Ore. COs acquitted of charges after inmate bled to death in 2017

State medical examiners found the inmate died from bleeding from a stomach ulcer


By Everton Bailey Jr.
The Oregonian

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Ore. — A Jefferson County circuit judge on Tuesday acquitted two county jail deputies and a jail corporal of charges in connection with the 2017 death of an inmate.

Judge Daina Vitolins said she found Deputy Michael Durkan, Deputy Cory Skidgel and Cpl. Anthony Hansen not guilty of criminally negligent homicide because there wasn’t enough evidence to show 59-year-old James E. Wippel's death was caused by the corrections officers not calling for immediate medical care while he was in distress in April 2017.

“No one was able to testify to that critical piece of evidence: When was it too late for medical treatment to save Mr. Wippel and did that happen while Mr. Wippel was in the care of Ms. Skidgel, Mr. Durkan and Mr. Hansen?” said Vitolins, according to courtroom video from KTVZ. “So I find you not guilty.”

The judge also said the county jail corrections officers’ failure to get medical care for Wippel was a “gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would have done in this situation,” according to the television station.

Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins said later Tuesday that Durkan, Skidgel and Hansen have told him they’re ready to return to work, that Wippel’s death was traumatic for them and that the legal proceedings that followed have been difficult for them, their families, the sheriff’s office and community. Adkins said he was pleased with the verdict and “relieved to have this situation behind us.”

“I give God the glory for this victory. Now we can start the healing process,” Adkins told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email. “I believe my office and jail will be much more prepared and better off because of the process we just went through. I thank all of my staff and deputies for their professionalism and patience over the last 19 months.”

The bench trial for Durkan, Skidgel and Hansen began last week. All three have been on leave since April 5, when they were indicted. Wippel died while in custody at the jail in Madras on April 26, 2017, two days after his arrest on suspicion of heroin and methamphetamine possession.

According to court records, the state medical examiner’s office determined Wippel died from bleeding from a stomach ulcer.

According to court documents, Wippel was arrested by Warm Springs police at the Indian Head Casino. He was taken to the jail in Warm Springs, then transferred later that morning to the Jefferson County Jail. During assessments for medical conditions at both jails, Wippel disclosed he had arthritis and no other ailments.

He saw jail head nurse Shawn Winsor the next morning, said he didn’t have an appetite for breakfast and was detoxing from heroin use, court records show. The nurse later saw him vomit in his cell and later prescribed him high-blood pressure medication to help with the side effects of heroin withdrawal.

Winsor gave Wippel one dose that afternoon and a second before her shift ended that night, court documents said. In the hours until she returned to work at 8 a.m., Wippel had been vomiting blood, groaning and complaining of not feeling well.

Durkan, Skidgel and Hansen were on duty at the time. Court records show Wippel was moved from a detox cell to another cell in the booking area and was brought breakfast around 5 a.m., but he received no medical attention. The new cell allowed him to be watched more closely. The nurse noted seeing vomit and blood on Wippel’s cell wall when she returned to work at the jail that morning.

An ambulance was called after Winsor told the undersheriff about Wippel’s condition. Paramedics took a while to arrive, court records show, and as they were en route, Wippel was given his regular clothes and changed into them by himself and had to sign paperwork and nearly fell down in the process, court documents said.

When paramedics arrived, they ignored Winsor’s orders to take him to a hospital immediately, according to court records. He died while on a gurney being led to the ambulance in the jail’s sally port.

The case was prosecuted by Clackamas County deputy district attorneys. It’s typical for an agency to ask for an outside review to avoid a conflict of interest.

In June, a Bend-based gastroenterologist who participated in the grand jury hearings in the case wrote Clackamas County Senior Deputy District Attorney John Wentworth that after reviewing materials from the investigation, he believes Wippel’s condition was life-threatening but treatable had he been taken to a hospital much sooner.

The doctor noted Wippel’s visible symptoms included vomiting and defecating blood for at least eight hours before he died.

“A reasonable person without medical training would be expected to recognize these signs and [they] were clear enough for another inmate to summon help for Mr. Wippel hours before he died,” said a letter written by Dr. Richard Bochner. “Had these signs of serious illness been acted upon and proper care delivered in a timely manner, his death would have likely been averted.”

Bochner wrote that he thought paramedics acted appropriately when they got there and likely did nothing to contribute to Wippel’s death because he was already bleeding to death internally by the time they arrived.

“They were summoned too late to save him,” the letter said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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