A jury in the Denver branch of U.S. District Court has awarded Carolyn O'Neal a judgment valued at approximately $3.6 million for what a lawsuit filed in her name characterizes as an illegal arrest nearly five years ago in Fremont County and horrific mistreatment while she was detained in custody, including leaving her strapped naked to a restraint chair for hours.
The information about the case that has surfaced thus far only scratches the surface of what convinced the jurors to order the defendants to pay such a mammoth amount of compensatory and punitive damages. "This is one of the biggest verdicts ever in a non-death case against a political entity," notes attorney David Lane, who represents O'Neal on behalf of Denver-based Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP. "The jury smacked the shit out of them."
Now, Lane is sharing the unvarnished details of the ordeal suffered by O'Neal, a 54-year-old with three children and three grandchildren. Warning: The details of his account and the accompanying video, which we've edited to blur nudity, may disturb some readers.
"Carolyn O'Neal had a hideously abused life," Lane says. "She was homeless at age twelve and repeatedly, sporadically homeless for much of her life. She also had an alcohol and drug problem and was terribly abused by men."
Indeed, the original lawsuit points out that O'Neal was a victim of domestic violence while homeless in Grand Junction, where an abusive boyfriend beat her, burned her with a cigarette and broke her arm, adding to a series of significant physical- and mental-health challenges. Because of severe spine problems, she's had several back surgeries, including a neck fusion, and has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and panic-anxiety disorder.
To get away from her abusive boyfriend, O'Neal moved to Cañon City, the Fremont County community where one of her daughters and a grandson live — and in October 2013, she began to get support for her various addictions after checking in to New Creations Inn, a sober-living facility.
"It's run by a Christian group that opened a rehab program at this old dive motel they'd purchased," Lane explains. "So Carolyn moved in, and she was doing fine in the program. But then one day she found out her mom needed her because she was dying of cancer."
When O'Neal asked the folks at the program if she could take a leave in order to move back to Grand Junction and care for her mom, "they said, 'No,'" Lane continues. "She said, 'This is a voluntary program. I'm going to leave.' Then another resident of the program came by and asked, 'How are you doing?' And she said, 'I'm doing so great, I'll probably drive my car off a cliff.'"
According to Lane, the resident took this remark not as an offhand expression of frustration, but as a suicide threat — and after receiving this report, representatives of the program called the Fremont County Sheriff's Department.
At approximately 12:28 p.m. on May 5, 2014, FCSD deputies arrived at O'Neal's residence "just as she was ready to take a bath," Lane reveals. "They said, 'You made a suicidal threat. We need to make sure you're okay.' And she said, 'I didn't make a suicidal threat.' But they used a key and walked in, and she was completely naked. She said, 'Get the fuck out of here!' She wanted them gone, and her PTSD triggered madly, which you can understand, since three armed men just broke into her home."
The deputies responded "by saying, 'We're arresting you for disorderly conduct,'" he goes on. "They threw her naked on the bed and then threw a blanket over her. But the blanket kept falling away as they took her to the police car while she was screaming and cursing at them. She said, 'You can't do this to me! I'm in my own home!' And that's basically what a judge said to them three months later, when the charges were dismissed. Disorderly conduct has to happen in a public place, and she was in her own home."
Nonetheless, O'Neal was driven to the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, and when they moved her out of the vehicle, "she was completely naked, and she had a 250-pound deputy on one arm and another big deputy on the other," Lane recaps. "Now, Carolyn O'Neal is only five-four and 123 pounds — but they said she tried to throw an elbow at the 250-pound deputy. So they threw her on the ground, even though she was only about twenty feet from a cell, and they made no effort to cover her up."
Next, Lane says, the deputies "brought out a restraint chair. They picked her up, put her in the chair naked, put a spit mask over her face and wheeled her into a cell. But they left the door open and started taking video of this while she was in the chair. And she was in it for four hours."
A smock was initially placed over O'Neal, but Lane points out that "it kept falling away. So about half an hour into the time she was in the restraint chair, she managed to wiggle one of her ankles out of the ankle restraints so she could cross her legs — because she saw an inmate across the way jerking off because she was semi-naked."
This pose didn't suit a deputy who walked by a short time later. In Lane's words, "They geared up a team to force her legs apart and put her back in the restraint, because she was apparently the reincarnation of Bruce Lee and could kill somebody with her scrawny, spindly legs — except there's no one to kill, since she was alone in her cell. They forced her right foot into the restraint and strapped her in, but she was up on the ball of her other foot. So, to get her to put it down, they put a pressure hold on her to get her to comply."
She tried not to do so. Lane acknowledges that "she yelled at them, trying to preserve her right to protect her own body. So they tased her while she was in the restraint chair — and that's when her foot went down."
Here's the video:
After four hours, O'Neal was finally moved from the chair to a cell, where she lingered, still naked, for another eight hours.
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The lawsuit was filed in May 2016 and spent nearly three years winding its way through the system — and at trial, Lane says Fremont County officials vigorously defended their actions: "When the former sheriff testified, he said, 'If this happened a hundred times, I'd tell them to do it the same way a hundred more times.'"
The jury wasn't convinced. On April 10, they authorized an award of $2,995,004, including $1 million for unconstitutional policies in Fremont County. Legal fees and interest should bring the total judgment to $3.6 million, Lane estimates.
William O'Connell, the Denver-based attorney who represented Fremont County in the lawsuit, has not responded to Westword's outreach at this writing. Lane concedes that the county has the right to appeal the verdict, "but there's nothing for them to appeal. It was a very clean trial." He says negotiating a settlement "would be what a rational group of people would do. But in the several years this has been pending, they've shown no inclination to act rationally."
Click to read Carolyn O'Neal v. Fremont County Board of Commissioners et al. and the Carolyn O'Neal verdict form.