Lawsuit alleges Fremont County jail inmate who died in custody was denied prescription meds

March 17, 2016 Updated: March 18, 2016 at 7:29 am
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A Fremont County jail inmate died naked on the floor of his cell after he was deprived of a prescription medication and beaten by guards during bouts of withdrawal-related psychosis, a lawsuit alleges.

John Patrick Walter, 53, had nine broken ribs and other injuries when Fremont County sheriff's deputies found him unresponsive while making their rounds on April 20, 2014, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver.

The 29-page complaint alleges that guards injured Walter during efforts to restrain him as he suffered withdrawal from clonazepam, a psychotropic medication generally used in the treatment of anxiety.

The trouble began when Walter, who took 6 mg of clonazepam per day, was forced to go "cold turkey" upon being booked into jail April 3 on suspicion of first-degree assault, menacing, and reckless endangerment - all felonies.

"Mr. Walter's psychotic break from reality was so profound that he was often heard screaming and seen kicking, punching, and clawing at the walls and door in an apparent effort to escape imaginary people in his cell," according to the lawsuit, filed by Seattle attorneys Erik Heipt and Ed Budge on behalf of Walter's sister, a Colorado Springs resident.

Instead of summoning emergency medical intervention, deputies used pepper spray, a stun gun, restraints and "brutal" physical force to control him, according to the suit, which describes an ordeal during which the 200-pound Walter shed 30 pounds in less than three weeks.

According to the suit, he refused food and drink, shook uncontrollably, lost control of his bowels, and went days without sleep.

Among those named in the suit are Fremont County Sheriff Ed Beicker, who oversees the jail; The Fremont County Board of Commissioners, eight corporations associated with contracts to provide medical care for inmates; two doctors, two nurses and more than 20 other individuals, many of them sheriff's deputies.

"This took place over a 17-day period, and it is our belief that there are a lot of people who participated or who saw what was happening and failed to put a stop to it," said Heipt, whose firm takes cases across the country that involve civil rights abuses.

The lawsuit was filed in Federal Court under the claim Walter failed to receive due process.

Messages left Thursday for Sheriff Beicker and the Fremont County Attorney's Office went unanswered. Nor could other defendants be reached for comment.

Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller did not immediately respond to an emailed request for a copy of Walter's autopsy report.

Walter also had a prescription for methadone, which is used to treat opioid addiction, but jail medical personnel put him on a "tapering" schedule in which his dosage was gradually reduced.

Why a similar approach wasn't taken with clonazepam is unclear, Heipt said.

"It's a much more difficult and dangerous withdrawal than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or any drug you think of," he told The Gazette. "The withdrawal itself can kill you."

Heipt said that jail officials conducted a "sham" investigation resulting in a six-page death investigation report.

Fremont County officials have refused to turn over surveillance video and other materials that could shed light on Walter's treatment in custody, he said.

The lawsuit comes one week after another in-custody death at the Fremont County jail. Former state correctional officer Gregory Smith, 57, of Colorado Springs, collapsed in the kitchen March 10, one week into a 100-day sentence for trying to sexually assault prison inmates. His cause of death hasn't been released. Authorities say no foul play is suspected.

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Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366

Twitter: @lancebenzel

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