Davis jail death investigation still open 16 months later due to autopsy backlog

Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 5:00 AM

SARAH WELLIVER/Standard-Examiner

Family of Dominic Landreth walking down Washington Boulevard Sept. 23, 2017, during the 10th annual NUHOPE Northern Utah Suicide Awareness Walk in downtown Ogden. Landreth was 20 when he died by suicide inside Davis County Jail in 2016. An outside investigation by Unified Police Department is still open 16 months later.

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

FARMINGTON — Almost 16 months after Dominic Landreth died in the Davis County Jail, investigators still have not closed the case.

Landreth, 20, behind bars on two misdemeanor drug convictions, was found hanging in the jail showers on Aug. 22, 2016.

He was one of four Davis jail inmates who died by hanging over a two-month period. Landreth and two others died in the jail, and a fourth died in a Bountiful hospital several days after hanging himself.

RELATED: Davis County family questions justice system in son's jail death

It’s taken so long to complete the Landreth investigation because of an ongoing case backlog at the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, said Unified Police Department Sgt. Tim Duran, the lead investigator.

“From my observations, it appeared to be a suicide. But anytime there is an unattended death in a residence or a jail facility, we always obtain the medical examiner’s report and the tox reports,” Duran said.

UPD was called to do an independent investigation, a protocol for jail deaths in Utah. The medical examiner performs an autopsy and does toxicology tests. Nothing is official until the ME’s office completes its report.

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The Medical Examiner’s Office backlog delays many investigations around the state, frustrating family members of the deceased and the investigators trying to bring them closure.

“We have numerous cases waiting this long,” Duran said.

Last week, state Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Erik Christensen acknowledged receiving a question about the Landreth case and his office’s backlog, but no further information was provided as of Thursday.

In previous coverage, Christensen said the office was beginning to make incremental progress, but several factors still weighed down the effort. Pathologist turnover, when some of the state physicians found better-paying jobs elsewhere, and a wave of opioid overdose deaths in Utah were major causes of the delays, he said.

Documents detailing the Davis County Sheriff’s Office’s initial investigation of Landreth’s death said Landreth was found in the shower after jailers making rounds found out he was not in his cell. Jail personnel and paramedics tried to revive him but were unsuccessful.

About an hour earlier, a guard reported “unusual behavior” to his supervisor — that Landreth stood still for about 10 minutes with a towel on his head, looking over the railing of the top tier.

The report also said jailers believed another inmate was “controlling Landreth.” But apparently, nothing was done about those warning signs of trouble or suicide risk.

The sheriff’s office has declined to comment on specifics of the Landreth case, citing medical privacy and jail security concerns.

But after the four men's hangings, and the deaths of two female inmates, also in 2016, jail leadership positions were shuffled, and suicide prevention and substance abuse screening policies were strengthened, Sheriff Todd Richardson said in a recent interview. Nurse training was stepped up and more jailers received EMT training, he said.

However, in an interview in April after the Utah Attorney General’s Office declined to file criminal charges against jail personnel in the traumatic injury death of misdemeanor pretrial detainee Heather Miller on Dec. 21, 2016, Richardson said there were no policy violations and no major operational changes were planned or required.

Landreth’s mother, Kristen, condemned the justice system in a May interview.

“I mean, I understand when somebody breaks a law; that's what jail is,” she said. “But with the amount of people with mental issues and/or drug issues, it's not helping anything to lock them up. It doesn’t make them stop doing what they're doing. They need the help and I just feel like they didn't help my son.”

She was asked this week to comment on the investigation’s delay, but she declined, saying she was tending to a serious family medical matter.

Utah jails have drawn legislative scrutiny this year after at least 24 deaths were recorded in 2016. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, recently said he plans to propose a bill that would require jails and Utah’s prisons to file annual reports of in-custody deaths.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.