Unlucky Seven

Faced with an unprecedented rash of inmate suicides, St. Louis was slow to respond. Now there's a new jailhouse boss in town.

Judging from investigative records, the jail's initial response was quick: Less than five minutes passed before Theis was found, and first aid was prompt. However, fire-department paramedics weren't called until 7:23 p.m., about 15 minutes after Theis was discovered hanging. Paramedics arrived at 7:27 p.m. The fire department says it doesn't keep dispatch times for calls before Dec. 22, 1999, but available records show that jailers routinely waited five minutes or longer after discovering hanging inmates before calling the fire department. Bruce Petty, executive assistant to the commissioner of corrections, says he can't explain the delays.

Lloyd was the next to die. Then, two weeks later, on March 4, Edward Harris hanged himself in the workhouse the day after being convicted of murder, which carried a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. Again, jailers weren't prepared.

The day before Harris died, a guard saw him weeping after finishing a phone call. Knowing that Harris was facing life in prison, the guard asked him whether he was OK, even going so far as to offer him pamphlets on suicide prevention. Harris declined the offer. "I'm cool; that's the last thing I'll think about doing," he said. The guard reported that Harris later joked and laughed while playing basketball. That evening, an inmate also asked Harris how he was doing. "I'll be all right," Harris answered. "God has a place for me."

Jennifer Silverberg
Guards on break at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, 7600 Hall St.
Jennifer Silverberg
Guards on break at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, 7600 Hall St.

The guard assigned to Harris' housing unit the day he died wasn't aware of the pending prison sentence but later reported that Harris seemed fine. Indeed, he asked for an extra helping when the guard handed out food trays about 12:30 p.m. Other inmates, however, sensed that the conviction lay heavy on Harris' mind. Shortly after noon, an inmate told police that he had shown Harris a story about his conviction from that morning's St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After reading the article, the inmate told detectives, Harris went into his cell and sat on the toilet. The inmate said he could see beads of sweat forming on Harris' head.

An inmate received no answer when he knocked on the door of Harris' cell at 12:55 p.m. and asked whether he was asleep. About five minutes later, a guard found him hanging from a torn bedsheet tied to a towel hook. Jailers had trouble freeing Harris from his makeshift noose. While some guards struggled to hold him up, others tried unsuccessfully to untie the knots. There was nothing available with which to cut the sheet, and so Harris hung for approximately 15 minutes before someone finally used a cigarette lighter to burn through the fabric.

Quentin Davis, who was awaiting trial on murder charges, was the next to die. Neither guards nor paramedics attempted first aid. There was little point. By the time Davis, 21, was found hanging from a torn sheet attached to a towel hook at 7:18 a.m. June 23, 2000, his body was cool to the touch and stiff with rigor mortis. Police homicide detectives determined that Davis had used part of a ballpoint pen to push the torn sheet behind the supposedly suicide-proof towel hook.

Tony Gooch, the corrections officer assigned to make rounds in Harris' housing unit during the graveyard shift, told investigators he'd made required security checks of each cell in his assigned area, but at least three inmates reported that Gooch had made a bed by pulling chairs together near the beginning of his shift and napped through most of the night. Gooch resigned three days after Davis died, before being brought up on formal dereliction-of-duty charges.

Although Davis' workhouse file showed no history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts, other inmates told investigators he had shown signs of psychological breakdown. He had served 45 days in solitary confinement for an attempted escape in January and had told another inmate that the only way he was getting out of the workhouse was through escape or in a body bag. One inmate who spoke with him frequently reported that Davis had no visitors and no money for commissary and had told him that he felt as if everything was closing in on him. His court case wasn't going well, the inmate said, and he feared the prospect of execution or life in prison. Another inmate said Davis had been depressed since a visit with his attorney a few days before he committed suicide. A third inmate told investigators that Davis had been fascinated by a magazine article about suicide by hanging, repeatedly asking to see the story, which included several pictures showing how people hang themselves.

Michael Reeves, who was being held on charges of assault and armed criminal action, killed himself on July 10, 2000. By now, it was a familiar story: A guard found Reeves hanging from a torn bedsheet tied to a fire-sprinkler head in his cell. Reeves was standing at the door of his cell, looking out, when the officer checked on him at 3:15 a.m. Twenty minutes later, he was hanging and blue in the face. The guard did not immediately enter the cell. Rather, he called for backup and waited for the arrival of two more officers before unlocking the door and cutting Reeves down. Once again, no cutting tool was available in the housing unit -- officers had to retrieve a pair of belt cutters from a supervisor's office. Once again, paramedics weren't immediately summoned -- fire-department and jail records show that paramedics were called about 10 minutes after Reeves was found hanging. Jail records show that paramedics arrived at 3:55 a.m.; fire department records say paramedics arrived at 3:49 a.m. In any case, Reeves didn't receive CPR until the fire department got there. Once again, two of the three jailers who rushed to Reeves' cell didn't have proper CPR training. One had never received training, and another's certification had expired in 1998. Records don't reveal why a third officer whose training was up to date didn't initiate CPR.

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