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FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator ruled Aug. 14 that inmate Billy Carter's death at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in February was caused by a respiratory disease linked to tobacco use.

According to the report, Carter was last seen alive the morning of Feb. 13 by the guard who brought him breakfast. Forty-five minutes later, he was found dead in his cell.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed June 12, Billy Carter's family claims the 56-year-old man's death was preceded by months of negligent care by the medical staff at the jail as his medical condition worsened.

Carter was incarcerated at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on allegations he molested several children while employed as a maintenance worker for a trailer park company in San Juan County.

Carter's criminal attorney, Eric Morrow, previously told The Daily Times that Carter complained for months of health problems and mistreatment by the staff before his death.

Morrow said Carter grew visibly ill while incarcerated and, according to the lawsuit, Carter was allegedly denied prescription inhalers brought to the jail by his family because the inhalers were not in their original packaging.

The lawsuit was filed against San Juan County, the detention center and its contracted health care provider, the San Juan Regional Medical Center, by the Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm.

Albuquerque attorney Ron Childress is representing the county and its detention center in the lawsuit. He said Friday his firm does not comment on pending litigation.

The hospital's attorney, Robert Curtis, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Attorney Mitch Burns of the Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm said the autopsy report confirmed his belief that Carter died of a treatable disease.

"He could have been treated," Burns said. "If he is at the point where he is going to die of (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), he should be at the hospital," Burns said.

Burns said Carter's lawsuit in federal court was recently consolidated with lawsuits his firm has filed on behalf of the families of Jesus Marquez and Sharon Jones, two other inmates who died in the past year at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of 25 other current and former inmates complaining of negligent medical care while incarcerated also has been consolidated, Burns said.

"It makes it more convenient for the court and all the attorneys to handle everything on one schedule," Burns said.

According to the autopsy report, Carter had a history of respiratory issues related to smoking, including asthma and emphysema, a form of COPD. Carter was also infected with hepatitis C, the report states.

Carter had bruises on his arms, abdomen, left hip, buttock and both legs when he died, according to the autopsy report.

In the lawsuit, Carter's family claims Carter was coughing up blood before his death, and the fat in his buttocks had depleted to the point where he was unable to sit without bruising himself.

According to the autopsy report, several days before his death, Carter fell and was transported to the hospital complaining of leg pain. A radiology test at the time detected no broken hip bones, but some bleeding was found in the deep tissues of his pelvis during the autopsy.

No illicit drugs or commonly abused prescription or over-the-counter medications were found in Carter's bloodstream at the time of his death, according to a toxicology report.

The report notes that the investigation into Carter's death by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office raised concerns the inmate could have died from an overdose of Suboxone, a mild narcotic drug used to treat opiate abuse.

Sheriff's detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln said Suboxone was suspected in Carter's death because the drug is commonly smuggled into the jail.

"It's easier to get a hold of, because it's a prescription drug, and its also easier to hide," Lincoln said.

He said Suboxone is sold in the form of a clear, dissolvable strip, which is easy to smuggle into the jail in letters and books.

Lincoln said his office has closed its investigation into Carter's death.

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

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