Mendocino County jail death results in $5 million settlement

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The brother of a Mendocino County man who died while being restrained at the jail has settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $5 million in an agreement that requires two law enforcement agencies provide new training procedures for handling people in crisis.

Steven Neuroth, 55, of Ukiah died after his June 11, 2014 arrest when he was being held face-down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed and ankles shackled, by law enforcement officers in a sobering cell at the Mendocino County Jail as a medical staff member watched.

Before the death, the arresting officer from the Willits Police Department is shown in a jail video joking about Neuroth, who was described by his family’s lawyer as a schizophrenic man in psychiatric crisis, and laughing about his fear of snakes with a vocational nurse there to evaluate his wellbeing.

“Walk up there and say ‘Ah, snakes!’ Funniest thing you’ve ever seen,” said Officer Kevin Leef, who is now a sergeant.

“Should’ve let him get hit by a car,” said Jennifer Caudillo, the vocational nurse.

Later in the video, Neuroth briefly resists being put into a sobering cell, and they take the handcuffed man to the ground, punch him and pull his shackled legs back. After several minutes pass, with Neuroth calling out for help, he goes limp. Neuroth is taken to the hospital, where he is pronounced dead.

His brother, James Neuroth, 57, of Laytonville sued the county, the Willits Police Department and California Forensic Medical Group, which provided medical services at the jail.

The official Mendocino County coroner report states Neuroth died from “methamphetamine toxicity associated with violent struggle” and noted that “any contributory role of restraint asphyxia (was) unascertainable.”

But the lawsuit by Neuroth’s brother contends he died from compression asphyxia when deputies restrained him, putting pressure onto his back and ignoring his pleas for help, said attorney Michael Haddad.

“Sometimes people have to be restrained in the jail, but the reason why the Sheriff’s Department is going to train all of their employees about compression asphyxia is because that manner of restraint killed Steven,” Haddad said.

The Mendocino County Jail has since ended its contract with California Forensic Medical Group, which provides medical services in jails throughout California, and now has a contract with Alabama-based NaphCare, according to Sheriff Tom Allman. The change was made because NaphCare has more registered nurses on its staff, who have a higher level of training than most of the staff from the California Forensic Medical Group, Allman said.

As part of the settlement, deputies in the field and the jail as well as Willits police will receive crisis intervention training. Willits police are also deploying body-worn cameras for its officers and requiring they use them, according to Haddad.

Allman said he had already begun to institute improvements to mental health services in the jail before the settlement. Jail staff are spending more time appraising arrestees brought to the jail to evaluate mental health conditions and determine “whether or not we’re going to accept the inmate from the arresting agency,” he said.

“This death was very unfortunate,” Allman said. “Given the level of illegal substance found in his blood certainly one could assume that was a contribution to this unfortunate situation.”

Willits Police Chief Scott Warnock didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

According to the terms of the settlement, Mendocino County and its insurer have agreed to pay $3 million to James Neuroth. California Forensic Medical Group will pay $1.5 million and the city of Willits will pay $500,000.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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