Government & Politics

Was it a coverup? Records, picture changed in Jackson County jail inmate’s death

Jackson County officials debate the need for a new detention center

Reports of shocking brutality, filth and incompetence within the walls of the Jackson County Detention Center have sparked multiple investigations and no shortage of controversy.
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Reports of shocking brutality, filth and incompetence within the walls of the Jackson County Detention Center have sparked multiple investigations and no shortage of controversy.

Jailers began falsifying the record of Richard Degraffenreid’s short stay at the Jackson County Detention Center even before paramedics arrived to try reviving him from what turned out to be a fatal drug overdose.

As the ambulance neared, former jail guard Charles Obasi said he began working to make it appear that everything had been done by the book during the 2 1/2 hours Degraffenreid was strapped into a restraint chair.

Degraffenreid had been put in the chair for his own safety, a nurse had said, after he was booked into the jail around 11 p.m. on July 20, 2017.

Degraffenreid seemed OK when he was first picked up on a parole violation, but was “OD’ing,” the arresting officer told jail staff, when they arrived downtown that Thursday night. His body convulsed. He grunted and groaned. And his pupils were “the size of pancakes,” according to the sheriff’s office investigative report that The Star obtained recently.

But instead of taking him to the hospital immediately upon his arrival at the jail, as Obasi says he suggested, Degraffenreid was locked in a cell alone and checked on periodically until a nurse noticed that he wasn’t breathing at 1:30 a.m. July 21.

Obasi alleges in a recent lawsuit that it was at this point his supervisor ordered him to fill out a form that was supposed to be done in real time showing that Degraffenreid had been checked every 15 minutes while he was left alone in the chair.

However, some of those time slots had been left blank, Obasi says, because he was too busy to check on Degraffenreid and the nurses did not record the visits they might have made. That means there was no proof Degraffenreid had been checked on as required before his heart stopped beating.

A second act of misrepresentation occurred later that morning. The jail’s head of operations at the time, James Eickhoff, switched out Degraffenreid’s booking photo on the county’s website after he died, but before he was publicly identified.

The picture taken the previous night showed Degraffenreid strapped in the restraint chair, too out of it to hold his head up. The mugshot “depicted him in the restraint chair with an unknown white male holding his head for the photo.”

degraffenreid w hands 1f.jpg
This is the photo taken of Richard Degraffenreid on the night of July 20, 2017, when he was booked into the Jackson County Detention Center. A former jail employee says he replaced it with a previous booking photo. Photo provided to The Star

Eickhoff told The Star that while he preserved that original photo for investigators, he hid it from public view and replaced it with another picture. The news media and anyone else checking the county’s webpage that day would have seen Degraffenreid’s mugshot from an earlier arrest where he was alert and looking into the camera.

Eickhoff says he did this on orders from two people: his boss, then-Corrections Director Joe Piccinini, and Whitney Miller, a member of the county’s legal department who is now the county’s director of tax collections.

What their motives were, he isn’t sure. Neither Miller nor Piccinini, who now is chief of park safety for the county Parks + Rec Department, responded to requests for comment. But Eickhoff has a theory.

“I believe it had to do with the way he looked in the (original) photo,” he said.

The basic circumstances of the 35-year-old Degraffenreid’s death from an overdose of methamphetamine and cocaine have been previously reported. But the account of Obasi’s allegation of being ordered to falsify records and Eickhoff’s admission of changing the photo have not been told until now.

County officials declined to comment on either man’s allegations when contacted by The Star, which learned about Obasi’s claim through a routine check of court records. Some of what was contained in those records was buttressed by law enforcement reports and interviews both on and off the record with those with intimate knowledge of the incident.

“As a matter of policy, Jackson County does not comment on personnel matters, nor does it comment on ongoing legal proceedings,” spokeswoman Marshanna Hester said in an email.

The county also denied The Star’s request for the original booking photo described in the sheriff’s office investigative report, claiming that it is a closed record under the Missouri Sunshine Law because it, too, would be subject to litigation. The Star later obtained that photo and the substitute photo independently.

In addition to Obasi’s employment discrimination lawsuit, Jackson County was until earlier this year a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit that Degraffenreid’s mother and two children filed. That action is still pending against three other defendants: two nurses who attended to Degraffenreid that night, as well as their employer, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., whose contract to provide health care at the jail ran out this year.

The county was dropped as a defendant after paying a $150,000 settlement last spring.

Obasi was the first to publicly raise the notion of an alleged coverup in his lawsuit filed last summer, but it went largely unnoticed, including by attorneys for the Degraffenreid family. It received no news coverage.

Obasi claims his firing was racially motivated because he, a person of color from Nigeria, was let go last year for falsifying records, but Eickhoff, who is white, got to keep his job for doing essentially the same thing.

Obasi through his attorney did not respond to The Star’s request for an interview.

Eickhoff agreed to talk when contacted by a reporter. He said he quit his county job in May of this year, within weeks of the county’s settlement payout in the Degraffenreid case, but said the timing was coincidental.

“It was due to the shift change,” he said. “They put me on nights.”

Reports of shocking brutality, filth and incompetence within the walls of the Jackson County Detention Center have sparked multiple investigations and no shortage of controversy.

The incident came at a time when the county had been suffering one public relations blow after another with regard to the Jackson County Detention Center. It started in the summer of 2015 with the announcement that the FBI was investigating brutal treatment of inmates by corrections officers.

Then came stories about prisoners sexually assaulting other prisoners. Those rapes occurred because of security lapses in a facility that independent audits reported was filthy, understaffed and falling apart. Cell doors wouldn’t lock. Toilets overflowed.

Six months before Degraffenreid’s death, another inmate had died from a medical condition that she might have had a chance to survive had nurses understood the seriousness of it, experts told The Star last year.

Weeks after Degraffenreid’s overdose, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker asked for the grand jury sitting at the time to begin a secret investigation of jail conditions. A subsequent grand jury took up the task later that year and released a damning public report last May.

The Degraffenreid incident, however, is not mentioned in it.

In his family’s wrongful death lawsuit, an unidentified Jackson County corrections officer is quoted as saying that “he had never seen an inmate so visibly intoxicated in his time as a JCDC employee.”

But the nurse did not order Degraffenreid transported to the hospital and asked jail staff to check in on him regularly. Obasi, in his lawsuit, said due to understaffing, he couldn’t look in every 15 minutes as protocol required.

“Plaintiff checked on (Degraffenreid) approximately every 15 minutes until prevented from doing so by being required to intake another inmate who had become belligerent,” the lawsuit says.

The nurses checked in on him, the suit said, but did not note their visits on what the suit calls a SPOR form. SPOR stands for Suicide Prevention/Close Observation/Therapeutic Restraint, according to the litigation.

The detention center lieutenant who Obasi claims told him to falsify the form still works for the county, according to the personnel department.

In court documents, the county acknowledged that Obasi falsified the form, but denied he was ordered to do so. Deputy County Counselor Brandon Laird said the county was “without sufficient information to form a belief” as to whether Eickhoff switched out the photographs as Obasi claimed and Eickhoff confirmed in his phone interview with The Star.

At the time of Degraffenreid’s death, jail operations were the responsibility of County Executive Frank White. As a result of voters changing the county charter in November, Sheriff Darryl Forte’ will take over at the first of the year.

Forte has not responded to requests for an interview to discuss his plans.

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