Sheriff, county sued in federal court over 2021 inmate suicide

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter and Cascade County have been in federal court for negligence, liability and wrongful death in the 2021 suicide death of an inmate at the Adult Detention Center.

Michael Lee Alexander, Jr. was being held in the county jail awaiting trial in Municipal Court for a misdemeanor charge of partner family member assault for allegedly slapping his mother during an argument, according to court documents.

While being held in the jail, Alexander committed suicide on June 17.

A jury in an August 2021 coroner’s inquest found that while mistakes were made at the jail that day, Alexander’s death had not been due to criminal intent.

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A coroner’s inquest is held after anyone dies in police custody or after a police shooting.

The civil lawsuit, filed at the end of September, alleges that the jail had inadequate staffing, that staff failed to conduct proper safety checks and failed to take measures to reduce the risk of harm to Alexander.

Alexander was cited in April 2021 for the PFMA and made an initial court appearance on April 19, 2021, according to the lawsuit. His bond was set at $385 and a trial set for June 24, 2021. Alexander couldn’t afford to post bond, according to the lawsuit, so he was held in the jail awaiting trial.

During that time, he’d been place on suicide watch, but was then cleared by mental health professionals at the jail. He was held in the T-Cells, which are attached to the booking area at the jail, and used to house the mentally ill or those who cannot be in the general population for their own safety, according to the lawsuit.

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According to the lawsuit, and the transcript of the August 2021 coroner’s inquest, Alexander had been making hallucinatory statements and his mental health appeared to be deteriorating.

On June 17, 2021, according to the lawsuit, other inmates heard Alexander resisting medication and said loudly enough for another inmate to overhear, “Why don’t you just kill me now? I don’t want to live anymore.”

During the coroner’s inquest, Montana Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Anthony Poppler told the court that in interviews and documentation obtained during his investigation that there was no indication Alexander was suicidal or a harm to himself or others leading up to his June 17 death. Poppler told the court that he had been advised that Alexander had made an attempt months prior, but there had been no recent events.

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According to court records, Alexander had previous charges in Municipal Court of resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer and criminal trespass. He held in the jail on at least one other occasion when in September 2020 he was charged for punching a detention officer.

Around 5:30 p.m. June 17, 2021, Bailey Kuykendall, then a detention officer, performed a visual check on Alexander, according to the lawsuit, but no other checks were performed until about 8:30 p.m.

Detention officers are supposed to perform those checks every 30 minutes in the T-Cells, according to the lawsuit and testimony during the coroner’s inquest.

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At 8:38 p.m., another detention officer walked through the T-Cells and saw Alexander hanging from a piece of torn orange clothing that he had tied to an exposed sprinkler head in the ceiling of his cell, according to the lawsuit.

According to the transcript of the August 2021 coroner’s inquest into Alexander’s death, Kuykendall said that their shift should have had 16-18 people on duty that day, but only had 10 or 11 people on shift.

“We were very low manning-wise, and so that did not help the case when it comes to doing our duties,” Kuykendall said during the inquest.

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Kuykendall had completed the detention officer’s basic academy the day before Alexander’s suicide, according to the coroner’s inquest. He was working for Safelite at the time of the inquest, according to his testimony.

RJ Burkhead, the detention officer who found Alexander, testified during the inquest that he had not received any reports that day of Alexander about his suicidal tendencies or that he was planning to commit suicide.

According to testimony during the inquest, the jail had been shortstaffed that day, court had been running late, there were more federal inmates than usual and a key had become stuck in a lock, disrupting normal activities.

Poppler, the DCI agent who investigated the death, told the court during the inquest that in the video footage from that day, inmates were playing cards and pacing outside Alexander’s cell but none appeared to notice any activity in Alexander’s cell.

Poppler told the court during the inquest that there was no criminal intent or criminal negligence on the part of anyone at the jail in Alexander’s death.

“This is not my first custodial death at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office Detention Center, and even with the
checks within 30 minutes, we’ve had previous deaths with other detention centers where the individual was
supposed to be checked on every 30 minutes or one hour and they still committed suicide. So even if they would have performed the check, inevitably, the person made their decision to take the actions into their own hands and commit suicide,” Poppler said.