We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

A Santa Rosa woman incarcerated in the Lake County Jail spent the last hour of her life tearing her blanket into strips and fiddling with plumbing fixtures before hanging herself from the sink of a sobering cell, according to a new report released by the Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

The report concluded that Elizabeth Dara Gaunt, 56, died Aug. 2 of self-inflicted injuries, and District Attorney Don Anderson cleared jail staff of any wrongdoing in the death. But the woman’s friends and family said the report raises serious questions about the supervision Gaunt received while in custody.

Sheriff Brian Martin confirmed late Wednesday that one member of the jail staff involved in Gaunt’s care no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office — a detail not included in the District Attorney’s report, which focused on criminal wrongdoing.

The report stated that jail staff waited about 15 minutes to enter Gaunt’s cell after an officer reported she could see from the cell window that Gaunt apparently was on the ground. The officer could see Gaunt’s feet moving and hear her making noises, according to the report.

That officer then went to the booking area and asked another officer to check the video feed of Gaunt’s cell.

But it wasn’t until 2:24 p.m. that a third officer entered the cell to do a check and found Gaunt unconscious on the floor, removed the blanket strip from the sink and attempted CPR, the report found.

Given signs that Gaunt was at risk in the jail, the response by those charged with her custody fell far short, said Wallace Doolittle, Gaunt’s former husband and a Bay Area attorney.

“They saw her tearing the blanket, they saw her modifying the water faucet plumbing. They saw her with strips of blanket wrapped around her feet,” he said. “That, to me, is a real red flag.”

Martin, the Lake County sheriff, said the jail’s policy is to fully ascertain the welfare of an inmate when it is in question, something that appears not to have been followed in this case. The Sheriff’s Office conducted its own separate investigation into the death.

“We expect our checks to be adequate to ensure the safety of anyone in our custody,” Martin said Wednesday in a phone interview.

He would not say Wednesday if Katherine Prince, the officer who made the first of the final pair of checks on Gaunt, at 2:09 p.m., was fired or resigned, citing state law providing privacy to law enforcement personnel in such cases. Prince was employed by the Sheriff’s Office for six years and her last day was Oct. 14.

The report released late Tuesday by Anderson summarized the District Attorney Office’s independent investigation of the death. It concluded that jail staff had “acted appropriately” in their supervision of Gaunt and that her suicide “was not contributed to, or caused by any member of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department or Correctional Facility personnel.”

“No wrongdoings have been found and there shall be no criminal charge filed on any individual in this matter,” the report stated.

Gaunt, a former substance abuse counselor who struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, was taken into custody on the afternoon of Aug. 1 after deputies responded to a report of a woman in Nice banging on residential yard gates. She was arrested on suspicion of giving deputies false identification and being under the influence of a controlled substance, later reported to be a potentially toxic amount of methamphetamine.

When she was being booked into the Lake County Jail, Gaunt was asked by a deputy if she wanted to harm her herself and she said “No,” the report stated.

The next afternoon, at about 1:44 p.m., less than an hour after she had begun tearing pieces of her blanket and examining the cell’s sink, apparently testing its strength, she sought to gain a correctional officer’s attention, the report said.

She said something like “Please help me,” the report stated, and a sergeant came to the door to speak with Gaunt, during which time she became agitated and continued to yell through the door, asking for help. The sergeant, who recalled Gaunt indicated she did not feel well, told Gaunt to remove the strips of blanket from her feet and said she reported the interaction to the on-duty nurse, according to the report.

Anderson said in an interview Wednesday it is not unusual for inmates to shred their blankets. The bedding often is already in poor condition because inmates damage it, he said, using the scraps for shoes and scarves — a practice that turns them into contraband and means such items should be confiscated, he said.

Martin said he could not comment on why the fabric strips were not seized from Gaunt. He said changes are being made in the jail to prohibit the use of blankets in such poor condition.

According to the report, at 1:52 p.m., the nurse walked up to Gaunt’s cell door and then walked away after making a log entry. A minute later, the nurse obtained contact information from Gaunt for her ex-husband and son.

But for the next 16 minutes, jail staff had no reported interaction with Gaunt, Anderson’s office found. Video footage of her cell, reviewed after her death, show Gaunt talking to herself and taking a strip of blanket, tying one end to the sink nozzle and wrapping the other end around her neck, according to the report.

She then lay down between the toilet and wall, which blocked most of her body from the camera, Anderson said. Based on what they surmised during the death investigation, she tied a knot in the end that was around her neck, according to the report. She struggled for a short time, then turned on to her left side.

Anderson said the first officer to spot Gaunt on the ground — Prince, in the 2:09 p.m. check through the cell window — wasn’t alarmed because it’s not unusual for inmates to lie on the floor.

Prince could see Gaunt’s feet moving and hear her making noises, but her head and most of her torso were hidden by a wall aimed at giving inmates privacy in the bathroom area, Anderson said.

The subsequent check of a live video feed from Gaunt’s cell also was limited in what it showed at the time, Anderson said. Gaunt would have been visible to the camera only from about the hips down once she leaned down below the wall, he said.

Doolittle said that based on the report’s timeline, it is likely Gaunt was dead or dying when the officer observed her at 2:09 p.m. Online forensic sites say the amount of time it takes to die from a “suspension” hanging like Gaunt’s can vary, but can take place in two to four minutes.

The officer “either really didn’t do that cell check at 2:09 or did a cursory glance,” Doolittle said.

Anderson said he can’t explain the discrepancy, but said there can be muscle movement following death and that could be what jail staff observed.

The follow-up cell check at 2:24 p.m. led to the emergency response, including the attempt to revive Gaunt.

Paramedics arrived at 2:36 p.m. and provided treatment. Gaunt was taken to the Lakeside Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 3:12 p.m.

Dane Shikman, Gaunt’s son, said he was flying home from a trip out of the country on Aug. 2 when he received a text from his father, saying his mother had been located in jail, several days after a neighbor reported her missing.

But the following day, two police officers arrived at his door to notify him of his mother’s death.

Gaunt was an intelligent woman but her life was marred by drug and alcohol abuse, and by mental illness, friends and family said.

“She struggled with substance abuse, as do tens of millions of Americans, but she was brilliant and goofy and compassionate beyond measure,” Shikman said. “She was always laughing and always loving, and she dedicated her entire life to being a good mom and a great public servant.”

The daughter of psychiatrists, she had a master’s degree in counseling and had been a well-respected substance abuse counselor in Sonoma County for many years, he said.

She had been clean and sober for up to seven years at a time, but apparently began slipping again sometime after her son left for college six years ago. She also developed physical ailments that prevented her from working, said Richard Shikman, a San Francisco attorney and the father of her son.

Both men said she had never voiced any desire to kill herself.

“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think she would pass away in jail,” Richard Shikman said. “I was real shocked. It could have been avoided.”

The men, along with Gaunt’s ex-husband, said they would push for additional information about Gaunt’s care and supervision in jail.

“I want a complete picture” of events, Dane Shikman said. “The report raises serious questions about whether the staff could have prevented the incident.”

Sheriff Martin said he’s sorry for the family’s loss and is taking steps to prevent deaths in the future. He noted that jails now commonly house people with mental health and substance abuse problems and must make sure those people are as safe as possible until society sees fit to provide funding for more appropriate treatment venues.

“It’s a societal thing,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

Show Comment