NEW IBERIA — Criminal charges were never filed in the 2009 death of Iberia Parish inmate Michael Jones, but Sheriff Louis Ackal is now asking the FBI to investigate the case after a judge ruled excessive force led to Jones’ death.
In the civil trial of the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Jones’ parents, witnesses lodged allegations of excessive force against two of Ackal’s former deputies, brothers Wesley and Jesse Hayes, who were involved in a struggle with Jones when he died in the jail.
Through his spokesman, Ackal confirmed he requested the investigation because of those allegations but declined further comment in the matter.
Jones, 43, died the afternoon of Feb. 13, 2009, after he charged out of his open cell during a checkup and made contact with the Hayes brothers — and at one point bit former Warden Frank Ellis — which led to the wrangling that ended with his death.
Both parish and independent autopsies revealed evidence of choking and strangulation, and they also revealed Jones virtually drowned in his own saliva. Inmates who witnessed the incident testified the Wesley brothers — who weigh a combined 700 pounds — sat on Jones to restrain him.
Along with Ackal and former jail nurse Stephanie Celestine, the Hayes brothers and Ellis were named as defendants in the suit. But Judge Paul deMahy ruled only Wesley Hayes and Celestine were liable for Jones’ death — Hayes for using excessive force and Celestine for failing to administer care in the 15 minutes Jones was left alone and unresponsive before paramedics arrived to find him dead.
Wesley Hayes and Celestine were ordered to split the cost of $61,000 in damages — an amount reflecting Jones’ status as a single, unemployed man without children at the time of his death.
“From day one, the family was not concerned about the dollar amount,” Opelousas attorney Jarvis Claiborne, who represented Jones’ family in the case, said in a phone interview Friday. “The family was concerned about holding the officers accountable for his death.”
The Abbeville Police Department arrested Jones about 4 a.m. that Friday, when he bit an officer responding to a call from Jones’ mother reporting her son’s erratic behavior.
He was nude when he first made contact with law enforcement in Abbeville, and he would later get naked again in the Iberia Parish jail, all while exhibiting signs of unusual behavior.
“Inmate appears to be more than intoxicated,” Celestine wrote that day in a medical report on Jones’ condition.
Jones was first taken to Abbeville General Hospital about 6 a.m. He was cleared for incarceration and transported to the Iberia Parish jail, where Abbeville’s inmates are held per an agreement between the two agencies.
Although Jones was clearly out of sorts from the moment he made contact with law enforcement, he was never screened for mental disorders. His autopsies revealed no trace of drugs or alcohol in his system when he died — about 10 hours after his arrest.
“You’re dealing with someone who had psychiatric problems,” Claiborne said, adding Jones suffered from both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
It’s an issue plaguing local jails across the state, with law enforcement regularly encountering offenders suffering from mental disorders without the resources to properly handle those individuals.
“We have little means to utilize to determine if an individual may have psychological issues,” Maj. Ryan Turner, Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said Friday.
Although deputies undergo in-house training on such issues, there are no nurses on staff with the capacity to treat individuals like Jones in a time of crisis, Turner said.
Through a private health care company based out of Atlanta, the jail employs four full-time licensed practical nurses and one full-time registered nurse, according to staffing information obtained from Iberia Parish government.
The one psychiatrist on staff works two hours a week managing prescriptions for inmates taking medications for mental disorders, but other than that, no one on-site is equipped to provide mental care, he said.
“That’s the problem,” Turner said.
Should the FBI take on an investigation into Jones’ case, it would become the third pending federal investigation into the Sheriff’s Office.
Former deputy Cody Laperouse faces a federal misdemeanor civil rights charge in the September 2013 beating of a handcuffed man taken into custody during a New Iberia street party. The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating the March 2014 shooting death of Victor White III in the backseat of a deputy’s car.
Wesley Hayes, who became warden of the jail 10 months after Jones’ death, filed a whistleblower suit against Ackal in October claiming he was fired a year before for complaining about inmate beatings and reporting other wrongdoings by deputies that included theft and forgery.
“It’s odd that after all the excessive force complaints against Sheriff Ackal … that he now proclaims in the press — after Wesley files his whistleblower suit — that Wesley should be investigated by law enforcement authorities,” Lafayette attorney Clay Burgess, who represents Wesley Hayes in the whistleblower suit, said Friday.