Myra Burgin is suing the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Armando Fontes over the September 2016 death of her daughter, Amanda Lee Hill, 32, while held in the Cocke County Jail on a misdemeanor probation violation charge. Wochit
Amanda Lee Hill survived being kidnapped, beaten and her body set afire, but just a month later, she wound up dead in a Cocke County Jail cell.
The same Cocke County leaders who, records show, for two years have failed to fix problems in its jail facilities, including proper medical treatment for inmates, are now facing a federal wrongful death lawsuit in Hill’s death. If they lose, taxpayers will foot the bill.
The Cocke County Courthouse Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Cocke County Jail is on the top floor of the courthouse and the jail annex is directly across the street and railroad tracks. (Photo: Michael Patrick/News Sentinel)
Wrongful death lawsuit
Hill, a diabetic, was booked into the Cocke County Jail on a probation violation just two weeks after she was released from the Vanderbilt Medical Center burn unit in September 2016. Two days later, she was found dead in her jail cell. She was 32 years old.
Knoxville attorney Lance Baker has filed on behalf of Hill’s mother, Myra Burgin, a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes, jail administrator Tommy Large, nurse Vicki Campbell, supervisor Tiffany Ball and a slew of jailers, including two fired earlier this year and under investigation by the FBI for using excessive force on prisoners.
Knoxville attorney Lance Baker is pictured in an undated photo. (Photo: submitted)
The lawsuit comes as the Tennessee Corrections Institute last month voted to decertify Cocke County’s jail annex after two years of failed inspections and warnings about lax employee training, staffing shortages, inadequate medical care and safety violations, records show. The Cocke County Commission has turned aside funding requests to fix the problems.
TCI has no power to shut down a jail, but the loss of certification means the state won’t pay for the care of state prisoners housed there.
County Sheriff Fontes, who did not return a call for comment, said at a recent public meeting he was working to clear out state prisoners. The county relies on the money it makes from housing state prisoners whose crimes were committed in Cocke County to fund jail operations because the state rate outpaces the actual cost. That money is now gone unless the jail can regain certification.
Missing records, ignored cries alleged
Attorney Baker contends state cash isn’t the only thing missing in Cocke County. He alleges in the lawsuit records about Hill’s fatal incarceration at the jail have also “disappeared.”
Hill’s boyfriend allegedly kidnapped, beat and doused her body in rubbing alcohol, setting her on fire, in early September 2016. He was charged. She spent two weeks at the Vanderbilt Medical Center burn unit. She was prescribed opiate painkillers, and her wounds still required cleaning and daily bandaging, according to the lawsuit.
The Sheriff’s office inside the Cocke County Courthouse Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Cocke County Jail is on the top floor of the courthouse and the jail annex is directly across the street and railroad tracks. (Photo: Michael Patrick/News Sentinel)
On Sept. 26, 2016, she wound up arrested on a probation violation warrant. Jailers already knew Hill was a diabetic. She had been administered insulin during a 2015 stint in the jail and suffered seizures because of problems with the dosage, the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit said Cocke County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jason Ramsey, who knew Hill was still suffering from her burn injuries, set out to try to get her transferred to a state prison geared for prisoners with medical conditions. She died before he could, the lawsuit stated.
Meanwhile, her mother and other relatives went to the jail after her arrest to make sure she was receiving insulin and medical care and were assured she was “fine,” the lawsuit stated.
Witnesses, including jailers, are quoted in the lawsuit as saying Hill instead was screaming in pain and her body showing signs of severe dehydration and diabetic shock. The lawsuit alleges supervisor Ball and nurse Campbell called Hill a “junkie” suffering withdrawals and ignored her. Administrator Large, the lawsuit stated, had the same reaction to Hill’s cries for help. Campbell eventually gave her a shot of Phenergan, a sedative, the lawsuit stated.
Fired jailers, failed inspections
Jailers Jason Phillips and Alyssa Lane found Hill on the floor of her cell just two days after she was booked into the jail. The lawsuit alleges Hill was already dead, but Phillips and Lane lied, later saying she was semi-conscious. It didn’t matter. The lawsuit stated the jail did not have required medical equipment necessary to try to revive an unconscious person, and Hill was officially declared dead upon arrival at a hospital.
The sheriff recently fired Phillips and Lane for what he termed the use of excessive force on inmates. He said the FBI was investigating. He gave no further details. The FBI will not confirm ongoing investigations, per its policy.
Cocke County Jail annex in Newport with prisoners being moved across the street to court in the Cocke County Courthouse Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. The jail in on the top floor of the courthouse and the jail annex is directly across the street and railroad tracks. (Photo: Michael Patrick/News Sentinel)
An autopsy concluded Hill died from a cocktail of drugs in her system, including the opiates she had been prescribed by Vanderbilt, the Phenergan administered by nurse Campbell and methamphetamine. None of the three drugs alone would have killed her at the levels found in her system.
“This finding prompted the medical examiner to list Ms. Hill’s cause of death as acute combined drug overdose,” Baker wrote.
There is no evidence she used methamphetamine before her arrival at the jail, and the lawsuit stated at least two of the six jailers Sheriff Fontes has fired recently for smuggling opiates and meth into the jail for prisoners encountered Hill before her death.
The autopsy also concluded Hill was severely dehydrated and showing signs of diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially fatal condition caused by insulin deficiency.
Government leaders and employees are often shielded from legal responsibility by immunity laws, but TCI’s repeated notices to Cocke County leaders of critical deficiencies in the care of inmates could pierce it.
The sheriff told Cocke County commissioners who showed up for a September committee meeting that TCI’s findings and decertification would be used as evidence against him, his staff and the county in civil-rights lawsuits, according to records.
Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger did not respond to a request for comment.