On March 30, 78-year-old Charlie Peterson was released from the Weld County Jail. Two days later, the Greeley resident was dead from health complications that may have been caused by COVID-19.
Now civil-rights attorneys are pointing to Peterson's death as evidence that other medically vulnerable detainees should be released right away.
"He was desperately sick in the jail, and it is likely that Weld County Jail officials arranged to have him released due to that illness," charges the ACLU of Colorado in a statement about a federal class-action lawsuit filed against Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams on April 8. "Nonetheless, when Mr. Peterson’s housemate came to pick him up from the jail, no official told the housemate that Mr. Peterson was ill. Mr. Peterson barely made it to his home before an ambulance had to be called and took him to the hospital, where he died."
The lawsuit is asking the sheriff to release older individuals and those with compromised immune systems, two categories of people considered especially susceptible to harm from COVID-19. The suit also claims that the sheriff didn't do enough initially to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the county jail.
Peterson had been living at the Rock Found re-entry center in Greeley before he landed in the Weld County jail for three weeks on charges of failure to register as a sex offender and violating parole.
A roommate from the center went to pick him up upon his release. Peterson could "barely walk," was "very sick" and "cold and shivering," according to Cheryl Cook, the executive director of the Rock Found center, who filed a statement with the U.S. District Court of Colorado as part of the lawsuit against the Weld County Sheriff.
"I honestly could not believe that not a single person from the Weld County Jail had told anyone at Rock Found that they were releasing a seriously sick person into our care, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis," Cook wrote. She declined an interview request from Westword.
Peterson was admitted to the hospital shortly after his release from jail. A day later, on March 31, Cook received a call from a doctor who said that Peterson was gravely ill; the doctor wanted to know Peterson's end-of-life wishes.
On the morning of April 1, Peterson died.
According to Cook's statement, the doctor later told her that Peterson's COVID-19 test results had came back positive. The Weld County Coroner's Office did not respond to Westword's request for information about Cook's death.
"We at the Rock Found are mourning the loss of our friend, our family member, Charlie Peterson. We await the end of the COVID-19 crisis so that we can have an end-of-life celebration for a man that worked so hard to redeem himself and create a better life," Cook said.
Weld County has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic; its 55 recorded deaths from COVID-19 are second only to Denver's count. The county has had 858 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
And the county jail has been feeling the effects of the pandemic sweeping through Weld County.
Sixteen sheriff's deputies working at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Seven have been cleared to start work again, according to Joseph Moylan, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office.
Nine jail detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. Three of those detainees have already been released. Those numbers do not include Peterson, Moylan says.
As of April 13, the jail was housing 513 detainees, which represents a 35 percent reduction in its population since March 1, according to a court filing by Reams.
But that population reduction was too little, too late, lawyers claim.
"Rather than taking proactive measures at the start of this crisis to comply with public health guidance, Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams has openly eschewed the seriousness of the pandemic and ignored the science and data underlying public health experts’ concerns regarding dangerous spread of the virus within overcrowded jails," claims the suit, which was filed by attorneys with the ACLU of Colorado and Killmer, Lane and Newman, among other firms.
According to the Colorado Times Recorder, Reams seemed more concerned about "socialism" than COVID-19 on March 20, when posting on Facebook about federal stimulus packages designed to help struggling families and businesses. "I understand that nobody wants to catch Coronavirus but statistically, even if you catch it you’re likely to be just fine. What I’m concerned with is our Country catching a huge case of socialism," Reams wrote. "Maybe it’s just me but I’d rather take my risk with the virus then socialism."
That post aside, Reams insists that he and his team at the jail have been taking the COVID-19 threat seriously, according to court filings written in response to the suit.
In those filings, Reams laid out "81 individual steps his agency took to not only prevent an outbreak in the jail – which were successful for more than three weeks – but also the changes in facility protocols following March 31 when sheriff’s office leadership were notified about the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in an inmate," according to a statement from the sheriff's office.
“In the face of one of the most difficult times in our recent history, the men and women of the Weld County Sheriff’s Office have remained focused on our number one priority; community safety. Unfortunately, the claims by the plaintiffs only serve as an attempt to subvert the criminal justice system and the ACLU lawsuit is little more than a thinly veiled politically motivated attack," Reams says in a statement about the case.
The jail has instituted a 23-hour-per-day lockdown for detainees, allowing them in the common space of their dormitories for only one hour a day, according to Moylan. Those periods are staggered so that only four to eight individuals in a dormitory are allowed out at once, he says, "to promote social distancing as much as possible while they are out of their cells."
Citing HIPAA patient-privacy protections, Moylan declines to say whether Peterson had been exhibiting symptoms of being infected with COVID-19 while in custody. A judge had granted Peterson a personal recognizance bond on March 23, he notes, but because of a violation, there was still a parole hold in Peterson's file, leading to his continued detention.
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