The family of the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility inmate who died of an apparent suicide plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, according to Richard Martinez, a paralegal at The Rothstein Law Firm.
"We're reviewing it as information becomes available," Martinez says.
The county previously settled for $1.8 million when the same law firm sued on behalf of an inmate who suffered brain damage during an attempted suicide at the jail, arguing that the facility failed to provide adequate supervision.
Word of the impending lawsuit on behalf of Robert Montoya, 33, who died the day after he was discovered hanging in an SFCADF cell on Dec. 7, has already reached the county. Spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic told SFR Jan. 10 that, because of the threatened lawsuit, SFCADF Director Annabelle Romero can now only respond to questions in writing. The county didn't answer any of the written questions SFR submitted before press time.
The county was tight-lipped after the incident, declining to explain why Montoya was found hanging in a cell by himself, when he had been in general population when he made multiple calls from the facility to family and friends. When SFR first looked into the case, Mihelcic said county officials were waiting for the results of the autopsy and internal investigation before discussing details in the case. Romero did defend Montoya's access to the laundry bag drawstring he apparently used to hang himself. Although Romero said issuing such materials to inmates, even those in seclusion, is common practice at many facilities, SFR's survey of two other New Mexico facilities and the American Correctional Association contradicts that statement.
A supplemental Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office report raises yet more questions about Montoya's death. The report makes clear that Corrections Officer Craig Lynn didn't discover Montoya hanging in his cell by checking on him, but happened to notice him through the window of another cell approximately 25 minutes after he had last checked on him. At this point, it's unclear whether Montoya was visible to other inmates who failed to call for help, and how frequently officers are supposed to check on secluded inmates under SFCADF policy.
According to ACA standards, inmates should be checked on every 30 minutes on an irregular schedule, and those on suicide watch are to be monitored continuously. SFCADF still hasn't answered whether Montoya was on suicide watch, but he was taken to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center right after he was arrested for medical issues, and his family was concerned he was a suicide risk.
The supplemental report also contradicts prior statements facility staff made to Montoya's family regarding an injury he sustained while in custody. Montoya's sister Elena Fuller told SFR last month that Montoya's nose was heavily bruised and appeared to be broken, and facility staff had told her he sustained that injury when the corrections officer who found him cut the laundry string without supporting his body. The supplemental report states that Lynn called for backup when he found Montoya and was assisted by Corrections Officer Nicholas Baca and a supervisor, Major Dean Lopez, who "ordered Officer Nicholas Baca to cut the string around Mr. Montoya's neck."
Fuller previously told SFR that she believes Montoya's injuries might be the result of a jail beating, because Montoya told his family during phone calls from the facility that he was in fear of his safety because he was housed with "the heavies" in alpha pod.
The results of Montoya's autopsy haven't been released yet because toxicology test results are still pending, Office of the Medical Investigator Director of Operations Amy Boulé tells SFR.
Mihelcic says a tort claim hasn't been filed yet in the case, but the county has been notified that the family intends to sue.
Fuller told SFR that, when Montoya was at the hospital and had already been declared brain-dead, SFCADF staff pressured their mom to post bail for him, saying jail guards wouldn't leave the family alone to say their good-byes unless she did. A nurse told Fuller that was because the county was still liable for what happened to Montoya before he was bonded out.
"I mean, why do you have to bail your dead child out of a bed?" Fuller asked. "It just didn't make no sense."