Questions remain in Bollinger County Jail suicide

Sunday, August 19, 2012

MARBLE HILL, Mo. -- Though he initially didn't think so, Bollinger County Coroner Charlie Hutchings now says his investigation into the apparent suicide of a county jail inmate in June probably should have included the assistance of an outside agency such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Regardless, Hutchings said, he still doesn't think the investigation's finding would have turned out any differently -- that Charles Daniel Hovis died from self-inflicted injuries.

"I don't think the results would have been any different at all," Hutchings said. "I don't think there's any cover-up. It shows exactly what we thought. But I guess it would have been nice to collaborate from an outside agency."

Hovis' sister, Effie Masters, doesn't think anyone other than her brother inflicted the wounds to his left arm that cost him his life. But she still has a litany of questions, such as how did the blades get into her brother's cell, why wasn't he on suicide watch and how can the Bollinger County Sheriff's Department have a system where workers at the jail don't have the ability to open the cells to provide medical aid?

"The circumstances were not what they should have been to protect his life," Masters said. "I will never believe they did everything they could to save his life."

Hutchings said his investigation, which is overseen by coroners according to Missouri law, is winding down and he expects to have it finalized soon. In fact, he said, he thought it would be completed Friday when he received reports from an autopsy that was performed by Dr. Russell Deidiker at Mineral Area Regional Medical Center in Farmington, Mo.

The report did come, but it contained information that Hutchings said he wasn't expecting. Hutchings declined to reveal what the information was, but he said he needed to speak to an evidence officer and re-examine some evidence.

"I have to understand why the report came back as it is," Hutchings said. "It was unexpected, that's all. I need to explain in my own mind how this happened. There's just one little thing I need explained."

Deidiker, a pathologist, also refused to discuss the autopsy.

After Hutchings reconciles the information, he said, the report should be complete and made public.

Hutchings, who also operates Hutchings Funeral Home in Marble Hill, began his investigation as soon as he was notified of the incident by the sheriff's department. Hovis, 55, was found by a dispatcher about 3:15 a.m. and called a deputy for help. Hovis apparently had used razors on his arm and was bleeding out. In Bollinger County, a dispatcher acts as jailer overnight, walking through the block and checking cells every half-hour. But because they are not trained police officers, they are not allowed to open the cell doors. The dispatcher called the deputy, and Hovis bled unattended for about eight minutes until help arrived.

Sheriff Leo McElrath, who could not be reached for comment, said at the time that the department does not have the budget to have a deputy at the jail around the clock.

Hovis was not on suicide watch, despite the fact that he had recently returned to custody from a hospital after a failed attempt. In previous reports, McElrath said Hovis was not on suicide watch because the wounds he suffered from the previous attempt were not life-threatening. McElrath has also said he does not know how the blade got in Hovis' cell, except to note that it was old and was not the one issued to Hovis for shaving.

Missouri law dictates that county coroners investigate deaths of those in custody of law enforcement. The law also would have allowed an outside agency like the highway patrol to assist or oversee the investigation. For example, when Charles Andrew Riels, 40, died in July while in police custody, Butler County Coroner Jim Akers contacted the highway patrol to handle the investigation, as is his procedure.

The day following Hovis' death, Hutchings did contact Lt. Phil Gregory of the patrol's division of drug and crime control, which handles such cases. Hutchings considers the pathologist who performed the autopsy an outside agency, he said, but he made the call to see if the patrol could help anyway.

But, Hutchings said, Gregory told him that since the investigation had started already, there was little point to the patrol getting involved. If he had it to do over again, Hutchings said, he would have called the patrol the first day.

Reached by the Southeast Missourian, Gregory said they were not officially requested to assist but that he and Hutchings had a telephone conversation.

"The investigation was well on its way," Gregory said. "But it's entirely within his right to handle the investigation. Some perform their own, others ask for our help. It's kind of a case-by-case thing."

Hutchings also pointed out that this was his first jail suicide since he became coroner.

"I have done the best that I know how to do," he said. "I think that what happened is that he committed suicide in the jail."

But Masters said that her questions linger. She wishes the patrol would have handled the investigation to make sure the Bollinger County Sheriff's Department acted appropriately.

"Why should they be able to investigate themselves?" she said. "If there had been somebody there who could have entered the cell, it would have saved my brother's life."


Pertinent address:

202 High St., Marble Hill, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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