A jury has ordered the western Alaska community of Hooper Bay to pay around $1 million to the family of 21-year-old Louis Bunyan's family, after the young man killed himself while in protective custody one night in June 2011. Bunyan had a history of suicidal threats, and he'd been placed in a cell for his own good, but the Hooper Bay jail guard focused on Facebook rather than looking after Louis, and the troubled young man killed himself, according to information revealed in court.
The large amount of restitution comes more than two years after Louis' mother, Judy Bunyan, filed a wrongful death complaint against the City of Hooper Bay, a village 500 miles west of Anchorage with a population of about 1,100, large enough for its own tiny police force.
It was there on June 28, 2011 that officers were called to take Louis into protective custody. He was drunk, but was not threatening to harm himself, said private attorney David Henderson. However, Louis had previously threatened to commit suicide at least three times. Officers had access to 911 calls with information about the threats, Henderson said.
Village police officers Walter Naneng and Robert Tinker arrested Louis and placed him in a cell back at the station around 4:30 a.m. The station's jail guard Baylon Boots was left in charge of watch but reportedly didn't consistently check on Louis, which Judy's attorneys argued was required by the policies and procedures of the city.
The officers gave Louis a pat-down before placing him in a cell without lights and a small window covered with chain-link fencing. Within 38 minutes, according to Henderson, Louis was dead. He had removed the drawstring from his shorts and hung himself.
He was found at 5:10 a.m. "He could not be revived," the affidavit says.
"What they put him in was a dark closet," said Jim Valcarce, whose Bethel-based private law office represented the victim's family. "And he asked for a pen and paper twice to write a note, and they just never made any further inquiries."
Valcarce and Henderson argued Louis wanted those items to write a suicide note.
During the half-hour Louis was holed up in the cell, Boots was on Facebook; Officer Tinker was playing poker on the computer, according to the plaintiff's attorneys. The City of Hooper Bay employees admitted as much during trial, they said.
Valcarce said another officer told the court he wasn't aware of a rule barring employees from using Facebook while on the clock. And another witness allegedly argued that the men have little else to do in the middle of the night than peruse Facebook -- a link to the outside world many Bush residents use to stay informed and a medium on which village tragedies and disputes unfold.
"What else were they supposed to do?" Valcarce paraphrased the witness as testifying.
"How about their jobs?" the attorney replied.
Louis lived at home with his mother Judy and supported her around the house. He also helped maintain the family's subsistence lifestyle. Commercial fishing and subsistence activities are often the primary means of survival for Hooper Bay residents. Judy says she was dependent on that help, as well as Louis' two biological children, who were also named as plaintiffs in the case.
The city denied any wrongdoing and added its employees were "immune from liability for their conduct," defense attorney Bill Ingaldson wrote in response to the lawsuit.
But a jury in Bethel, a hub community of Southwest Alaska, found the city at fault for the death of Louis. Asked if the city of Hooper Bay was negligent, the jury foreperson wrote "Yes." The jury also decided the city's negligence caused harm to the Louis' family.
A total of $960,000 was awarded to Louis' mother and his two children. The total amount Hooper Bay will likely have to pay after additional fees is in excess of $1 million.
Valcarce said the case has already made an impact, as the jail cell's conditions have improved. Now the cell has lights, and the fencing covering the window has been replaced by Plexiglas. A camera was also added to the cell.
The city plans to appeal the decision, Ingaldson said. He argues the city only needs to make reasonable efforts to protect prisoners from inflicting self-harm if those acts are "reasonably foreseeable." According to Ingaldson, the judge ruled that fault cannot be attributed to Louis. He disagrees with the standard the judge applied and argues if a person is capable of performing an action, then they can be held accountable for that action.
"We think if they're capable they are responsible," he said. "A drunk person may not be able to cross the road safely or grab a warmer jacket. But that doesn't mean they're not capable of intentionally committing a crime or hurting themselves."
Louis' family was originally asking for more than $3.5 million, Ingaldson said.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.