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Tarrant Sheriff Faces Criticism For 10 People Who've Died In The County Jail. What's Going On?

Sheriff Bill Waybourn speaks at a podium in front of a White House sign and American flag.
Andrew Harnik
/
Associated Press
Tarrant County, Texas Sheriff Bill Waybourn speaks in the Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn is running for re-election, and he's taking heat for the 10 inmates who've died in his jail so far this year. COVID-19 is responsible for only one of those deaths.

The number of deaths so far this year shows a jump from last year, when seven people died in custody. Waybourn attributes the increase to fate, and what he says is the relative ill health of the people who enter his jail.

KERA's Miranda Suarez spoke with Nichole Manna, an investigative reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who's been following the deaths at the jail, as well as other incidents that have led some to question Waybourn's leadership.

If Only One Inmate Has Died Of COVID-19, What's Behind The Other Deaths?

Nichole Manna: The ones we know of are just a couple. Javonte Myers in June died of a seizure disorder. I actually talked to his family about that, and they believe that maybe he was neglected, or he didn't get the medicine that he needed, because he'd been maintaining this disorder for the last several years just fine. Jason Martin died of heart disease, and then one man died by suicide.

Some Controversial Things Have Happened Inside The Jail In The Last Few Months. It Even Lost Its State Certification Temporarily. What Happened?

Manna: That's actually tied to the man who died by suicide. His name was Dean Stewart, and he died in May. When the state investigated his death, which is normal for any in-custody death, they found that the regular checks weren't being conducted on time. At one point, Stewart had been left alone for more than an hour in his jail cell.

That's what caused the jail to lose its state certification. That happened for about a week before they presented the state with a kind of action plan to correct the issues that were found.

Shortly after Stewart died, a woman gave birth inside of her jail cell, and nobody knew about it.

The baby later died, and the mother was taken to a mental health facility, where her family said she should have been in the first place. I actually found out about those incidents through a source about a week after they happened. The jail never self-reported either one of those cases to the public.

Some County Officials Have Accused Waybourn Of Not Communicating These Issues To Them Either.

Manna: The Tarrant County Commissioners talked to him about that during a June meeting. Commissioners Roy Brooks and Devan Allen said during that meeting that they had learned about the unattended birth and the loss of the state certification through the Star-Telegram's coverage. They questioned the sheriff about why he hadn't communicated either one of those things with the commission.

They were particularly upset that there had been other commission meetings that Waybourn spoke at between the incidents and our coverage of what had happened. He failed to mention what happened in the jail during those meetings. When they confronted him about that, he said it just wasn't on his agenda at the time, and he told him that he had alerted Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and County Administrator G.K. Maenius.

How Has The Sheriff's Office Responded To These Accusations?

Manna: I personally have not been able to sit down with Waybourn. He did sit down with Ryan Rusak, who is our opinion editor at the Star-Telegram, and Waybourn told him that he takes any death at the jail very seriously. He said that they're always looking for ways to improve, and that he wants to be more transparent, but he has to be careful of what to say when there's an ongoing investigation happening. He said that he has to make sure that he's not breaching any type of privacy issue.

Vance Keyes, A Fort Worth Police Officer, Is Running Against Waybourn In The Tarrant County Sheriff's Race This Year. Is The State Of The Jail Part Of His Campaign?

Manna: Absolutely. Keyes has definitely brought up what has happened in the last six months at the jail. He has the backing of this new group called New Sheriff Now. They've had small protests outside the county commissioner meetings and held a larger protest outside of the jail over the summer. Their mission is to get information about what's been happening in the jail out to the public.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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