Family files lawsuit against San Juan Co., Bloomfield

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 31, 2012

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A Nageezi family has filed a federal lawsuit against the San Juan County Commission, the city of Bloomfield and various county health and police officials for failure to protect their son from trying to commit suicide.

Their son, Ernest Yazzie, was picked up by Bloomfield City Police on May 7, 2010 and placed in the San Juan County Adult Detention Center where, in the early morning hours of May 8, he wrapped a sheet around an I-beam in the bathroom and proceeded to hang himself.

According to the lawsuit, Yazzie hung from his neck for eight minutes, despite the fact that the bathroom was under video surveillance. It wasn't until a detainee came in to use the bathroom that Yazzie's body was discovered and emergency medical procedures got underway t save his life.

Correction officers kept making repeated efforts to apply chest compressions to Yazzie in an effort to restore breathing and finally he was taken to the San Juan Regional Medical Center. A breathing tube restored his breathing.

He was then placed in a hypothermic chamber to cool him down and to keep his body from swelling but when efforts were made to warm him up, he began having seizures.

During this time, the lawsuit stated, he suffered an anoxic brain injury caused by strangulation from hanging by his neck for at least eight minutes and possibly longer because of the time it took to resuscitate him.

"As a result, Ernest Yazzie lost significant cognitive and physical capabilities and is now mentally incapacitated," the suit states.

Yazzie, 37, now resides in a nursing home where he has to receive around the clock supervision and care. He has virtually no long-term or short-term memory, he cannot walk or speak and has little brain functioning left.

The lawsuit states that he will remain severely disabled the rest of his life.

The basis of the lawsuit is a claim that a number of people, including city police officers, failed to do their job that night and if they had Yazzie would not have tried to commit suicide.

Earlier in the evening, Yazzie was living with his wife and three children in Bloomfield. He was employed as a welder for Moberg Welding for the past eight years.

According to police records, officers for the city of Bloomfield and the San Juan County Sheriff's office had been dispatched to that house at least three times between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on May 7 because of arguments he and his wife were having.

During one of those calls, Yazzie had stabbed himself before officers arrived. They were told that Yazzie was suicidal. The police report said Yazzie was highly intoxicated. In none of these calls, however, was Yazzie arrested.

A fourth phone call went to Bloomfield police at 10:05 p.m. saying that Yazzie had pushed his wife, Karen Watson-Yazzie, down and refused to let her leave the building.

When officers arrived, they continued to find Yazzie highly intoxicated and he was having a "hard time walking straight."

In conversations with the police, Yazzie said he had not touched his wife but added that she had scatched his chest. He showed offers the scratch mark, which resulted in police placing handcuffs on Watson-Yazzie and putting her in the police unit.

Yazzie at that point tried several times to keep police from arresting his wife and police decided to call the district attorney's office for guidance. While this was going on, Yazzie continued to plea for them not to arrest her but officers noted that he was having trouble walking straight.

The DA's office advised releasing Watson-Yazzie but police decided that Yazzie was so incapacitated that he posed a danger to himself, the suit stated.

"Thus, the only person taken into custody was Yazzie who had committed no crime but simply wanted his then wife to be released," the suit states.

A decision was made to take Yazzie to the Four Winds Recovery Center, a local facility that accepted intoxicated individuals.

Bloomfield Officer Andy Darby dropped him off at the center and reported later that Yazzie was "combative" with workers at the facility, forcing them to take him to the ground when he refused to allow them to search him for drugs or weapons.

He later got into a confrontation with another staff member at the facility and continued to be so uncooperative that officials at the facility called Darby and told him they would not take him.

The suit said Darby came beck to the center "angry and frustrated."

Yazzie was on probation at the time and one of the conditions of his probation was that he not drink so Darby arrested him and charged him with violating his probation and added a felony charge of battery on a health care worker.

He was taken at that point to the adult detention center.

The lawsuit then claims that Darby failed to follow proper procedure and neglected to fill out the intake questionnaire properly.

One of the reasons for the questionnaire, the lawsuit stated, was to provide jail officials with information about the detainee's medical or mental health status.

The form provided spaces to allow the arresting officer to make comments about whether the subject had expressed any thoughts of suicide.

"Despite the fact that Darby had been expressly told only a few hours before that Yazzie had put a knife to his throat and stated an intention to commit suicide and had actually stabbed himself with the knife, Darby, possibly in order to complete his arrest with no further difficulty, falsely checked off the no box to each of the questions regarding risk of suicide."

If he had marked yes, the jail staff would have placed him on suicidal watch and he would not have been placed in the general population.

Yazzie did go through a screening process at the jail but refused to answer questions of jail officials about whether he felt suicidal or had a suicide plan or provide any information about his mental health history which the lawsuit said should have been a "red flag" to any competent person doing the screening.

At 1:55 a.m., Yazzie called Watson-Yazzie who still exhibited "a total callousness" toward him. The lawsuit said Yazzie was observed several hours later walking around the pod with a sheet wrapped around his body, the same sheet that he used about 5:30 a.m. to hang himself with in the bathroom.

The suit claims that all of the people named in the suit had a duty to provide adequate mental health services to Yazzie when he was in their care. Their failure to do so resulted in his later medical problems.

The suit asked for an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of Yazzie's parents and children.

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