No criminal charges will be issued for any of the four deaths at the Milwaukee County jail between January 2020 and April 2021, but three corrections officers involved in two incidents are no longer employed in the county.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office determined there was no criminal liability related to the deaths of 41-year-old Nicholas Sonsthagen in March 2021 and 26-year-old Anthony Walther the following April. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has already reported on the circumstances and the District Attorney’s review ofthe deaths of Nicholas L. Stadtmueller, 34, in January 2020 and Joseph A. Behling, 38, the following November.
But documents recently obtained through a public records request detail the circumstances of Sonsthagen’s and Walther’s deaths, as well as the internal investigation into Behling’s death.
Records show Sonsthagen died by suicide two days after being taken off suicide watch. Walther died of acute heart failure around the time a recently hired guard missed a cell check. This guard was later fired, but not for reasons related to Walther’s death.
All four deaths were investigated by the Waukesha County Sheriff‘s Department and were reviewed by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. But only one incident was investigated internally for potential rule violations by staff, and it wasn’t launched until nearly a year later.
This investigation focused on Behling’s suicide, which involved two guards repeatedly asking him to remove a blanket he had placed over his cell window, but walked away from his cell before making sure. He was later found unconscious in the cell.
Both guards resigned as the investigation concluded.
A Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department Review inquest into Stadtmueller’s death showed no rule violations and no internal investigation was conducted, according to James Burnett, the spokesman for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office declined the Journal Sentinel’s request to interview Sheriff Earnell Lucas or a jail official for this story. The office faces an extreme shortage of staff since at least 2019with just over half of the 251 budgeted positions filled Thursday, Burnett said, and the cost of overtime increases.
The new details come after 21-year-old Brieon Green also died in prison at the end of June. His death was ruled a suicide by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office. A Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department investigation is ongoing.
Here’s a look at the new information about the incidents, according to the investigation documents:
Guard missed cell check at Walther’s medical event
Walther had been in the county jail since mid-February 2021 and was found unconscious in his cell shortly after noon on April 5.
That day, a prison officer named Vernisha Jefferson, who had been on the job for just over four months, was overseeing the area of Walther’s cell. She had no medical training and had not received a state prison officer’s certificate at the time.
In Wisconsin, prison staff are not required to receive this certification until one year from their date of hire.
Jefferson told investigators she saw Walther lying in his cell with the door closed and the lights off when she checked on him around 10:30 a.m. and again at exactly 11:03 a.m., according to CCTV.
A minute after that last check, Jefferson left the area for a break. She did not return until 11:57 a.m., skipping a half-hour cell check.
Shortly after, as other inmates were leaving their cells for lunch, one of them called Walther if he was coming. When he did not respond, the man walked into Walther’s cell and realized he needed medical attention.
Jefferson radioed for help at 12:01 a.m. First responders attempted to resuscitate him but pronounced him dead at 12:44 p.m. The medical examiner’s office later determined that he had died of a acute heart failure.
Burnett said Jefferson, who was a probationary employee, was fired weeks later, before the Waukesha County death investigation was completed, for unrelated reasons. He declined to elaborate further.
No internal investigation followed, Burnett said. The Journal Sentinel could not reach Jefferson for comment.
Officers involved in Behling’s death have resigned
In November 2020, Behling committed suicide in his cell and was able to take his own life because he hung a blanket over his door window to conceal his actions. Two officers, Mitchell Glidewell and Marissa Lehn, interacted with his cell a total of four times in 22 minutes before radioing for help.
During the first two interactions, Glidewell and Lehn took turns in verbal contact with Behling. They told him to take the blanket off but walked away before they saw him after hearing him say he would.
On the third, Glidewell appeared to try to see past the window covering, then went to help Lehn escort another person to his cell. On the fourth occasion, Lehn attempted to make verbal contact with Behling and when he did not respond, she called for help.
Records show the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into the death concluded in January 2021, but the internal investigation into potential personnel violations was not launched until the following October.
Lehn resigned long before that, in July of that year, Burnett said. Glidewell resigned in December, before an internal investigation was completed and concluded he deserved a 10-day suspension.
The prison’s standard operating procedures require officers to “see some of the inmate’s anatomy and must determine that the inmate is not in obvious physical distress” when checking the cell. A sheriff’s office captain told investigators that meant an officer would have to stay at the door until the cover was removed.
Glidewell told investigators he was trained to radio for help if someone refused to remove a blanket, but no radio calls were made until Behling stopped responding verbally.
“We probably should have called him right away,” Glidewell told investigators. “If I could do otherwise, I would make the call right away.”
Chief Deputy Denita Ball found that Glidewell violated county office and sheriff’s office rules regarding inspections, following department rules, and performing the duties of an assigned position. Although he had already resigned, she determined that a 10-day suspension was appropriate.
Lehn was not the subject of the investigation since she resigned months before she was due to start, but a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office’s Professional Standards Division, the equivalent of the Internal Affairs Division of a police department, claimed that she also broke the inspections rule.
Lehn told Waukesha County investigators it’s common for inmates to try to cover the windows in their doors. Since Behling had twice acknowledged their order to remove the liner, she said they had no indication he was in distress.
Sonsthagen removed his suicide watch two days before his death
After being removed from suicide watch in the Milwaukee County Jail, at least four people heard Sonsthagen making suicidal remarks before his death, but apparently did not report it to prison staff.
Sonsthagen arrived at the jail on March 10, 2021 and was placed on suicide watch the same day after a corrections officer overheard him making a suicidal comment during dinner service. People on suicide watch are checked by guards every 15 minutes.
In a meeting with medical staff on March 13, Sonsthagen was cooperative and denied having suicidal thoughts. He was released to the general prison population that day.
But his suicidal remarks continued. Sonsthagen phoned two people and begged them to bail him out. They said he made suicidal comments after telling her they had no money. One said she had heard him make similar comments before and didn’t believe he would follow them.
At least two inmates also said they heard him make similar remarks but apparently did not report them to officers. One said everyone is “talking stupid here” and didn’t take Sonsthagen seriously.
Sonsthagen killed himself on the evening of March 15, between officers’ half-hour checks. A review of CCTV footage showed officers saw Sonsthagen in his cell during checks at 10:27 p.m. and 10:54 p.m. He was found unconscious at 11:22 p.m.
An internal review of the Waukesha County investigation showed no rule violations and no internal investigation was conducted, Burnett said.