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DA calls 5 Washington Co. inmate deaths in year 'tragic coincidence'

December 4th, 2013 9:24 pm by Becky Campbell

DA calls 5 Washington Co. inmate deaths in year 'tragic coincidence'

The Johnson City woman who died Tuesday while housed at the Washington County Detention Center was just minutes away from being transported to Sumner County on a probation violation, Sheriff Ed Graybeal said Wednesday.

Donna L. Patillo, 51, of 1110 Lark St. No. 9, was found slumped over in her cell in the booking area of the jail when an officer went to serve her dinner. Graybeal said the officer had made rounds to check the cells in booking nine minutes before delivering the food tray.

“Johnson City picked her up on a probation violation out of Sumner County,” Graybeal said. “She was never booked in, never dressed out or anything because Sumner County was on their way to get her.”

Johnson City police delivered Patillo to the jail at 12:40 p.m. Tuesday. An officer conducted a visual check on the woman hourly, the last one at 4:43 p.m. At 4:52 p.m. Patillo was found unconscious in her cell.

According to Graybeal, Sumner County officers arrived at the jail as the ambulance pulled away to transport Patillo to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Patillo is the fifth inmate this year to die either at the jail or after being transported to a medical facility following some kind of incident at the jail.

Jay Davis, 39, of Jonesborough, died in January at the jail. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging. Stewart Peppers, 22, of Johnson City, went unconscious after an altercation with officers inside his cell in April and died at an area hospital. Charles Young, 35, of Limestone, died from a heart attack in May and Aaron Michael Bever, 29, of Florida, died in June after he was found hanging in his cell. His death was ruled a suicide.

“I don’t have an explanation other than to’s a tragic coincidence,” District Attorney Tony Clark said. ”There’s no indication they’re connected. It’s just unfortunate these happened in close proximity to each other.”

Each inmate death investigation was or is being handled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. That’s at the direction of Clark, who said it’s to ensure there’s no appearance of impropriety.

“I have recommended to all the counties that when they have a jail death to contact me and contact TBI, and they’ve done that,” he said. “If I feel anything needs to go to the grand jury, I will do that. If I felt there was any foul play going on at the jail, I would do that.”

He said inmates often go into the jail with existing mental and health problems. In Patillo’s case, Graybeal said there were no initial indications of a problem. It was only after her death that jail administrators learned about her health history.

“From what we could find out, she had an extensive medical history,” Graybeal said. “Our medical staff did check her and she was fine.”

Graybeal said the jail medical staff talks to inmates when they’re brought in to learn about any health issues or medications they’re taking. Patillo did not tell anyone she had any health issues, he said.

The only inmate death investigation that hasn’t been fully concluded is the one involving Peppers, whose family has since filed a lawsuit against several jail employees. 

“As of today, I still don’t have an autopsy back on Mr. Peppers,” Clark said, noting he does not know what is causing the delay.

The incident involving Peppers happened April 29 after he began shouting obscenities from his cell in booking.

According to federal court documents, the shift lieutenant tried to calm Peppers down by talking to him. Instead, Peppers became enraged, according to a statement of facts filed by the attorney representing the jail.

In his affidavit of the events, Lt. Jason Lowe said Peppers began beating his head against the cell wall so hard that Lowe and other officers decided they should restrain him to prevent him from hurting himself.

When the officers went into the cell, Lowe had his Taser pulled because of the potential threat Peppers posed. Peppers refused to obey officers’ commands to sit down and instead approached them in an aggressive manner.

That’s when Lowe deployed the Taser, which had no effect on Peppers except to further enrage him, according to the affidavit.

“He gave a primal scream and kept coming at us,” Lowe said in his statement.

The altercation happened very quickly, he said, with officers trying to physically subdue Peppers. Lowe used the Taser, then a chemical spray, shackles and the restraint chair in attempts to stop Peppers.

But none of the attempts seemed to gain any control over Peppers until he suddenly stopped moving while partially restrained in the chair.

That’s when Peppers appeared to stop breathing and resuscitative efforts began.

Peppers’ parents, in the lawsuit they filed, contend officers beat on their son even after he was fully restrained. They allege the jailers then huddled together to “review the events,” and even laughed together immediately following the incident.

The couple say a female detention officer was angry with Peppers because he had used obscene language so she recruited the five male officers to beat up the inmate.

From the beginning of his incarceration, Peppers’ behavior was reported as bizarre and unusual. According to several affidavits filed by jailers, Peppers called himself the son of Zeus, Hercules, the chosen one and claimed to be the son of God.

Johnson City police officers who took Peppers to the jail had warned detention officers that Peppers may have used synthetic drugs.

Once the TBI investigation is completed, that information will be supplied to Clark for further review. Based on the findings, Clark will decide whether to take the case to a grand jury.

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