Cause of Benton County inmate’s death unknown after autopsy

Tri-City Herald

Autopsy findings released Tuesday revealed little about what caused the death of Marc Anthony Moreno while he was in a special cell at the Benton County jail.

Coroner John Hansens announced laboratory tests are needed before determining how Moreno, 18, died March 11 in a single-person cell where inmates on suicide watch are kept.

There were no signs of major injuries, and suicide is not suspected, Hansens said. Toxicology results, to show if drugs were in his system, could take up to eight weeks.

The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy had no other information to release, Hansens said.

Sheriff Steve Keane said that his investigators suspect Moreno’s death may be linked to a complication from his mental illness that affected his heart, but they must wait for the coroner’s report.

The death is under investigation by the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit, comprised of local police from different agencies.

Keane defended his jail staff’s handling of Moreno. The teen was dealing with mental health issues before his arrest. His family says he was bipolar and suffered from schizophrenia.

Moreno was evaluated twice a day by mental health staff in the jail and corrections officers checked on him more than 600 times during his eight days in custody, Keane said.

Moreno made suicidal threats and was put into a padded cell to prevent him from harming himself.

“I don’t know what more we could have done,” Keane said. “Over an eight-day period, we did quite a bit more than what was even required by policy.”

Moreno, who attended Chiawana High School, was admitted to Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco for two days before being released March 3, officials said.

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

Moreno was then taken to the Benton & Franklin Counties’ Crisis Response Unit, which offers counseling for emergency mental health issues.

At the Kennewick facility, Moreno began acting aggressive and staff called police, according to police reports. When officers arrived, Moreno clenched his fists, clenched his jaw and jumped up from his seat.

An arresting officer described Moreno as being “severely agitated,” according to a police report. After officers arrested Moreno on misdemeanor warrants, he kicked a seat in the patrol car and spit in the back of the car on the way to jail.

Once at the jail, Moreno continued to be uncooperative and he was placed into a restraint chair, officials said.

Jail staff found Moreno dead, lying on his side, about 7:30 a.m. on March 11. Family members, who are upset Moreno was put in jail, say they never spoke to him while he was in custody.

Keane told the Herald that Moreno’s death is tragic and an example of why improvements are needed in the local and state mental heath care system.

“There are still so many gaps in the area of mental health,” he said. “(Jail) is just not the right place to keep (mentally ill people).”

Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556, @Ty_richardson