A violent felon from Ogden was found dead in the Utah State Prison, and paramedics thought his trachea had been crushed.
But the Dec. 9, 2017, death of William Edward Gallegos, 64, made no news. Utah Department of Corrections officials usually do not publicize prison deaths, except for murders or highly unusual cases.
Initially, Gallegos’s death was considered suspicious, according to documents obtained with a series of public records requests.
An outside agency, the Unified Police Department, was called in to investigate. But there was no public word of the case, either at the start or when police and the medical examiner eventually ruled the death was accidental.
However, Senate Bill 205, passed by the 2018 Utah Legislature, has opened a narrow window shining weak, diffuse light on those deaths behind bars.
Lawmakers required Utah’s state prison system to begin filing annual reports with basic aggregate data. Inmates’ names, dates of birth, dates of death and details of the 20 deaths in 2017 were not included in the first annual report filed by the Department of Corrections.
Sponsoring legislators said they hoped the basic reports would help provide a snapshot of prison deaths to help guide future policy decisions.
Personal stories from individual cases — what happened to the real people involved — did not emerge.
But with the documents obtained, the Standard-Examiner was able to piece together some information about what may have happened to Gallegos.
METHAMPHETAMINE IN PRISON
In its SB 205 report to the Utah Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice, the Corrections Department listed the death of a 64-year-old man from “accidental methamphetamine toxicity.”
The man was imprisoned on attempted murder and assault convictions, according to the report.
The department next was asked for its incident report on the death. It released a copy with names, dates and most details withheld.
UPD then was asked for its investigative reports of all deaths it looked into at the prison in 2017. It released seven reports, including one about Gallegos. Again, most other identifying information was withheld, but the narrative about what happened when the body was found was released.
The UPD report said a corrections officer doing rounds found Gallegos, who used a wheelchair, slumped backward in the chair. Draper Fire Department paramedics summoned to the scene “were unable to insert a tracheal tube and thought his trachea had been crushed,” the report said.
Gallegos had “numerous medical problems,” according to the report, and his cellmate said he thought Gallegos was having a stroke.
After it received the autopsy report from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, UPD listed the death as an accident. The apparent immediate cause of death — “methamphetamine toxicity” as noted in the DOC data — was blacked out of the UPD report.
The Department of Corrections offered no explanation about the methamphetamine issue.
UPD finally concluded there was “nothing suspicious” about the death. It said Gallegos’s trachea had not been crushed, and investigators closed the case.
Gallegos had ended up in prison with a sentence of 5 years to life for attempted murder and assault for a horrific domestic violence attack on Oct. 19, 2004, as documented in 2nd District Court records in Ogden.
After his live-in girlfriend returned home late one night, Gallegos hit her with his cane and stabbed her in the leg with a jagged-edged knife.
Gallegos became further angered when the woman could not stop the bleeding. He duct-taped her leg, then broke his cane with repeated blows to her body. He stabbed her in the neck and the temple, duct-taped her mouth and told her to take a shower. While Gallegos ate some food, the woman escaped and went to police.
Because of his long court record, Gallegos was tagged as a habitual criminal, a status that usually leads to longer prison sentences.
PRIVACY VERSUS TRANSPARENCY
In withholding most details of prison death investigations, state and UPD officials cited legal concerns, including medical confidentiality and privacy laws.
But an expert on prison deaths says it’s a shield that inhibits transparency, leaving inmates’ families in the dark, beyond the initial notification of next of kin.
“A death investigation on an inmate at the jail or prison level is always substandard,” said Karen Russo of the Wrongful Death and Injury Institute of Kansas City.
That’s because prison, jail, police and prosecution entities together amount to a multi-armed conglomeration of government that inherently is not transparent, according to Russo.
Her organization assists families and private attorneys in attempting to cut through the layers to find out what happened to deceased inmates. Investigations and autopsies pay little heed to inmates’ medical histories, she said, contending that autopsy conclusions often are oversimplified.
Prisons, jails and police are “hooked real tight to the medical examiner,” Russo said. “All of these deaths are off. The reporting is off.”
The other six prison deaths investigated by UPD in 2017 included five listed as due to natural causes — no underlying causes were released — and one suicide.
A state committee looking into jail and prison deaths said the lack of available detail on underlying causes is hampering its attempts to determine the breadth of substance abuse and mental health problems that may be contributing to “natural” deaths and suicides.