Second wrongful death lawsuit filed against San Juan County Adult Detention Center, San Juan Regional Medical Center

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The second wrongful death lawsuit this year was filed Friday in federal court against the San Juan County Adult Detention Center and its contracted health care provider, San Juan Regional Medical Center.

Charles Carter filed the lawsuit on behalf of his brother, William "Billy" Carter, who died at the county jail on the morning of Feb. 13.

Charles Carter alleges in the civil complaint that his asthmatic brother was denied the use of a prescription inhaler while incarcerated at the detention center.

Billy Carter's health deteriorated over a period of several months, according to the complaint, until the 57-year-old man was found face down and dead in his cell at 7:30 a.m.

Charles Carter is claiming in the lawsuit that the defendants, which include the county, the jail and the hospital, were negligent in caring for his brother and violated Billy Carter's constitutional and civil rights.

He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as court-ordered changes in policies, procedures, supervision, training and contractual payments for medical services at the jail.

Tom Havel, detention center administrator and a co-defendant, said Friday he had no comment on the lawsuit.

San Juan Regional Medical Center marketing manager Roberta Rogers said the hospital would not discuss the specifics of an ongoing lawsuit.

"However, the hospital believes it has meritorious defenses and will vigorously defend this litigation," she said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to presenting our viewpoint in court."

Dr. Eric Ketcham and his wife Cindy Ketcham, both medical directors at the jail, were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Billy Carter was arrested April 21 and charged in Aztec Magistrate Court with 12 counts of criminal sexual contact of a child under age 13, a third-degree felony, and bribery of a witness.

As reported by The Daily Times in April 2014, Billy Carter allegedly molested several children while employed as a maintenance worker for Cactus Rentals, a company that owns several trailer parks in San Juan County.

One woman told The Daily Times when charges were filed that Billy Carter bought her underage daughter a cell phone and put her on his lap during car rides around the county. The girl later told police Billy Carter groped her genital area and told her not to tell anyone about it, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

One of Carter's court-appointed attorneys, Eric Morrow, said Friday that Billy Carter complained "from the beginning" of health problems and mistreatment by staff.

According to the jail's inmate grievance log, Carter filed a formal complaint with Cindy Ketcham on June 4 regarding his inhaler.

Billy Carter also complained On July 28 about the jail's policy of charging inmates a fee, or co-pay, for medical services, a controversial practice that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care has disavowed.

The Daily Times requested on May 20, through the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, that the county provide copies of the grievances filed by Billy Carter during his incarceration. The county has not yet complied with that request.

Morrow said Billy Carter's skin became loose and translucent during the 10 months he was incarcerated. He also had difficulty getting around in the days before his death, Morrow said.

"You could see that, essentially, his veins were becoming more and more transparent," he said.

The civil complaint paints an even grimmer picture.

According to the complaint, Carter was coughing up blood and the fat on his buttocks depleted to the point where he was unable to sit down without bruising himself.

His family brought prescription inhalers to the jail for Billy Carter, the complaint alleges, but the jail denied Carter access to them because they were not packaged.

The complaint contends that inmates in Carter's pod were threatened with disciplinary action if they attempted to help Carter, but they nonetheless used their personal phone calls on Feb. 11 and Feb. 12 to call Morrow and request his help in getting Carter transported to the hospital.

Morrow told The Daily Times he was denied a visit with Carter on Feb. 12, the day before his death, because Carter was unable to physically lift himself into a wheelchair.

Morrow said that he brought up Carter's health issues in court before his client's death and he filed a motion requesting his release.

Court records indicate no such motion was filed, but Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said Morrow's co-counsel in the case, Shannon Pettus, did contact his office to see if prosecutors would support Carter's release from jail for health reasons.

O'Brien said the prosecutor in the case does not remember the details of that conversation.

Mitch Burns — of the Tucker, Burns Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm in Farmington — filed the complaint on behalf of Charles Carter.

Burns said the information in the complaint came from Morrow and inmates who knew Billy Carter.

"Surprisingly, a number of inmates have come forward and expressed concerns about his death," he said.

On April 7, The Daily Times requested, through the state's public records law, an autopsy and toxicology report for Billy Carter. The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator has not yet complied with that request.

Burns said he did not know what specifically killed Billy Carter, but he suspected it was a respiratory issue.

Burns said his law firm is still investigating the Jan. 5 death of another inmate: Sharon Jones. He said he expected a lawsuit would be filed in her death soon.

As previously reported by The Daily Times, an inmate incarcerated with Jones on the night of Jan. 4 said that she and other inmates requested that jail staff check on Jones' condition, but their concerns were ignored.

The Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm is also representing Olga Salazar in the death of her son, Jesus Marquez.

Salazar alleges in her lawsuit filed May 15 that Marquez pleaded for medical care for hours before his death on March 3.

The defendants in that lawsuit have not yet filed a response to Salazar's allegations, according to court records.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.