Records show Wake County inmate's jail death could have been avoided

Records show inmate’s jail death could have been avoided

dkane@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2012 

Ralph Madison Stockton IV's arrest photo.


When a Wake County magistrate booked Ralph Madison Stockton IV on an outstanding warrant for underage drinking 14 months ago, his mother figured it was best her son stay in jail through the weekend until she checked him into a rehabilitation facility.

At least in jail, she thought, her 19-year-old son would not have access to the drugs that were ruining his life.

But the following afternoon, two deputies drove to Tanya Stockton’s home to tell her that Stockton died after going to sleep on a mat in an overcrowded downtown jail. An autopsy later found he overdosed on a combination of drugs, many of which he gulped as a sheriff’s deputy searched his car trunk in a traffic stop for suspected driving while impaired.

Jail officials have insisted nothing they did in the way they handled Stockton during the last 16 hours of his life contributed to his death. They point out that Stockton, the grandson of a prominent Winston-Salem lawyer, said nothing to them about ingesting drugs while he was alive, nor did a friend who was in the car with Stockton during his arrest.

But the internal investigation of the case, released to The News & Observer, shows numerous jail staff and other officials reported Stockton acted as if he was under the influence of drugs. The records show he freely admitted he had a drug problem and was taking methadone to combat it. The records also document strange behavior, such as Stockton giving away nearly $300 to help other inmates trying to make bail and wanting to talk to a detective to report several people dealing drugs.

Such behavior would suggest that Stockton should have been monitored by jail staff as often as four times each hour, as state law requires for drug- or alcohol-impaired inmates. A state investigation found Stockton had not even been monitored twice an hour, the minimum standard for all inmates. He had been unobserved for 62 minutes before he was found dead, state records show.

“After knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, I don’t believe that he had to die then and there,” Tanya Stockton said.

Jail officials declined to comment on the internal investigation’s findings.

“We have given you all the information that is public record and nonpublic record,” said Phyllis Stephens, a department spokeswoman. “We do not believe that further discussion with the media is warranted.”

Looking impaired

The evidence suggesting Stockton needed close observation started with a visit he and the friend made to a convenience store on the afternoon of Nov. 5, 2011.

The clerk, David Bagwell Jr., said the two young men entered the store looking “very impaired.” One struggled to open the door to a drink cooler; the other stuck his head in a freezer for roughly one minute before grabbing a Snickers ice cream bar.

“Mr. Bagwell stated both subjects were very unsteady on (their) feet,” the death investigation report said. “(He) stated he asked both subjects if they were OK and they responded stating they were fine.”

Bagwell wasn’t convinced. He called a sheriff’s major, who in turn radioed for a patrol car to follow the two men. That deputy, Raymond Bruner, pulled Stockton’s gray Lexus over a short time later. He said Stockton had been speeding.

Bruner found a half-ounce of marijuana and some unopened beer in the car. Stockton admitted to smoking marijuana that morning, but denied drinking alcohol, and a test for its presence drew none. But Bruner also noticed that Stockton appeared “shakey (sic) and nervous.”

Stockton told the deputy his shaky behavior was normal because “he had a problem with prescription pills and went to a methadone clinic every day for treatment,” the report said.

What Bruner didn’t know was that as he checked the car’s trunk, Stockton downed roughly 20 prescription pills in a thermos, the friend told investigators.

Bailey said Stockton told him: “I am gonna be in jail anyway and I want to be (expletive) up.”

A second deputy, Danielle Walker, arrested Stockton on a marijuana violation and for an outstanding warrant for underage drinking. Stockton nodded off numerous times in the patrol car, but he also followed instructions while being booked.

“The entire time Mr. Stockton had a ‘high’ look about him,” Walker said in a statement for the death investigation.

A mother’s call

Several jail staffers said they suspected Stockton was on something as he was being checked into the jail and was later led to a common area on the jail’s fifth floor to sleep on a mat. The jail has had persistent overcrowding, and that night had exceeded its 550-bed capacity by 76 inmates.

One of the staffers, Officer Jaime Santelli, who listened to Stockton’s request to see a detective, later said in a statement that Santelli told a sergeant “there’s something wrong with this person.” The sergeant’s reply: “(W)e are not medical staff to determine his condition.”

During that time, Tanya Stockton said, she twice tried to inform jail staff of her son’s drug problem. That was confirmed by a friend, Gigi Gaffney, who was at her home when she made the calls.

Tanya Stockton also said she could not connect with her son when he called. The calls were collect, so Stockton had to press 1 on the phone to accept. But when she did, the line went dead.

The investigation reflects an acknowledgment of her calls, but no one at the jail admitted to being warned of her son’s drug problem. Investigators also did not find a problem with the jail’s phone system.

Christiana Anumudu, a jail nurse who evaluated Stockton the night before he died, told an investigator that he was “on something.” But she and others said Stockton denied being on drugs, and seemed to function well enough that there wasn’t a need to place him on upgraded monitoring.

The state’s standard for upgraded monitoring of an inmate is triggered by physical violence against an officer; verbal abuse; threatening suicide or self harm; being intoxicated with a 0.15 blood alcohol content, or displaying slurred speech, smelling of alcohol or being unable to control one’s body movements; or behaving erratically.

The standard also requires any inmate with a history of attempted suicide or mental illness receive upgraded monitoring. Jail records show Stockton had told Anumudu that he was on methadone to treat his drug addiction, and had been in a hospital for “emotional or mental health problems.”

Stockton’s death and the subsequent state investigation forced the jail to improve its monitoring of inmates. Staff must now document the rounds they make and sign off on them. The jail also pledged to not give staff other duties that might conflict with inmate supervision.

The county also has opened a 672-bed expansion that has alleviated the overcrowding.

Tanya Stockton doesn’t deny her son’s drug use played a role in his death. She said he was in a tailspin after one of his closest friends died of an overdose in the Stockton home on Feb. 17, 2011. The two had been classmates at Ravenscroft, one of Wake’s most prestigious private schools.

A sheriff’s report into his friend’s death said that Stockton and his friend had partied the night before and took pills before passing out.

For months, Tanya Stockton declined to be interviewed as she sought details as to what happened to her son. She worries about the effect it may have on her other son, who was 16 when Ralph Stockton died. Both lost their father six years earlier.

But she decided to talk about her oldest son’s death after seeing another young man sitting in the back of a squad car six months later at a North Raleigh intersection. The young man looked much like her son.

“I found myself scared for him,” she said, “and at that point I could not just let it go.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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