Benton County pays $1.2M after jail death of mentally ill teen

Benton County commissioners agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with the family of Marc Moreno, an 18-year-old man who died in March 2016 n the Benton County jail.
Benton County commissioners agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with the family of Marc Moreno, an 18-year-old man who died in March 2016 n the Benton County jail.

Benton County commissioners will pay $1.2 million to the family of a mentally ill teenager who died in the Benton County jail in 2016.

The family's lawyer, George Trejo, told the Herald on Tuesday that the family accepted the settlement offer rather than continue with the wrongful death lawsuit.

The county early on asked for mediation, Trejo said.

"It's gratifying for the family to see the county stepped up at an early juncture," Trejo said.

Marc Moreno Courtesy Moreno family

Moreno died in his jail cell March 11, 2016 — eight days after he was booked.

County Coroner John Hansens ruled Moreno died from an irregular heartbeat and dehydration as a result of synthetic cannabis in his system.

Then-Sheriff Steve Keane said that Moreno, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, was being given water and food, but they did not know if he was drinking or eating enough.

The Benton County Sheriff’s Office released a 16-minute video Wednesday of a mentally ill Pasco teen being booked into jail eight days before he was found dead in his cell. Some scenes of him being undressed have been edited.

Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson confirmed the settlement check was cut Tuesday, and that the check will be paid out of the risk pool to which the county belongs.

The only other provision of the settlement was for the county to draft a letter detailing current practices and policies on booking suspects and handling inmates with mental health issues.

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher contends his jail has the best booking process in the state for screening for substance abuse, mental health and medical issues.

The jail works with groups and uses other options in the justice system to keep mentally ill people out of jail who don't belong there.

It's one of the steps that Hatcher said has cut the number of mentally ill people coming into the jail by about 50 percent.

Hatcher also said the jail no longer works with the prisoner health care contractor it had when Moreno died.

"There were some significant problems with our contracted medical services," Hatcher said.

Since Moreno's death, jail staff is working closer with the health care contractor to make sure inmates are getting medical care even if the inmates are aggressive or combative, he said.

"We have to find ways to combat the people who are combative and still provide a safe environment for them," Hatcher said.

However, sheriff's officials and corrections officers evaluate their policies "every single day," he said.

Trejo told the Herald that while claims against the county were resolved with the settlement, Lourdes Health and the jail's health care provider still may be sued.

"They were the ones who were directly responsible for taking care of Marc's health care needs," Trejo said, "and they didn't."

Moreno's family said Moreno was admitted to Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco for two days before being released March 3, 2016.

He tried to check into Lourdes Counseling Center in Richland, which provides 24-hour mental-health care, because he was in crisis, but apparently there weren’t enough beds at the facility, family members said at the time.

Moreno Marc
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. File Tri-City Herald

Moreno was then taken to Benton & Franklin Counties’ Crisis Response Unit, a government-run unit at the time that offered counseling for emergency mental health issues.

At the Kennewick facility, Moreno began acting out and the police were called. Officers arrested him on misdemeanor warrants.

At the jail, Moreno 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.

Moreno’s death also 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 in October 2016.

Jake Dorsey: 509-582-1405