By SEAN BATURA
Hays County recently paid a $245,000 settlement to the widow and four children of Torrey Smith, who died at age 31 from sickle cell anemia while in custody at Hays County Jail in 2008.
When Smith was booked into the jail on Dec. 2, 2008 on an outstanding child endangerment warrant, Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) staff received information indicating he suffered from the disease. Smith was pronounced dead six days later.
According to his autopsy, Smith died from an acute vaso-occlusive crisis brought about by sickle cell disease.
HCSO Jail Medic Lois Wagner repeatedly claimed Smith was fine and faking his symptoms, according to HCSO Corrections Officer Paul Eichholtz and HCSO Corporal Ernest Sierra, both of whom were interviewed by Texas Ranger Sergeant Jimmy Schroeder in the subsequent investigation.
Smith showed symptoms of his illness on Dec. 5, 2008, though, Eichholtz said, Wagner pronounced Smith fine. Smith was moved to the jail’s infirmary the same night. Eichholtz and Sierra reported Smith was unable to move under his own power by at least 10 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2008. Eichholtz and Sierra said they witnessed Wagner clean blood from Smith’s mouth sometime between 10 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2008. As Wagner cleaned the dazed inmate’s mouth, she told Smith to “stop faking it” and said she had “no patience for this,” according to the witnesses.
Smith was placed on a 15-minute watch. HCSO Corrections Officer Roy Brosig said the checks consisted of observing Smith through the glass windows, and he reported that Smith was lying on his stomach the entire time. Wagner applied a blood pressure cuff to Smith’s left arm at about 11:10 p.m., which, Eichholtz said, was the only time he saw Wagner check the inmate’s blood pressure that night.
After receiving a blood pressure reading that visibly disturbed her, Wagner rolled Smith over and applied an ammonia inhaler, but Smith did not respond, nor did he awaken after Eichholtz gave him a “sternum rub.” Smith was then dragged out of the cell into the corridor, where Wagner and others tried to find a pulse on the inmate.
When they did not find a pulse, Eichholtz said he and another corrections officer initiated CPR. Eichholtz and others reported a dark liquid with a foul odor coming out of Smith’s mouth during CPR. Emergency Medical Service (EMS) personnel arrived at the jail about 11:35 p.m. and took over CPR, and then transported Smith to Central Texas Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at about 12:07 a.m. shortly after arrival.
After a Hays County Grand Jury reviewed the matter on Aug. 5, 2009, no criminal charges were filed in connection with Smith’s death, and the case was closed.
Cynthia Smith is Torrey Smith’s widow and Regina Wade is mother to one of his children. Smith and Wade filed a “friendly suit” in February against Hays County to seek a settlement. District Judge Jack Robison approved the terms of the agreement on March 29.
Cynthia Smith received $63,415, each child received $25,000, and Wade did not receive any settlement money. The Law Offices of Nadine Nieto, which represented the plaintiffs, received $81,585. Clifford McCormack, the guardian ad litem for the children during the litigation, received $750. The settlement agreement states that “the making of this settlement is for the purpose of avoiding the time, trouble, and expense of investigation and litigation and does not constitute an admission of liability on the part of the Defendants as to any cause of action asserted herein.”
HCSO spokesperson Leroy Opiela said Wagner no longer works for the sheriff’s office.
“Now, how she left, I don’t know, but she is no longer employed here,” Opiela said.
Wagner said she was involuntarily terminated.
Asked whether she would describe her experience of the events leading up to Smith’s death, said Wagner: “I’d rather not even discuss that. There is — I can’t really explain. I have just mixed feelings about it, and I don’t think I was treated fairly, either.”
Wagner said she does not remember whether she knew of Smith’s disease in the days leading up to his death.
“I’m trying to put this behind me, because I don’t care whether he was a prisoner or not,” Wagner said. “He did die. And, you know, I’m very sensitive when it comes to things like that.”
Hays County Criminal Investigations Division Lieutenant Chris Bartsch asked Schroeder to assist in the investigation at about 12:50 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2008. Schroeder arrived at the jail at about 1:30 a.m. and conducted six interviews with sheriff’s office personnel between 3:43 a.m. and 8:20 a.m. Wagner was not among the personnel interviewed by Schroeder. HCSO investigators interviewed Wagner and other employees. The county’s investigation materials were not immediately available.
“That happened before I became the sheriff here, but we’ve dealt with it, and we’ve taken care of business, and hopefully what happened there won’t happen again,” said Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff of Torrey Smith’s death.
Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges died of a sudden heart attack in his home on the morning of Dec. 6, 2008.
“Any time a death occurs in the jail, it’s regrettable,” said Hays County Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy. “We are the stewards of our inmates. We have an obligation to look after their well-being, to escort them through the criminal justice process and hopefully reach some resolution for them and for the victims involved, and all parties. Mr. Smith died while he was in our custody. And hopefully the settlement in this matter will do something to make his family whole and get them on down the road, even if it’s in his absence.”Email | Print