By editorial board • 

County's acceptance of responsibility promising sign in jail suicide

When a mistake is made in newspapering, a published correction typically suffices.

When an error is made in law enforcement, it could cost someone their life. And in small, cold recompense, it could cost the agency and its insurance company a settlement running six or seven figures.

Such is the case with the Oct. 12 jail suicide of 52-year-old Debbie Samples, whose troubled life made her no less loved and cherished by her deeply rooted local family.

The tragic incident began with Samples drinking herself into a stupor and trying to hang herself at the home of a sister, just down the road from the family’s Sheridan homestead. She was discovered by her mother, whose 911 call drew medics and sheriff’s deputies.

At the hospital, Samples’ blood alcohol content measured .27, more than three times the presumed level of intoxication in Oregon. She had arrest warrants out from Lake County, for failure to appear in a domestic battery case, so was bound for jail once doctors cleared her medically.

Her mental state was evaluated by Patricia Goldstein of the county health department, who judged her suicidal, thus recommended she be placed under suicide watch.

Upon arrival at the jail, deputy Nathan Skaer passed on that recommendation to Sgt. Josh Eckroth, but it was not followed. Instead, Samples was placed in a holding cell with a corded phone, and she used the cord to hang herself.

It didn’t have to happen. By all rights, it should not have happened. But the system broke down so badly, it did happen.

There is no bringing her back now. All we can do is try to put things right after the fact.

It will be up to the parties to settle on an acceptable sum of compensation, or the federal courts in the unlikely event they can’t come to terms.

It will be up to Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson, facing the first major challenge of his tenure at the top, to settle on acceptable forms of employee discipline and procedural overhaul. And make no mistake about it, that’s the more important part of the equation by far.

Three things make us think the county is off to a promising start:

n Eckroth owned up, when interviewed by a team of outside investigators, to substituting his own judgment for that of a professional. He acknowledged to erring by leaving at the end of his shift without disclosing Samples’ previous suicide attempt or Goldstein’s suicide watch recommendation.

n Svenson shouldered the mantle of ultimate responsibility, saying: “It is clear that human error on the part of the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office and my staff played a role in this tragedy, and for that, I am deeply sorry.” What’s more, he promised to take disciplinary and procedural steps to ensure a breakdown of such magnitude would never again occur on his watch.

n County Counsel Christian Boenisch released the damning investigatory report, unredacted, despite facing the virtual certainty of looming federal litigation.
Life is precious, and the response needs to reflect that fact.



If you spoke to 10 people on the street, apprising them of the circumstances behind the Samples arrest, including her attempted suicide earlier that night, and asked which type of cell would be most suitable in light of her mental condition, I'm betting all would choose the one without a telephone cord. More than protocol written in a handbook,this involves simple common sense.