Lawsuit over Waterloo inmate’s suicide is settled for $125,000

By: - July 19, 2021 1:12 pm

The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a long-running lawsuit over the 2016 suicide of an inmate housed in the  Waterloo Residential Correctional Facility. (Photo by Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit over the 2016 suicide of an inmate housed in the Waterloo Residential Correctional Facility.

In 2018, the family of Dustyn Henry sued the state of Iowa and Mike Schwab, a veteran probation and parole officer for the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services who was tasked with supervising Henry at the Waterloo work-release facility.

Henry had previously been housed at the West Union Residential Facility, but in May 2016 he wrote to an officer there and warned that if he was not allowed to leave, he would either kill himself immediately or escape, see his family, and then kill himself.

The officer sent Henry to a hospital for a mental health evaluation where he was  voluntarily committed for a few days before being removed from the West Union facility and jailed.

In July 2016, he was released from jail and placed at the Waterloo work-release facility under the supervision of Schwab, who was informed of the suicide threat. Although Henry made good progress and eventually qualified for a less restrictive form of work release, he was readmitted after he lost his job and relapsed into methamphetamine use.

On Dec. 14, 2016, the day before he died, Henry learned he wasn’t advancing through the program because of his recent relapse and past-due rent. The staff later saw Henry acting suspiciously, sitting in his vehicle for an extended period after returning to the facility from work with blood on his hands. The staff searched his car and found a bottle of trazadone and two handgun-style BB guns, one of which was located under the driver’s seat and had blood on it. Henry then tested positive for methamphetamine.

The next morning, Schwab allegedly learned of the previous night’s activity and was told that Henry had recently broken up with his girlfriend and had been diagnosed with hepatitis B. The staff allegedly told Schwab that Henry had not slept during the night, was confined to his room, and was pacing back and forth. Schwab then initiated a probation-revocation process to have Henry arrested and removed from the facility. He then called Henry, telling Henry he would not be going to work that day, explaining that his behavior the previous night was serious and needed to be addressed. Schwab then left the building and later that day Henry committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt tied to a clothes hanger rack.

Wrongful death, loss of consortium claims dismissed

The administrator of Henry’s estate sued Schwab and the state, but claims of  wrongful death, parental loss of child consortium, and a child’s loss of parental consortium were dismissed by the court, leaving only one claim against Schwab, who was sued for allegedly acting with deliberate indifference. In order to find Schwab acted with deliberate indifference, a jury would have to find his conduct amounted to more than mere negligence, though there needn’t be evidence of actual intent to harm Henry.

Attorneys for Schwab argued he had never personally witnessed Henry exhibiting suicidal behavior and that the “only piece of suicide-related information (he) actually knew about was the documented suicide threat Henry made” seven months earlier in West Union.

A judge ruled no reasonable jury would conclude the risk of suicide was so obvious that Schwab, through his training and experience, “actually connected the dots.” At best, the judge ruled, a jury could find Schwab “was negligent in failing to recognize that Henry posed a substantial risk of suicide.”

The estate’s lawyer appealed that ruling to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In arguing the case for Henry’s estate, attorney Adam Witosky told the appeals court Schwab knew, on the morning Henry died, that Henry had been displaying behavior consistent with that of a suicidal inmate.

“Schwab admits he did nothing to mitigate this risk,” Witosky argued. “Schwab leaves the facility, taking no precautions to mitigate the risk of suicide, and an hour later Dustyn Henry is found hanging in his room.”

The lawyer for Schwab, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Siefert, argued Henry’s behavior was unusual but was consistent with a person who had relapsed into drug use. He said there was no evidence to suggest Schwab actually knew Henry was a suicide risk, even if it could be argued that he should have known.

Earlier this month, the case was dismissed with the court noting that the parties had finalized a settlement agreement resolving all of their claims. Witosky said Monday the settlement calls for the payment of $125,000 to Henry’s estate.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.