Terrill Thomas was left in a cell without water for seven days in 2016, and a supervisor then repeatedly lied about the events that led to Mr. Thomas’s death, prosecutors said.
CHICAGO — A Wisconsin jail commander repeatedly lied after her officers cut off water to an inmate who later died of dehydration, prosecutors said on Monday as they described a series of lethal missteps and a two-year investigation.
The commander, Maj. Nancy Evans, was one of three Milwaukee County jail officials charged with a felony in connection with the 2016 death of the inmate, Terrill Thomas, who had no access to water for seven days before he died.
“When police make an arrest and they bring somebody into our custody,” said District Attorney John T. Chisholm of Milwaukee County, who announced the charges, there is a “fundamental obligation” to “make sure they are kept safe.”
Major Evans, who could face more than four years in prison, was accused by prosecutors of “withholding information from her superiors, lying to her superiors, failing to preserve evidence, repeatedly lying to law enforcement investigators and lying at the inquest” last year where jurors recommended criminal charges against seven jail employees.
The announcement on Monday of charges against Major Evans and two others — Lt. Kashka Meadors and James Ramsey-Guy, a correctional officer — came more than nine months after that inquest, a relatively rare court proceeding in which jurors review evidence relating to a death and decide whether to recommend charges. The four other jail employees who were faulted by jurors at the inquest are not expected to face charges, Mr. Chisholm said, but the investigation was continuing.
Mr. Thomas was arrested in April 2016 and accused of shooting a man and later firing a gun inside a hotel and casino, according to local news reports. A federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Thomas’s estate said he had bipolar disorder and had been prescribed medication by a psychiatrist.
Once he was at the jail in downtown Milwaukee, prosecutors said, Mr. Thomas flooded his cell by stuffing his mattress cover into the toilet. The charging documents said that when Mr. Thomas was moved to another cell, Lieutenant Meadors told Mr. Ramsey-Guy to turn off the water supply to that cell. For the next week, Mr. Thomas did not leave his cell, and was not given any water.
“He was literally punished for the manifestations of his mental illness,” said Erik Heipt, a lawyer for Mr. Thomas’s estate who has filed a federal lawsuit against Milwaukee County and jail officials. “He was not in his right mind. You don’t take someone like that and then punish them by turning off their water.”
After Mr. Thomas’s death, prosecutors said, Major Evans had a guard watch a week’s worth of security video footage of Mr. Thomas’s cell, which showed that the water had never been turned back on. Prosecutors said she did not take steps to preserve that video, and it was eventually recorded over and deleted.
Major Evans was charged with obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor, and misconduct in office, a felony. Mr. Ramsey-Guy and Lieutenant Meadors were each charged with felony neglect of a resident of a penal facility, which can carry more than three years in prison.
Court records did not list lawyers for Major Evans or Mr. Ramsey-Guy as of Monday afternoon. Both defendants — as well as Lieutenant Meadors — were suspended with pay on Monday by Richard Schmidt, the acting sheriff of Milwaukee County.
Ben Van Severen, a lawyer for Lieutenant Meadors, said his client had worked at the jail for more than 17 years and intended to plead not guilty.
“We were very surprised to see the charges,” said Mr. Van Severen, adding that “we would just caution against a rush to judgment.”
Sheriff Schmidt said on Monday that he was “very confident” the jail had been “transformed” by new leaders since he succeeded David A. Clarke Jr. as sheriff last year.Mr. Clarke’s tough-on-crime approach was lauded by President Trump and other conservatives, but critics said he led a troubled department and a dangerous jail. Four inmates died at the Milwaukee County Jail in 2016, and a Wisconsin congresswoman called for a federal investigation of the facility.
Asked on Monday whether Mr. Clarke, who was not charged, had been investigated in connection with Mr. Thomas’s death, Mr. Chisholm said he believed his office had charged the people who were most culpable.
Sheriff Schmidt said the accusations against his employees were “horrific” and that “my heart bleeds” for Mr. Thomas’s family.
Sheriff Schmidt said a decision on departmental discipline for the officers could be made as soon as Friday. “This is serious stuff,” he said. “I care.”