MADRAS — The first week in the trial of three Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies accused of allowing an inmate to die in 2017 concluded Friday with dramatic testimony from the jail nurse who attended to James Eugene Wippel in his last moments.
Nurse Shawn Winsor defended the trio, who she said had good reason to assume Wippel was experiencing severe heroin withdrawal, rather than the effects of a burst ulcer, which was found to be his official cause of death.
“I would say they acted with their best common sense and judgment,” Winsor said at one point.
The trial of Michael Christopher Durkan, Anthony “Tony” Joseph Hansen and Cory Lucinda Skidgel began Monday in Jefferson County Circuit Court. The three face the felony of criminally negligent homicide for failing to act in the death of Wippel, 59.
Over five days, specially appointed prosecutors from Clackamas County called 11 witnesses, including Winsor, who seemed annoyed at being called to testify against her coworkers.
She hugged them outside the courtroom following Friday’s proceedings and said, “Hang in there.”
If found guilty, the deputies could face prison and will likely lose their certification as police officers in Oregon.
Wippel was arrested on the morning of April 24, 2017, by a Warm Springs Police officer outside the Indian Head Casino on suspicion of heroin and methamphetamine possession.
He was taken to the Jefferson County Jail in Madras, where he was booked and given an arraignment date of April 27, when he likely would have been released from custody. According to testimony, he told jail staff upon admittance that he’d used heroin for the past 20 years and had injected a gram a day for the past two years, in addition to regularly using meth and drinking alcohol.
Winsor, the lead nurse at the jail, testified she visited with Wippel five times before his death. Wippel told the nurse he was taking antibiotics for an infection in his upper arm caused by “shooting up,” Winsor said. She recorded in her notes Wippel felt nauseous and had skipped breakfast, his skin was pale and looked “older than his stated years.”
“Did he look comfortable?” asked prosecutor John Wentworth.
“As comfortable as someone detoxing from heroin could be,” Winsor answered.
Over the next four visits, Winsor said she noted Wippel continued to show signs of heroin withdrawal.
About midnight April 26, Durkan and Hansen checked on Wippel and reported he was rocking back and forth on his bunk and “hating life,” Winsor said. He’d thrown up blood and was complaining of abdominal pain. They checked again at 2 a.m. There was a puddle of vomited blood on the floor the size of a notebook and a trail of blood leading to the toilet, Winsor said. They checked on him a final time at 5:20 a.m. and noted he’d been vomiting again and had defecated in his pants.
Knowing Winsor was returning to work at 8 a.m., Durkan and Hansen decided to relocate Wippel to a cell closer to the booking unit, where he could be observed more closely, according to Winsor’s testimony.
Winsor was questioned persistently by prosecutors about whether the trio should have called her, or 911, during the night, rather than merely transferring Wippel to a cell closer to the booking unit.
Hansen’s attorney, David Glenn, stood and objected. He said Wippel had told guards he’d caused himself to vomit, and Wippel had asked to call his girlfriend so she could bail him out, not go to the hospital. Glenn said the night shift was correct to assume Wippel was going through heroin withdrawal.
“When you put it all in context, it makes more sense,” Glenn said, causing heads in the gallery to nod.
Nearly 30 supporters of the officers were there to watch the state call its final three witnesses. Some in the courthouse halls wondered aloud why the probe had focused on these three officers, when dozens encountered Wippel during his time at the jail.
Judge Daina Vitolins now has only a few video clips to watch before the prosecution rests. The next phase of the trial could stretch for weeks. On the defense’s list of potential witnesses are two doctors who also reviewed all Wippel’s medical files and the deputies’ boss, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins, who was in attendance Friday.
All three officers have spouses. At the time of Wippel’s death, Skidgel had recently returned to active duty following 10 years of maternity leave.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org