During a January 2017 interview, attorney Erik Heipt described the agonizing eighteen-day jail death of John Patrick Walter as an "atrocity," and the $4.25 million settlement just reached in the case reflects the scope of this entirely unnecessary tragedy.
"It's hard for some people to imagine this kind of thing happening to them or a family member," acknowledges Edwin Budge, Heipt's partner in the Seattle-based law firm of Budge & Heipt, PLLC, which represents Walter's estate. "But it does happen, and it's only when it happens to you or a close family member that the deficiencies in the system really hit home."
The settlement imposes a number of restrictions on Budge when it comes to speaking about the case. For instance, he confirms that the agreement involves "a national correctional health care company" but is prohibited from saying which one. Four firms fitting this description are defendants in the original lawsuit: Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc., Correct Care Solutions, LLC, Correctional Healthcare Physicians, P.C., and CHC Companies, Inc.
Likewise, Budge is precluded from discussing the specifics of the case. But he emphasizes that his firm is continuing to litigate "against certain county defendants"; the complaint names commissioners in Fremont County, where Walter died, as well as Fremont County Sheriff James Beicker, who resigned from the post on September 1, and more than twenty individuals accused of culpability.
The events leading to Walter's death got under way on April 2, 2014, when he was processed at the Fremont County Jail in Cañon City. At that time, he told jail personnel that he was taking a number of prescription medications, including methadone and Klonopin, a substance also known as Clonazepam and classified as a benzodiazepine, or benzo.
Klonopin is commonly prescribed to patients with severe anxiety, seizure disorders or insomnia, and it's addictive. "If you take the medication long enough, you can become physiologically dependent on it," Heipt pointed out. "Often what happens is, someone is prescribed this medication, and after a period of time, that prescribed dosage doesn't have the same therapeutic effect. So the dosage is increased, and that sets off a chain of events where that person slowly increases the dosage to get the therapeutic benefit of it. But once that person becomes physiologically dependent on the medication, they're at risk of life-threatening withdrawal if they stop taking it. It's the same as if you're taking something like Xanax. You can't suddenly go cold turkey without risking your life — and ending the medication has to be done slowly, through a tapering regimen under the guidance of a qualified physician."
That didn't happen in Fremont County. While Walter was gradually withdrawn from methadone, he wasn't given any Klonopin or a substitute benzo. The result was a horrific and escalating series of symptoms that Heipt said typically include "shaking, profuse sweating, an inability to eat or sleep, abnormal vital signs, gastrointestinal distress." Eventually, he noted, "a person slowly loses touch with reality and begins going into a state of delirium or withdrawal psychosis. They will start hallucinating, and ultimately, they will go into seizures and die."
Walter went through this process in public. He was placed in an observation cell that allowed a slew of employees to witness his deterioration in slow motion. He was frequently naked and is believed to have lost between thirty and fifty pounds over a stretch that found him banging on and kicking walls, rolling on floors and yelling at people who existed only in his imagination. By the end, he was visibly bruised, swollen and had at least nine broken ribs that couldn't be explained by attempts to revive him after he entered his final health crisis. He was found lifeless in his cell on April 20 — Easter Sunday.
Heipt characterized the subsequent death investigation as a "sham" that covered up the true facts of Walter's disturbing death spiral. But one person insisted on finding out what really took place.
"Desiree Klodnicki is John's sister," Budge says. "She's not a beneficiary, and she doesn't stand to inherit anything from the estate. But she was appointed by the court as his personal representative, and it was only through her valiant efforts at the outset that this case came to our attention. You can imagine that what happens behind bars is often a big mystery to the family, and if there isn't a family member with the resources or the determination to hire an attorney to investigate — and there aren't a lot of attorneys who'll take these cases — the cause of death may remain a mystery forever."
This scenario seemed likely in the Walter matter. But a few months after the lawsuit was filed, the original autopsy report, which deemed the reasons for his death "undetermined," was amended to confirm that he passed away because of acute withdrawal from benzodiazepine.
Was Walter treated so cavalierly because the private health care companies charged with keeping him healthy wanted to save a few bucks? Budge isn't able to respond directly, but speaking generally, he notes that "there have been cases across the country where certainly an argument can be made that the privatization of correctional health care and the profit incentive that goes along with that might, in some circumstances, disincentivize a provider from providing the full and adequate care to which inmates should be entitled."
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He adds: "When we take somebody off the streets, we take that person as they are — meaning that they may have any number of pre-existing medical conditions. They may be dependent on prescription medications or they may suffer from addictions that are prevalent within our society as a whole, but are particularly prevalent among people who are accused of crimes and tend to be arrested. And one has to question whether there's a conflict of interest at times between the company's desire to make a profit and the obligation that society has to those it confines in a jail, particularly pre-trial."
Budge declines to characterize what kind of message the mammoth settlement sends in regard to issues like these. But, he stresses, "I feel it's very important when somebody dies under suspicious circumstances that questions be asked. I think there are companies and certainly municipalities, counties and cities that want to do a better job. But investigations have to be more than surface-level. Hard questions need to be asked, people need to be interviewed, records need to be reviewed, surveillance videos need to be reviewed. There is no reason why an investigation of an in-custody death should be any less rigorous than an investigation that occurs on the outside."
To date, Budge's firm has handled "at least a dozen jail death cases from beginning to end, and what we see all too often is that, if there is an investigation, it's very cursory, and there's a reason for that — because the people who are charged with taking care of the inmates in the jail are law-enforcement officers or the contract providers. So ultimately, I think there needs to be a law that requires a full and thorough investigation of every suspicious jail death — one that ensures that those investigations are conducted impartially. If there are deficiencies in care or, God forbid, foul play, families need to know, society needs to know and municipalities need to know."