Kin of Mycheal Lynch doubt official report, to sue county

Vancouver man's family on quest for answers about events at Clark County Jail that led to his death

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

Published:

 

He’d been told that his son had slipped and fallen in the Clark County Jail. He was told that he was in the intensive care unit, but would be all right. But the second Kim Lynch walked into the hospital room, he knew Mycheal was brain dead.

“First your gut’s taken out of you,” the 64-year-old Vancouver man said. “You’re just empty, you’re mad, you’re hurt.”

Next came the questions. One rose to the top: What happened?

The events that led up to the death of 32-year-old Mycheal Lynch were the subject of a police investigation and a review by prosecutors. The custody officers involved in the jail struggle that left Lynch dead were cleared of any wrongdoing and followed all county policies, officials said.

But Lynch’s family believes something went wrong and they’re determined to hold those responsible accountable. They said they want lasting change at the jail so that no one else has to experience their pain.

And while the past 2 1/2 years have been mired with anger over Lynch’s death, family members have also been riddled with guilt — because they were the ones who called 911 to have him sent to jail, which they thought was the safest place for him.

Life of sun and shadows

While Mycheal Lynch enjoyed playing video games and tinkering with his car, his biggest interest was his family.

He and his dad were rebuilding a 1976 four-speed Jeep, a vehicle that Mycheal Lynch had grown up idolizing.

He doted on his sister Kelly Foster’s three children, and was especially close to his niece Jazmin, now 15. The two played video games together and Lynch was a regular cheerleader at her soccer games.

“She had him wrapped around her finger,” Kim Lynch said.

Lynch considered his mom, Patty Nevins, to be his best friend. They lived together in a ranch-style house in east Vancouver. Lynch would gas up her car, go grocery shopping with her, and talk to her about everything — including how he wanted to find a wife and start a family of his own.

But both he and his sister dealt with anxiety. She dealt with it by going on walks and talking through her emotions with others. Lynch dealt with it by spending days locked in his bedroom. He was bullied in high school, where his 6-foot-tall, 200-pound frame didn’t fit his sweet, nonconfrontational demeanor, said Lynch’s stepmom, Lila Fields.

To manage his anxiety, Lynch tried various medications over the years. As an adult, however, he didn’t have health insurance and wasn’t getting regular medical attention. So Lynch would turn to illicit drugs.

Those moments of anxiety and drug use would only last a few days, his family said, and they came in waves — every six to eight months. But he did have trouble with the law. Convictions that date back to 2001 include theft, burglary, domestic violence, driving under the influence and hit-and-run charges. His last conviction was nearly 10 years ago, for a DUI.

“He was good for a long time,” Foster said.

To his family, he was a loving, “teddy bear” of a man.

“The world’s a lonely place without him here,” Fields said.

A critical moment

The weekend before he died, Mycheal Lynch was at one of Jazmin’s soccer games, huddled under an umbrella with his sister, laughing as they leaned into “gale-force” winds, she said.

A few days later Foster got a concerned call from their mother. Lynch was “on something” and acting odd.

His mother tried sending him to the hospital. He didn’t want to stay, so staff released him. When he came home, Lynch and his mother argued and Lynch tried to enter her locked house. Scared, she called 911, a police report of the incident states. When police arrived, Lynch promised he’d spend the night somewhere else.

Around 2:30 p.m. the next day, Foster and her husband came over to come up with a plan to help Lynch. When the couple drove up, they saw Lynch had just arrived. There was damage to his car and he wanted to drive away, the family said.

“That scared me a little bit,” Foster said. “I didn’t want him to accidentally do something where he’d get into a car accident … I wanted to make sure he didn’t accidentally hurt somebody or hurt himself.”

The family ran through their options: They’d tried the hospital, but Lynch had already refused treatment and couldn’t be held against his will since he wasn’t considered a threat to himself or others. They could try a mental health or drug and alcohol facility, but finding a bed could take days.

“We didn’t know what else to do when the hospital wouldn’t keep him and he needed to get into the right state of mind,” Foster said.

Her husband, a corrections deputy in another county, offered a solution — call 911 and get him jailed. Lynch could spend the weekend sobering up and his family could come up with a better, long-term plan for help.

“He said, ‘Babe, we need to call police, we need to get him in jail. Let’s let him detox for a night, it’s the safest place for him,’ ” Foster said. “And we thought that was the safest place for him. He said, ‘They’ll put him in the medical unit, he’ll detox a little bit, we’ll call your dad, we’ll get a game plan together. We’ll be OK.’ ”

When officers arrived, they performed a field sobriety test and questioned Lynch about the damage to his vehicle. He told them he hit a fence “somewhere on 162nd,” the police report notes. He voluntarily consented to a blood draw, and he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, hit-and-run involving damage to property and reckless driving.

What Lynch said next is something that still haunts his family.

From the back of the police car, he said: “Please don’t let them take me, they’re going to kill me,” Foster said.

