Island County jailer gets job back; arbitrator demotes her over jail death

The only person fired in connection with a young man’s death inside the Island County jail has returned to work.

The only person fired in connection with a young man’s death inside the Island County jail has returned to work.

An arbitrator ruled last month that Island County Sheriff Mark Brown did not have just cause to terminate Pamela McCarty from her job as lieutenant in the jail. It was found, however, that there was cause to demote her to corrections deputy.

It was the second time in the past two years that the arbitrator, Gary Axon, ordered the sheriff to give an employee a job back.

The sheriff placed McCarty, the second in command at the jail, on administrative leave, and then fired her, after a detective completed his report on Keaton Farris’ April 7, 2015, death in the jail from dehydration and malnutrition. The investigation revealed that violations of jail policy and negligence by the staff contributed to the 25-year-old man’s death.

De Dennis, the jail administrator, retired after the sheriff suspended him and announced that the future of his employment was uncertain. Two corrections deputies quit after Detective Ed Wallace, who investigated the death, found that they had falsified logs.

The jail nurse also quit.

Fred Farris, Keaton Farris’ father, said the family is disheartened to hear about the arbitrator’s decision on McCarty. He pointed out that the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office and U.S. Department of Justice are still investigating, and he hopes criminal charges will be forthcoming.

“Axon clearly states the ‘lack of concern and indifference for the well-being of Keaton Farris’ when he ruled on her demotion,” Farris said. “McCarty’s own admittance ‘I didn’t do my job’ and this very ‘indifference’ not only justify a firing, but we feel warrant criminal charges.”

After McCarty was fired, the deputy sheriff’s union filed a grievance claiming that she did not violate the policies and that any such violation did not warrant termination.

Brown denied the grievance, arguing that McCarty failed to properly supervise the corrections deputies and to follow jail policies.

As a result, the union moved the grievance to arbitration.

In his decision, Axon concluded that McCarty shouldn’t be fired for violating policies that weren’t properly disseminated to staff. He wrote that he agreed with Detective Wallace’s testimony describing the adoption and promulgation of policies in the jail “a train wreck.”

Nevertheless, Axon found that McCarty’s failure to learn and follow policies regarding “safety cells” — and to adequately supervise staff — warranted discipline short of termination.

“It is because of this lack of concern and indifference to the well-being of (Farris) that I am compelled to conclude … McCarty should be demoted back to corrections deputy,” Axon wrote in his decision.

Axon held a hearing at which both sides presented numerous exhibits and witnesses and outlined the facts of the case in his decision.

Farris was taken into custody on March 21, 2015, and first brought to the Snohomish County Jail. He was suffering from significant mental health problems and was unpredictable and non-communicative. After being transferred to Skagit County jail, he arrived at Island County Jail on March 26.

Farris was initially held in a padded “safety cell” for four days, but no one “took the time to make an effort to actually observe (Farris) consuming food and water,” the report states.

McCarty and Dennis made a joint decision to move Farris from the safety cell to a regular cell even though he was covered in food and observed crawling around and eating off the floor.

McCarty gave no explanation for the decision, Axon wrote.

McCarty told the deputies to “leave that man alone” after he was observed either coughing or choking with a rag in his mouth.

A judge in San Juan County ordered that Farris be evaluated at Western State Hospital, but the hospital refused to take him because of limited bed space; he was kept in jail despite the court order.

At the jail, corrections deputies noted that Farris was not eating or drinking; nevertheless, they turned his water off after he flooded his cell and then stuck his head in the toilet. At that point, Keaton Farris was completely dependent on the deputies for water but no one observed what he actually drank.

The jail nurse assessed Farris on April 6 for the first time, but she “was not allowed into the cell to conduct the assessment.”

A mental health professional from Washington State Hospital also conducted a perfunctory assessment on Farris April 6, Axon noted.

The jail logs show that Farris continued to refuse water or spilled it.

The last time deputies checked on Farris was 3 p.m. on April 7. He was found dead at 12:30 a.m. on April 8.

Axon’s report doesn’t include Detective Wallace’s analysis of the water given to Farris in the jail; the detective found that the water offered was significantly less than Farris needed to survive even if he drank all that was provided.

During the arbitration hearing, the guild argued that McCarty was unfairly punished while others were not.

“The Sheriff terminated McCarty, in the context of politics, bad publicity and litigation, as a scapegoat for the institutional failings from the top down,” the deputies’ union argued.

The sheriff’s attorney, however, said that McCarty failed to learn or follow new policies. She wasn’t aware that checks weren’t performed and that Farris wasn’t given water.

“McCarty demonstrated an utter failure of leadership in the jail in this area, and an inmate died without having the medical care, mental health assessment, and nourishment/water that the procedure required,” the sheriff’s attorney argued in arbitration.

Ultimately, Axon found that summary discharge of McCarty was too harsh but a demotion warranted. He ordered that she be reinstated and be paid back wages.

“We respect the ruling of the arbitrator and we’re moving on,” Brown said.

Last year, Axon ruled that the sheriff was wrong in firing Detective John Nieder for sexually harassing a fellow detective.

Axon concluded that the sexual harassment did occur and that Nieder’s testimony to the contrary was not credible, but he decided that termination was too harsh; instead, he decided that Nieder should be given 30 days without pay and a warning letter.

Lieder currently works as a deputy on Camano Island.


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