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Mentally ill inmate’s family to sue Benton County for $5M

Jessica Moreno, left, speaks at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick, where the family of Marc Moreno, 18, demanded answers regarding his death in custody at the county jail. Moreno’s estate will file a claim for damages on Nov. 28.
Jessica Moreno, left, speaks at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick, where the family of Marc Moreno, 18, demanded answers regarding his death in custody at the county jail. Moreno’s estate will file a claim for damages on Nov. 28. Tri-City Herald

The family of a mentally ill Pasco teen expects to seek $5 million in damages from Benton County and its public defender office after the 18-year-old died in the county jail as the family tried to get help for him.

Yakima attorney George Trejo Jr., who is representing Marc Anthony Moreno’s estate, said he will file the claim Monday .

Moreno’s sister, Jessica Moreno, said the family wants to make sure people suffering a mental health crises are treated instead of jailed.

“I just want people to hear my brother’s story and for the system to change, to help those who really need the help,” she said.

On Wednesday, she said her family was regretting the Thanksgiving that might have been. Her brother had been in foster care before turning 18, which kept him away at the holidays.

“This year is the year we would have been able to spend it all together as a family and it has been taken away from us,” she said.

The claim is a prelude to suing in state and federal court. By law, plaintiffs must file a claim at least 60 days in advance of a formal lawsuit to give the agency a chance to settle.

This year is the year we would have been able to spend it all together as a family and it has been taken away from us

Jessica Moreno, sister

Benton County officials were not available Wednesday to comment on the pending claim.

Trejo said he intends to sue the county for violating Moreno’s constitutional rights.

“The only outcome we can obtain under our system of justice is monetary damages,” said Trejo, with the Law office of Georgia Trejo Locher in Burien. Disability Rights Washington is supporting the claim.

Moreno died March 11, 2016, in a padded cell at the Benton County jail, a little more than a week after his family said he was unexpectedly arrested while seeking counseling from the now dissolved Benton-Franklin Crisis Response Unit in Kennewick.

Moreno’s death was one of the reasons cited in June when Benton and Franklin counties jointly decided to dissolve the crisis response unit so that a private operator could take over. Lourdes Counseling took over mental health crisis response in the Tri-Cities on Oct. 1.

Trejo said that after Moreno was turned away, police were called and he was jailed on two misdemeanor warrants. One was for driving with a suspended license and the other for failing to transfer a car title within 45 days of a purchase.

At the jail, Moreno, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, was placed in a restraint chair in a padded room in the jail, where he tossed food against the wall and rolled around in feces, according to Trejo. He neither ate nor drank during the eight days in custody.

“The jail and his public defender did not think to care for Marc’s well being,” Trejo said. He called the jail’s claim it monitored him more than 600 times meaningless.

It did absolutely no good to look through the small window and see Marc suffer.

George Trejo, attorney

“It did absolutely no good to look through the small window and see Marc suffer,” he said.

Trejo said the jail and public defender should have sought medical care or sent him to Eastern State Hospital for care.

“Instead, they sat back and Marc died from dehydration and cardiac arrhythmia eight days after being admitted to the Benton County jail,” he said.

Benton County Coroner John Hansens said Moreno’s death was the result of the use of artificial cannabis. Sheriff Steve Keane has said that Moreno was given food and water but it was unknown if he was eating or drinking enough.

Keane said Moreno should not have been taken to the jail in the first place.

“He should’ve been at a mental health hospital,” he said in July.

There is a video regarding the case posted on YouTube.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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