A legal claim of neglect against the Nisqually Jail staff in connection with the sudden death of a 19-year-old inmate could have a widespread impact on jail bookings in Thurston County, according to the attorney representing the inmate’s family.
Andrew J. Westling died in his cell April 12, about 24 hours after his arrest for causing a disturbance at a Yelm service station. Westling suffered from a heart condition and had notified jail staff about it, but he didn’t receive proper medical attention, according to a Lacey police investigation.
Ed Budge, an attorney representing Westling’s family, said his firm, Budge & Heipt, will file a civil rights lawsuit in the next 60 days against the city of Yelm, which has contracted with the jail to house city inmates.
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“The court is likely to declare these contracts are illegal,” Budge told The Olympian on Monday. “It’s going to throw law enforcement down in the Thurston County area into a tizzy.”
The city of Yelm has declined to comment on pending litigation. The tribe has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued in federal court, Budge said. The Olympian could not reach Nisqually Public Safety for comment Monday.
About 10:41 p.m. April 10, Yelm police responded to a report of a suspect who allegedly spit in a customer’s face at a service station at 16507 State Route 507 near Bald Hill Road. Police arrested Westling on suspicion of fourth-degree assault and being a minor in possession of alcohol, and eventually transported him to the Nisqually Jail.
The night before his death, Westling pounded on his cell door and said his heart was “skipping beats.” Documents show that staff assumed he was “detoxing” from an addiction and had placed Westling in a holding cell for medical observation. No nurses or medics were called to evaluate him, according to documents.
Westling was found unresponsive shortly after midnight April 12, and jail staff attempted to resuscitate him. Jail staff reported in an interview with Lacey police detectives that they saw nothing out of the ordinary with Westling’s health, despite the inmate talking about his heart condition.
In a medical screening at the jail, Westling indicated no heart-related health issues.
Dr. Richard O. Cummins, professor of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center, provided a detailed report of Westling’s medical records and autopsy at the request of Budge’s law firm.
The 39-page report explains Westling’s history with an abnormally fast heartbeat and a cardiac condition in which the heart is prone to sudden episodes of rapid beating.
Cummins writes that Westling’s death at the Nisqually Jail was “eminently reversible and treatable. This young man’s death from this condition was a true tragedy that would not have occurred had medical attention been provided at virtually any point in the hours leading up to his death.”
Westling’s mother, Carmen Rowe, emailed a statement to The Olympian regarding her son: “Losing Andrew was devastating beyond words. Life without him will never be the same. And we want to do everything we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Budge said another goal of the legal action is to challenge the legality of Yelm’s contract with a jail that’s located on sovereign tribal land. This sovereignty means the tribe is not subject to public records disclosure, and Budge said it is unclear whether Nisqually Jail staff had complied with proper training and regulations as required by counties and cities.
He also sought the opinion of former Attorney General Rob McKenna, who Budget said cited the City and County Jails Act as well as the Interlocal Cooperation Act to show the jail contract is not authorized under current state law.
“In the case of Andrew Westling, once he was taken onto tribal land, his rights as a U.S. citizen were no longer the same as if he had been in the Yelm jail or Thurston County jail,” Budge told The Olympian. “We are unaware of any similar arrangement across the U.S. with any other Indian tribe.”
It is unclear how cities would react to any court ruling against tribal jail contracts, including Tumwater, which lacks its own jail and sends misdemeanor offenders to the Nisqually Jail and the Chehalis Tribal Jail in Oakville. Felonies are still booked at the Thurston County Jail.
“It’s something that our legal department would look at and evaluate, then decide from there where to go,” Sgt. Jen Kolb said.