Custody officers won't face criminal charges in inmate death

Depuy prosecutor calls it a "unfortunate, tragic accident"

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: January 30, 2013, 7:47 PM

 
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Case Review Marius Cristian Asanachescu

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No criminal charges will be filed against jail custody officers who were trying to restrain an inmate when he died, Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said Wednesday.

Marius C. Asanachescu died in February 2012 at age 28.

In July, Clark County Medical Examiner Dr. Dennis Wickham ruled the death was a homicide from asphyxia while being restrained by custody officers.

Asanachescu had a history of mental illness and had been awaiting transfer to Western State Hospital for a competency evaluation.

In a seven-page decision, Fairgrieve wrote that Asanachescu’s death “was an unfortunate, tragic accident. The custody officers acted appropriately and used a reasonable amount of force given the situation they faced.”

The fatality was investigated by detectives from the Vancouver Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Asanachescu’s criminal record included convictions for assault and robbery.

In a Columbian interview last year, Afrodita and Cristian Asanachescu said their son started using drugs in 1997 to self-medicate for his bipolar disorder and received professional help at Columbia River Mental Health and Lifeline Connections. Their son also received Social Security disability payments.

When he was on his medication, he would do well, but then he would stop taking it because he didn’t think he needed it anymore, Cristian said during the March 22 interview.

The couple have hired Portland attorney David Meyer and Vancouver attorney William Nelson to pursue a civil claim against Clark County, arguing jail staff violated the 14th Amendment by showing “deliberate indifference,” to Asanachescu’s mental health needs and used excessive force.

Through their attorneys, the Asanachescus declined to comment on Wednesday.

History of incarceration

Citing a report from sheriff’s Detective Kevin Harper, Fairgrieve wrote that Asanachescu was incarcerated at least a dozen times between 2001 and 2012.

“Jail records reflect that Asanachescu assaulted custody officers on a number of occasions by spitting on them, attempting to grab or strike them, and fighting with them on multiple occasions, resulting in injuries both to the custody officers and Asanachescu.”

Different doctors at Western State Hospital had diagnosed Asanachescu over the years with various behavioral disorders. In 2008, a doctor said Asanachescu represented “an above average risk for future violence,” and the following year another doctor said he “is currently a high risk for future danger to others.”

On Jan. 30, 2012, Asanachescu was arrested on suspicion of second-degree assault after he reportedly threatened to stab his brother with a knife. The following day, he struck an inmate in the head with a broom handle after an argument, according to Fairgrieve’s report. On Feb. 3, he suffered a hematoma from striking his head against the drain grate on the floor of his cell. He injured himself again on Feb. 6 by striking his head against his cell wall, and was witnessed banging his head again on Feb. 7, Feb. 8 and Feb. 9.

After each incident, he was placed in a restraint chair.

On Feb. 10, Asanachescu had refused to take his medication and was alone in his cell, naked. A certified nursing assistant watched via video as Asanachescu began banging his head against a wall, Fairgrieve wrote, “with enough force that on two occasions he fell to the floor, apparently stunned.”

The CNA observed a lot of blood, and six custody officers went to Asanachescu’s cell. A custody sergeant followed.

“Many, if not all, of the officers were aware that Asanachescu had a history of violent behavior and had significant mental health problems from prior contacts with him. The group of officers attempted to get Asanachescu to stop hitting his head against the wall by using verbal commands,” Fairgrieve wrote. “This was unsuccessful. The officers then threatened to use a Taser on Asanachescu, a technique that had been successful in the past.”

A Taser weapon was used — an officer had to shoot it through the slot in the door used to deliver meals — and Asanachescu was hit twice, but the electrical jolt it delivered did not seem to affect him, Fairgrieve wrote. Sgt. Neal Karlsen then made the decision to send custody officers into the cell to try to put Asanachescu into a restraint chair.

Asanachescu, who was 5-foot-8 and 307 pounds, advanced on officers after they pushed open the door to his cell, Fairgrieve wrote. Custody Officer Kent Carroll shoved Asanachescu onto the floor, and Carroll and Custody Officer Luke Hatcher rolled Asanachescu onto his stomach.

“Asanachescu began trying to get up, lifting the two officers as he did so,” Fairgrieve wrote.

Eventually, restraints were placed on Asanachescu’s wrists.

“Asanachescu initially actively struggled against the officers, but once his hands were restrained, Officer Carroll noticed he stopped resisting,” Fairgrieve wrote.

As officers were trying to put him in leg restraints, Carroll checked Asanachescu and noticed his face looked “unusual,” Fairgrieve wrote. Carroll spoke to Asanachescu and got no response. Another officer noticed that Asanachescu had urinated. Carroll told officers that Asanachescu was unconscious and they needed to roll him onto his back.

Carroll started CPR, and medical staff arrived with an automatic defibrillator, which was hooked up to Asanachescu.

At no time, Fairgrieve wrote, did the defibrillator recommend giving a shock.

After about 25 minutes of resuscitation efforts, Asanachescu was declared dead by a doctor.

Wickham ruled the death was “mechanical asphyxiation as a result of chest compression during restraint by custody officers to prevent self-harm,” Fairgrieve wrote. “He determined that an underlying cause was psychosis on the part of Mr. Asanachescu, and that obesity was identified as another significant condition.”

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.

Between 2007 and 2011, in comparison, there were nine suicides.

In addition to making physical changes, such as replacing shower nozzles with ones that inmates can’t use to potentially hang themselves, mental health services will be increased by 40 hours, to 120 hours a week. The county has also pledged to work with the Southwest Washington Behavioral Health Regional Support Network, which arranges mental health services for people on Medicaid, to share as much information about mutual clients as can be shared without violating patient privacy laws.

Officials from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on Wednesday’s decision.

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