SEBASTIAN COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — More is being learned about the death of a man who died while in custody at the Sebastian County Jail.
A civil lawsuit has been filed against Sebastian County, the county jail medical provider, Turn Key Health Clinics, and several other defendants.
The county sheriff denies the allegations but the attorneys for the Larry Price Junior estate are standing behind the lawsuit.
“This was a man who was basically ignored to death,” said Hank Balson, one of the three lawyers from Budge & Heipt law firm who are representing Price’s family. He said they are a law firm based in Seattle, Washington that does work around prisons, jail issues, and law enforcement nationwide.
According to the lawsuit filed on Friday, Larry Price, who died more than a year ago while being held in the Sebastian County Jail, had long battled with paranoid schizophrenia.
The lawsuit said Price often went to the Fort Smith Police Department and the officers there knew who he was and the mental health problems he faced. The suit said Price was suffering from an “acute mental health crisis” when he walked into the FSPD station on Aug. 19, 2020.
“He was yelling and cursing at the officers,” said Balson. “At one point, he picked up his empty hand and held it like a child holds it if they’re pointing a gun and was threatening officers.”
According to the Fort Smith Police arrest report sent to KNWA/FOX24 by Balson, the officer who filed the report acknowledged that Price would come to the department several times a day, but was more agitated than usual.
The officer writing the report described the incident as follows.
“Price then started gesturing with his hands as if he was holding a handgun and threatening to shoot.”FSPD report on arrest of Larry Price
The officer felt “it would be in (Price’s) best interest to have multiple officers place him under arrest or otherwise try to calm him down.”
He was charged with terroristic threatening in the first degree, which is a Class D Felony. According to Arkansas Criminal Code, a person commits the offense of terroristic threatening in the first degree if, with the purpose of terrorizing another person, the person threatens to cause death or serious physical injury, or substantial property damage to another person.
The lawsuit said Price’s bail was set at $1,000 which, as someone who lived in poverty and was often homeless, he couldn’t afford.
“Usually people can get out by posting 10% of that. He didn’t have $100,” said Balson. “So basically, he was in jail because he was poor, mentally ill, and ignored and neglected by a system that just was not equipped to deal with somebody with that kind of illness.”
The lawsuit said Price spent a little more than a year in solitary confinement at the jail leading up to his death.
“A record shows that when he entered the jail in August 2020, his booking form stated he weighed 185 pounds. His autopsy showed he weighed 120 pounds at death,” said Sheriff Hobe Runion in a video statement released on Saturday. “That means over 12 months in jail he lost approximately five pounds per month.”
The lawsuit said Fort Smith EMTs, as well as Mercy Hospital personnel, estimated Price’s weight to be 90 pounds just by looking at his condition. Balson said this estimated weight being so low speaks volumes.
“The significance of that is how do you appear? And so how he would have appeared to the jailers and the people who were supposed to be paying attention to him,” he said.
Balson did provide photos of what Price looked like in good health to KNWA/FOX24. The lawsuit includes graphic photos that show how emaciated Price had become, with bones visible all over his body.
You can see a side-by-side comparison of one of the autopsy photos with one of the healthy photos in the video attached to this web story. Viewer discretion is advised.
The lawsuit said jail guards logged more than 4,000 consecutive well-being checks on Price between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2021. It said all had the same entry: “inmate and cell OK.”
But it said in the early morning hours of the 29, a little more than a year after his arrest, corrections officers found Price in his cell “unresponsive, in a pool of standing water and urine.”
“They knew he was losing weight. They knew that he couldn’t take care of himself in the jail,” said Balson. “They are aware of this, but they didn’t take any steps to help him.”
He said Turn Key nurse Chisteena Ferguson, who is named as a defendant in the case, instructed the jail guards to weigh Price and start food and intake logs on Jan. 28, 2021. He said the guards filled out the log only sporadically, and Ferguson failed to follow up. The lawsuit said the last food and fluid log was filled out on April 25, 2021.
Sheriff Runion said his staff provided nourishment to Price.
“Let me make one point clear, jail staff gave this inmate plenty of food and water every single day. Jail medical staff were in regular contact with him,” said Sheriff Runion. “As evidence, he was severely mentally ill, sometimes he ate the Styrofoam tray instead of the food that was on it.”
Sheriff Runion also wanted to make clarification about Price’s death.
“The autopsy said the inmate died with COVID-19,” he said. “All of us want to know more about what other factors may have led to his tragic death.”
The autopsy report, shared with KNWA/FOX24 by Balson, said COVID-19 was a contributory cause to his death, but the actual cause of death was acute dehydration and malnutrition.
Balson said the circumstances around Price’s death are a violation of the 14th Amendment.
“For people who are in the jail who have not been convicted of a crime, they are protected by the 14th amendment,” he said. One of the requirements of the 14th Amendment also prohibits the government from being deliberately indifferent to the serious medical or mental health needs of people in custody.”
Sheriff Runion asks people to withhold judgment until their internal investigation and the court case are complete.
KNWA/FOX24 is working to get more information from Arkansas State Police and the Sebastian County Prosecutor, who declined to file criminal charges in this case in January 2022.
Fort Smith Police declined to comment at this time.