MADRAS — Late Tuesday, when Jefferson County Circuit Judge Daina Vitolins read the words “not guilty,” the tension that filled her courtroom for two weeks was released, with cries of celebration from the gallery.
Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies Michael Christopher Durkan, Anthony “Tony” Joseph Hansen and Cory Lucinda Skidgel were cleared of criminally negligent homicide, 20 months after inmate James Eugene Wippel bled to death in the jail sally port from a burst ulcer.
Vitolins began her verdict by saying she found Durkan, Hansen and Skidgel had acted with criminal negligence in the death of Wippel, 59. But, in a turn that drew gasps from the more than 50 people in attendance, she said she didn’t find sufficient evidence that Wippel died because of their actions.
“Justice,” Hansen told The Bulletin afterward, as he hugged relatives and fellow officers.
One of Hansen’s superiors at the sheriff’s office approached and handed Hansen his badge and police ID card, which he’d surrendered when he was placed on administrative leave. This brought more tears to Hansen’s eyes.
Wippel, 59, died the morning of April 26, two days after he was picked up by a Warm Springs Police officer for allegedly smoking methamphetamine outside the Indian Head Casino.
Wippel told jail staff at booking he’d been addicted to heroin for two years, and he detoxes “hard,” according to testimony. Medical experts testified he was likely unaware he had a stomach ulcer.
For two days, Wippel suffered. Overhead video from the booking unit shows Wippel’s last hour alive: He’s stooped forward, shuffling slowly and moaning loudly.
Durkan, Hansen and Skidgel were the three deputies who worked the night shift on April 25 to 26, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. They each checked on Wippel several times, finding him in a growing state of distress. But they never called 911 or the jail nurse, and instead waited for her return to work at 8 a.m.
Wippel’s death was the first ever of a Jefferson County inmate, according to the jail.
The office of Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote was appointed to prosecute.
Foote wrote to The Bulletin following the verdict that it didn’t matter that Wippel was an acknowledged drug addict.
“He was a human being,” Foote wrote. “Mr. Wippel’s life mattered, just like all of ours. What happened to him in the Jefferson County jail was a crime.”
Friday in trial, lead jail nurse Shawn Winsor testified the three deputies acted within their “best common sense and judgment.” And Monday, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins said the trio of accused deputies had done “nothing” wrong.
“I trust them now, sitting here,” he said at the time. “And I would put them back to work today.”
Throughout the trial, local officers, in uniform and civilian clothes, sat through proceedings and offered support to the trio in the courthouse halls. A number of sheriff’s employees, including Undersheriff Marc Heckathorn, shared a meme on social media reading, “BACK THE BLUE. Jefferson County Law Enforcement Supports Our 3.”
Heckathorn also testified for the defense on Monday and defended the three.
Adkins said after the verdict the office is planning a “back-to-work celebration.”
“This has been so stressful for so long,” Adkins said, fighting back tears. “I’ve believed in justice, for the 32 years I’ve done this, and this was the right thing.”
Carroll Gorg, who is married to Wippel’s first cousin and was executor of Wippel’s estate, was disappointed with the verdict. Gorg said the sheriff’s office was more interested in protecting its own, rather than finding justice for a dead man.
“I just think they’re sticking up for each other,” Gorg said. “That’s just the way they think. I’m sorry he couldn’t be in court to dispute some of the things that were said about him.”
Gorg said Wippel grew up the only child of older parents in Lake Oswego, his mother a nurse and his father an alcohol counselor who worked for the state. Though he struggled with addiction throughout his life, James Wippel was never mean to other people, Gorg said.
“It’s such a shame he had to suffer like he did,” Gorg said.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org