Monday would have been Marc Anthony Moreno’s 19th birthday.
Instead of celebrating, the Moreno family gathered at the Benton County Justice Center to protest his death.
The mentally ill teen was found dead in his single-person cell in the county jail March 11, a little more than a week after his family says he was unexpectedly arrested while seeking counseling at the Benton Franklin Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick.
Marc was arrested on misdemeanor warrants out of Benton and Franklin counties, according to online court records. He had five misdemeanor cases as an adult, all but one of which were traffic-related offenses.
Officials are working to determine what caused Marc’s death. An autopsy is scheduled March 15. Suicide is not suspected.
A special unit comprised of Tri-City law enforcement officers is investigating the case, something that commonly happens when there is a death at the jails in Benton or Franklin counties.
It doesn’t make sense. I want answers.
Miguel Moreno, Marc’s father
The Morenos, who have not discussed details of the case with law enforcement, think more should have been done to prevent Marc’s death.
The family is demanding police reports, videos and meetings with officials to help them understand what led to the death.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Miguel Moreno, Marc’s father. “I want answers.”
Marc, who was bipolar and suffered from schizophrenia, was admitted to Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco and released shortly before his arrest March 3 because he was experiencing serious mental health problems, his family said. He showed signs that he needed more medical attention.
“He was not there,” said Erica Moreno, his sister. “He was acting paranoid. It was not good.”
Drug tests at Lourdes showed marijuana in his system, but nothing else, his family said. His vitals appeared normal and he showed no signs of any serious medical problems.
Family members told the Herald that they tried to take Marc to Lourdes Counseling Center in Richland, which offers 24-hour care and inpatient services for people in mental crisis.
If it’s determined after an investigation that we made a mistake, I will take full responsibility. We just don’t know anything at this point.
Steve Keane, Benton County sheriff
However, Marc wasn’t admitted to Lourdes and ended up at the Crisis Response Unit, which provides emergency mental health services, his family said. Kennewick police showed up and arrested Marc at Crisis Response.
The Moreno family says staff at Crisis Response reported that Marc became aggressive while there.
Officials at Crisis Response didn’t return a call from the Herald to talk about why police were called.
Marc was uncooperative during the arrest and made threats to damage property, according to the Benton County Sheriff’s Office. He was also uncooperative when he arrived at the jail, making threats to harm himself. Jail staff believed he was possibly on drugs.
Jail staff decided to put Marc in a small, padded cell used to house inmates on suicide watch. The sheriff’s office said corrections officers never used force on Marc.
Marc continued to act erratic during his time in jail, yelling out regularly, stripping naked, throwing food and even trying to force his way out of the cell once, said Sheriff Steve Keane. He refused to eat for several days and staff began to record his food and water intake.
He also barely slept for most of the time he was locked up in the cell, where he remained during his entire stay, Keane said. His behavior in jail was so bad that he wasn’t allowed to attend court.
Mental health professionals assessed Marc at the jail daily and jail staff diligently checked on him every 30 minutes, Keane said. They eventually found him unresponsive in his cell with no obvious signs of trauma about 7:30 a.m. March 11. He was pronounced dead a short time later.
Keane said Marc’s death is a mystery right now. The sheriff’s office will wait for autopsy results and the special investigation to figure out if anything more could have been done to keep him alive.
“If it’s determined after an investigation that we made a mistake, I will take full responsibility,” Keane said. “We just don’t know anything at this point.”
Miguel Moreno said he tried to visit his son in jail but was turned away with limited information on how Marc was doing. No family member ever talked to Marc while he was in the jail.
“My question still to this point is why I was denied any information,” Miguel Moreno said. “To this moment right now, I have no answers.”
Family say Marc was affiliated with gang members and had his brushes with the law while he was a juvenile. Mental illness runs in the Moreno family and had been an issue for Marc, who had been hospitalized in the past.
However, the Morenos have a difficult time understanding how the teen ended up in jail rather than in medical care.
“I think the solution was to get him into a hospital for his mental state,” said Erica Moreno. “It doesn’t make sense.”