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SALT LAKE CITY —- The family of a Cedar City man who killed himself while on suicide watch in the Iron County Jail is now suing the sheriff, the jail and the company that made the blanket he used to hang himself for at least $2 million in damages.
Derald Jorgenen, 51, died April 9, 2009 while he was in the Iron County Jail on a DUI conviction, the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court states. It states that Jorgenen — who "maintained a close and loving relationship with family and friends" — was distraught over the recent death of his wife.
In light of his wife's death, the lawsuit states Jorgenen had been given additional time out of custody to cope, but was re-arrested when someone failed to file the court order giving him more time. It states that he sought help while in jail through medication and counseling, but was ultimately left unattended, allowing him to take his own life.
Jorgenen's four sisters are now suing Iron County itself, the sheriff's office, jail, a number of deputies and officials within the sheriff's office and jail as well as the North Carolina-based company that made the suicide blankets for $2 million in damages.
After his arrest, Jorgenen told two sheriff's deputies that he wanted to be with his wife, was having "bad thoughts" and needed to see a counselor, the lawsuit states. These comments prompted jail officials to place Jorgenen on suicide watch.
"In preparation for decedent's placement in the suicide cell, decedent was stripped, searched, placed in a suicide smock and was given two suicide blankets," the lawsuit states.
While on the way to the suicide cell, Jorgenen punched a cell door. A counselor was then called in to visit with the man.
"When asked by (the counselor) if he was suicidal, (Jorgenen) stated, ‘I just want to be with my wife and I hate it in here and don't know how long I will make it.'"
The conversation ended after 15 minutes, the lawsuit states, when Jorgenen stopped responding to the counselor. He was returned to the cell, which featured a capped-off water pipe that extended two or three inches from the wall and six feet from the cell floor.
He requested, and was given, a roll of toilet paper. The lawsuit then states he was left alone for an hour and 20 minutes. When a deputy returned to check on Jorgenen, they discovered that the man had hung himself using the pipe and a piece of the blanket. The lawsuit says jail officials never tried to revive the man.
It further states that Jorgenen had tried to bring his anti-depression medication into the jail, only to have it confiscated. Jorgenen was then facing additional charges of attempting to bring drugs into the jail.
"Subsequently, despite (Jorgenen's) immense depression from his current circumstances, (jail officials) failed to provide (him) with his prescribed anti-depression medication," the lawsuit states.
Beyond alleging that the jail failed to provide Jorgenen with his medication, the lawsuit states jail officials lied to Jorgenen's four sisters about his death. They apparently told the women that their brother was found dead in his bed. It wasn't until the family received Jorgenen's death certificate that they realized what had actually happened.
Attorney Tyler Todd said the family is seeking emotional and punitive damages as compensation for the "gross negligence" that led to Jorgenen's death.
"There's got to be better systems and protocol in place to avoid things like this," he said.
He pointed out that there are currently no cameras or other video monitoring systems in the jail.
In the lawsuit, he states that Jorgenen's 8th and 14th Amendment rights were violated. Those amendments are meant to protect from cruel and unusual punishment, and ensure that municipal organizations will protect citizens.
Instead, the family asserts that the conduct of the jail and sheriff's officials was "willful, wanton, reckless, and unconscious disregard for the safety of others."
The Deseret News was unable to reach any Iron County officials for a response to the allegations in the lawsuit.