Man's family sues over jail death

Suit says suicidal inmate's counselor was kept from him

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The family of Marius C. Asanachescu, a mentally ill man who died while in custody at the Clark County Jail last year, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the county and the jail's medical provider.

The lawsuit alleges Asanachescu's civil rights were violated and seeks an unspecified amount of money in compensation for his death as well as punitive damages.

Asanachescu died in February 2012 at age 28.

Clark County Medical Examiner Dr. Dennis Wickham ruled the death was a homicide from asphyxia while Asanachescu was being restrained by custody officers. The fatality was investigated by detectives from the Vancouver Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff's Office. In January, Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said no charges would be filed against the officers. He called the incident "an unfortunate, tragic accident," but said the custody officers "acted appropriately and used a reasonable amount of force given the situation they faced."

At the time of his death, Asanachescu, who had bipolar disorder, had prior criminal convictions and received Social Security disability payments, was in jail on charges of assaulting his brother. He had been awaiting transfer to Western State Hospital for a mental competency evaluation.

In a 45-page complaint filed recently in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Vancouver attorney William Nelson and Portland attorney David Meyer allege the defendants were "deliberately indifferent" to Asanachescu's needs.

For example, they allege that when Asanachescu was booked into the jail, a Conmed nursing assistant incorrectly noted during an intake screening that Asanachescu had no previous documentation of mental health issues. A mental health counselor signed off on the screening, noting no further evaluation was necessary, and Asanachescu was cleared to be in general population, attorneys wrote. During Asanachescu's 12 days in the jail, a counselor from Lifeline Connections, a community mental health clinic where Asanachescu had received treatment for several years, was twice told he could not meet with Asanachescu, the lawsuit alleges.

Asanachescu was a week into his stay before he received medication, according to the lawsuit.

On Asanachescu's third day in jail, he reported feeling suicidal and was placed in a suicide smock in a solitary cell, on suicide watch. He began engaging in self-harm, including banging his head against the floor and metal toilet.

Asanachescu, who was 5-foot-8 and 307 pounds, was strapped into a restraint chair, a device that would be used repeatedly during the rest of his stay.

The day of his death, Asanachescu was hitting his head against his cell door and officers tried to place him in the chair. One custody officer, followed by a second officer, fired Tasers at Asanachescu through an opening in the cell door, knocking Asanachescu off balance. Officers went into his cell and pinned him to the ground, according to the lawsuit. Eventually, he stopped struggling. According to the lawsuit, he was asphyxiated by a "spontaneous and unplanned use of deadly force" by seven officers.

The lawsuit alleges Asanachescu's 14th Amendment rights were violated due to, among other reasons, excessive force, unreasonable denial of mental health care and arbitrary, unreasonable conduct by officers.

The defendants are Clark County; Conmed, a Maryland-based company that contracts with the county to provide medical care to inmates; Sheriff Garry Lucas; Jail Chief Jackie Webster; nine officers and 10 Conmed employees.

Clark County Chief Civil Prosecutor Bronson Potter said he has reviewed the complaint.

"The county will be filing an answer denying that it or its employees violated Marius Asanachescu's constitutional rights," Potter wrote in an email. "The challenges of housing and caring for the mentally ill faced by those operating detention facilities are daunting. This is especially true when those individuals are violent.

"Nationwide, there are three times more seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. In Clark County over 5,000 people per year are booked into the jail who are identified as having special needs.

"The death of Marius Asanachescu was a tragedy for his family. It also took a toll on the custody officers involved.

"The complaint filed by Mr. and Mrs. Asanachescu is lengthy and contains many allegations. It should be noted that the complaint is the plaintiffs' allegations, not evidence. The county will be responding to those allegations in the court proceedings."

Meyer, speaking on behalf of Asanachescu's parents, said in an email that "We and our clients feel it best to remain off the record and confine our comments to the facts set forth in considerable detail in the complaint filed in Federal District Court in Tacoma."

Recently, the county has been taking steps to make the jail safer for mentally ill inmates. In 2012, there were 19 suicide attempts and four suicides, in addition to Asanachescu's death.


Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.