A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted four St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies in the death of an inmate who suffered a fatal blood clot last year in an isolation cell at the St. Bernard Parish Prison, accusing the jailers of deliberately ignoring the woman’s medical needs.
The civil rights charges came as a surprise to Sheriff James Pohlmann, who said late Thursday that the deputies would be kept on paid administrative leave until he had a chance to review the five-count indictment and meet with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Until I can review it, I can’t react to the allegations because I don’t know the specifics,” Pohlmann said.
The U.S. Justice Department accused the deputies of willfully failing to provide medical care to the inmate, 19-year-old Nimali Henry, who had been in the jail for less than two weeks when she was found dead in her cell. Henry had been booked in March 2014 on disturbing the peace, simple battery and unauthorized entry after a domestic dispute.
The deputies — Capt. Andre Dominick, Cpl. Timothy Williams and deputies Debra Becnel and Lisa Vaccarella — face sentences of up to life in prison if convicted of depriving Henry of her civil rights “under color of law.”
Each also was charged with making false statements to the FBI during its lengthy investigation of the death.
The indictment says Henry “suffered from serious medical conditions, for which she was under a physician’s care,” and required regular medication. But during her incarceration, it says, she did not receive her medication and “was not evaluated or treated by a doctor” or taken to a hospital.
It was not until Henry was found unresponsive and face-down in her cell the morning of April 1, 2014, the indictment says, that deputies “for the first time” called for emergency medical services. “Nimali Henry died in that isolation cell,” it says.
The document says Henry had a constitutional right “to be free from a correctional officer’s deliberate indifference to her medical needs.”
Dominick, a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who runs the agency’s juvenile detention center, said by phone that the first he heard of the indictment was Thursday afternoon, when his wife called him “freaking out.” Asked about the claim that he had lied to the FBI, he said, “I didn’t talk to them.”
Dominick, who was handling medical care at St. Bernard Parish Prison on a temporary basis at the time of Henry’s death, declined further comment.
Vaccarella has worked for the Sheriff’s Office for nine years, Becnel for seven years and Williams for four years.
Pohlmann said neither deputy has been disciplined by the Sheriff’s Office in Henry’s death because the agency suspended an internal probe when the FBI began its investigation.
“We moved out of the way,” Pohlmann said. Asked whether the indicted deputies had a history of misconduct, he said, “All my employees are good deputies.”
Henry was taken into custody on March 21, 2014, after reports of a disturbance involving her and the father of her 4-month-old daughter. Authorities alleged that Henry had arrived uninvited at a home in St. Bernard that night and demanded she be allowed to see her daughter. The child’s father had been visiting a woman at the residence.
Bryan Bertucci, the parish coroner, determined that Henry had suffered from a number of medical issues, including a blood disorder and kidney and liver ailments. He said he believed a blood clot traveled from one of her legs to her lungs.
Henry’s family could not be reached for comment Thursday. In previous interviews, they have said that Henry before her arrest had been diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare platelet disease that can cause blood clots to form.
They also have said she made repeated pleas for medication in the jail. A federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Nicholas Conners, the father of Henry’s daughter, claimed that Henry had been suffering from “a number of life-threatening medical conditions,” including an immune system disorder called Graves’ disease. The lawsuit said her condition deteriorated rapidly during the 10 days she was behind bars.
The indictment says that Dominick, the highest-ranking deputy charged in the case, falsely told FBI agents that Henry had told him she was “unaware of what medical conditions she had.” It says that Williams, the corporal, lied about having telephoned a “medical department officer” about Henry’s medical conditions the weekend before her death and also falsely claimed to have gone to her cell to check on her hours before she was found dead.
Federal authorities accused Vaccarella, one of the correctional officers, of watching Henry fall to the floor two days before she was found dead. Instead of trying to assist the woman, the indictment says, she closed the door and left her there.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.