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Jail death results in new lawsuit

A wrongful death complaint for damages filed in Island County Superior Court May 30 claims the city of Oak Harbor, the police captain, four officers and a former jailer acted with negligence that caused the death of a jail inmate.

The complaint involves Edward Gregoire, a 23-year-old man who hanged himself in the Oak Harbor jail Dec. 15, 1995, after being arrested on a misdemeanor warrant. The complaint alleges that Gregoire, a black man, was denied his civil rights because of his race.

Gregoire’s former wife, Tanya Gregoire, filed the complaint on behalf of the couple’s 8-year-old daughter.

The complaint, with both state and federal claims, was originally filed in federal court on Dec. 10, 1998. Oak Harbor City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said a federal judge responded to a motion for summary judgement in Oct. 2001 and dismissed the case with prejudice, which means it can’t be re-filed.

Bleyhl said the state law claim was dismissed in federal court last month. As a result, Gregoire filed the complaint in Island County Superior Court instead.

According to the claim, which was written by Seattle attorney Mary Ruth Mann, Gregoire was arrested in Oak Harbor when an officer found outstanding misdemeanor warrants on him following a traffic stop. When he was being transported to the jail, Gregoire started crying and acting disorderly.

Outside the jail, Gregoire tried to run away from officers even though he was handcuffed. He was tackled by two officers, but continued to struggle. Eventually four officers pinned him down, put additional cuffs on his arms and legs, picked him up and carried him face-down into the jail. Gregoire told the officers that he “wanted to be shot,” the complaint states.

About an hour later, a jailer found Gregoire “hanging in his cell, a jail-issue sheet tied from his neck to a ventilation grill on the wall,” the federal complaint states.

The complaint argues that the Oak Harbor Police Department did not have a program for mental health screening for potential suicides and, therefore, failed to screen Gregoire or put him on suicide watch.

The complaint also alleges that the police denied Gregoire emergency medical care after he was found hanged.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Gregoire may not have killed himself after all. It states that the police “negligently or intentionally caused the death of Edward Gregoire and carried out an unlawful cover up of the circumstances of his death.”

Moreover, the complaint says the police department “failed to train police and jail personnel in proper use of restraints and holds in custody.”

Tanya Gregoire is asking for compensatory, general and punitive damages as determined by a jury.

Following Gregoire’s death, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop conducted a public inquest and cleared the police department of any wrong-doing.

While Bleyhl said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the case, he did say the complaint may have been filed too late — over six years after Gregoire’s death.

“The issue of whether it’s time-barred is still to be litigated,” Bleyhl said.

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