The arresting officer noted in his report: “Mycheal also told me that ‘I’m basically killing him’ by taking him to jail.”

Lynch’s family said they try not to think too much about what he meant by his words, or what he thought would happen to him. When they do, they start to feel horrible.

“We feel like it was our fault … None of us knew the outcome of that phone call or that decision we all made together,” Foster said. “I don’t think that guilt’s ever going to go away for any of us.”

A struggle in the jail

The investigation into Mycheal Lynch’s death resulted in a report several hundred pages long. It gives the following account:

As his brother-in-law had predicted, Lynch was housed in the jail’s medical unit just after 6 p.m. on March 20, 2015. A few hours later, he triggered the emergency call signal in his cell. A corrections deputy responded and told Lynch he was pulling the cord for the wrong reason and left.

Lynch then pulled the cord several more times.

Because he was acting erratically, corrections deputies then decided to move Lynch to a padded cell in the booking area where they could better watch him.

When two custody officers entered the medical unit, Lynch ran out the door and fell in the hallway, according to the documents.

The deputies followed and used their bodies to hold Lynch on the ground while calling for more help.

Other custody officers responded. Eight people worked to restrain him — putting their knees on his back, pinning his shoulders to the ground and using their body weight to keep Lynch from bucking. Others worked together to get him in handcuffs and his feet in leg restraints. Then they moved him into a restraint chair and placed a spit mask over his face.

An officer noticed Lynch was not alert and held smelling salts to his nose, but got no reaction. A jail nurse took Lynch’s pulse, but got no reading. They then got him out of the chair and started CPR while they called for emergency medical response. A deputy applied an automated heart defibrillator, but it suggested no shock.

When paramedics arrived, they treated Lynch on the way to the hospital and at some point, his pulse was revived. But, doctors would later tell Lynch’s family he’d gone at least 10 minutes without oxygen reaching his brain. Two days later, after doctors said there was no hope, Lynch was taken off life support and soon died.

Hearing the news

Within hours of learning Lynch was brain dead, Lila Fields was on the phone with Jack Green, a Vancouver attorney who had previously represented a family member.

“This is the type of case that keeps you up at night,” Green said. “This is a good, hardworking, honest family and they’ve had to go through hell and it’s my job to help them find some answers.”

The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Lynch died of brain damage due to lack of oxygen. An autopsy found that an irregular heartbeat during the struggle, coupled with methamphetamine intoxication, caused Lynch’s death.

Though the medical examiner’s office declined to comment further, Vancouver cardiologist Dr. Michael Ontkean explained that methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that causes adrenaline discharge in the body. When that happens, the heart’s health is the principal concern, he said, since using the drug can cause heart attacks.

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, meaning it resulted from another person’s deliberate action. The ruling does not make any judgments about criminal culpability. In fact, the jail staff involved in the incident were cleared of any wrongdoing after a review by the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“The facts of this case do not indicate deputies piled on Mr. Lynch in a manner that would have made Mr. Lynch unable to breathe,” Prosecutor Tony Golik wrote in the decision to clear the custody deputies. “Rather, the facts of this case indicate the involved deputies used the force necessary to hold Mr. Lynch down while Mr. Lynch struggled with them.”

The family remains unsatisfied. They point to statements in the report by two deputies and three inmates housed nearby who said they heard Lynch say he couldn’t breathe. And while the medical examiner’s ruling points to a problem with Lynch’s heart as the underlying cause of death, the attorneys said, his heart was ultimately deemed healthy enough to be donated.

“None of the evidence matches,” attorney Greg Ferguson said. “One of the complexities of the case is that the story the county is telling is incongruent with the fact that his heart was fine.”

Knowing he’d face a legal battle with the public records, attorney Green involved Ferguson, an attorney with 15 years of public records litigation.

The county initially refused to provide them with surveillance footage of the struggle — evidence that the family says offers an objective take of what happened — and the two took that legal battle to court.

After more than two years, the attorneys just recently received the video after a judge ruled in favor of its release.

The next step, the family said, is making sure those responsible are held accountable.

Lynch’s family filed a tort claim against the county in November 2015, arguing the jail was negligent in his death, and sought damages of at least $4 million. Next, Lynch’s family plans to move forward with a wrongful death lawsuit.

Ultimately, the family wants the legal action to result in change for future inmates in crisis.

“There were a lot of points in time where better practices could have been employed and Mycheal would still be with us,” Green said.

In addition to the investigation, Jail Chief Ric Bishop did an administrative review of the incident and looked at whether any changes to the jail’s policies were necessary. Only a minor recommendation came out of the review, which was to make restraint equipment more readily available.

But the family of Mycheal Lynch doesn’t think that’s good enough.

Green wouldn’t go into specifics about what needs to be changed at the jail, but said that would be detailed in the upcoming lawsuit.

“You’re supposed to be in there and be safe,” Foster said. “We want to know exactly what happened to my brother and why it happened and I want to make sure no one else has to go through this again.”