeGraw's husband Michael said the preventable chain of events that led to the woman's death began when a deputy decided to jail DeGraw instead of committing her under the state's Baker Act.
"Had she been properly hospitalized initially instead of incarcerated … she would not have died," attorney Craig A. Laporte said in the letter.
The Sheriff's Office declined to comment because of the pending legal matter, said Sgt. Tom Nestor.
Michael DeGraw, now 45, called authorities on March 16, 2009, to report that his wife, who was bipolar, had quit taking her medication. According to a Sheriff's Office report provided to the St. Petersburg Times by Laporte, the deputy who responded to the couple's home reported that DeGraw was making irrational statements.
He originally told DeGraw that he intended to have her hospitalized under the Baker Act. But when DeGraw kicked the deputy as he attempted to put her in handcuffs, he deployed his Taser three times to subdue her and charged her with battery.
DeGraw was taken to the county jail and assigned to the medical wing. But the medical staff there failed to give her the medications she needed for the bipolar disorder as well as other health ailments, including seizures and hypertension, Laporte said.
Sheriff's Office procedures state that inmates who arrive on medications are to "continue to receive the medication in a timely fashion as prescribed." But nurse Siew Lung, who was interviewed by the detective investigating DeGraw's death, said she "did not dispense any medications to (DeGraw) as she continuously refused them."
And Sheriff's Office reports show that two jail staffers falsified entries in watch logs.
The detention deputy assigned to check on DeGraw every 15 minutes indicated she was looking in on the inmate as required, according to Sheriff's Office reports.
But the detective said the video he reviewed showed that the deputy, Patricia Shoberg, did not check on DeGraw three times in the hour before she was found unresponsive.
An internal affairs investigation concluded that Shoberg had falsified the log. She received a 56-hour suspension.
Nurse Aileen Mallari, who was assigned to screen DeGraw every two hours, also received a suspension after an internal affairs investigation found she, too, had listed visits to DeGraw that never took place.
DeGraw's behavior during her jail stay was a clear indicator she needed help for mental health issues, Laporte said.
"While she's in this jail from March 16 to March 24, she's incoherent. She's sleeping on the floor. She puts her food on the floor. She's climbing the walls. She's talking to people who aren't there."
Laporte said Michael DeGraw called the jail several times to try to speak with his wife, but was never allowed.
"You've got a caring husband who calls the Sheriff's Office to help, and they essentially kill his wife," Laporte said.
DeGraw was revived in her cell, then taken to Northside Hospital and Heart Institute, where she was pronounced dead. Laporte said the cause of death was determined to be fluid and electrolyte imbalance.