Crime & Courts

An Anchorage mother is suing the state over her son's suicide in a jail cell

After two years of promises and little in the way of answers, the mother of Mark Bolus, who died three days after hanging himself in an isolation cell, has sued the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Maria Rathbun said she's bringing the suit because of an inadequate response from the department. She hopes getting a clearer picture of her son's death will help her move on, she said.

"DOC is the one that has the answers. They're the ones responsible for housing our mentally ill, for taking care of them, for the expectation that they come out -- not in a box," Rathbun said. "They're the ones I need answers from. They're the ones that know the truth."

Anchorage jail employees found Bolus, 24, unresponsive in an isolation cell at 8:05 a.m. on May 11, 2014, DOC reported at that time. He had hanged himself with bed sheets. He died about three days later at Alaska Regional Hospital.

Bolus -- who was in jail on a probation violation -- suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He struggled with the illness since age 15.

His violation stemmed from a technical absence from a court-ordered treatment class. He was on his medication but it hadn't fully kicked in, and because of his manic state he wasn't allowed in. His probation officer sent him back to jail.

He had asked to be in an isolation cell because the general population scared him, his family said. In the cell, he was alone for 23 hours a day. He eventually wanted out and told his mother about a week before his death that he needed to see a doctor, Rathbun said. On May 10, he hadn't seen a doctor, she said. It was the last time they spoke.


Bolus had never talked about suicide before, his mother said. A DOC official said in June 2014 that Bolus wasn't on suicide watch or on camera surveillance because there was no indication he needed to be.

The lawsuit against the corrections department and the state says DOC "knew or should have known of his suicidal ideations, deteriorating mental status leading up to May 11, 2014, and his history of mental illness, as well as his documented refusal to take medication to alleviate his symptoms."

Rathbun, through her attorneys, alleges DOC was negligent in its training of its employees and their supervision. She is asking for damages in excess of $100,000, the monetary threshold often put as a placeholder in civil lawsuits as it bumps the case to state Superior Court.

The state has 40 days to respond to the complaint. DOC spokesman Corey Allen-Young responded to a request for comment and additional details on the death Tuesday.

"Based upon our review of the records, it appears that Mr. Bolus's death, while tragic, was not reasonably foreseeable. We do not believe the facts support the allegations in the complaint," Allen-Young said.

Rathbun is focused on getting answers -- answers she says she has been promised and is expecting to get. She said she spoke with Dean Williams, current DOC commissioner and one of two authors of an administrative review report, in August.

The report detailed the deaths of four inmates. Videos associated with three of the deaths have been released to the media.

"We did an interview and then he said in October I would have something from the review," Rathbun said. "I've been asking since then to no avail."

Here's how the lawsuit puts it:

"Mr. Williams promised he would disclose whatever information he could to Maria Rathbun, and the other heirs of the estate of Mark Bolus, including surveillance videos of Mark while he was in custody. Ms. Rathbun noted how other families were allowed access to their decedent's records, including videos, which were shared with the media. Although Mr. Williams forwarded more than one request for her son's records to the Governor's chief of staff and acting DOC Commissioner (Walt Monegan) for their approval," the requests were ignored.

Further requests have gone unanswered, Rathbun and her attorneys said.

Jason Skala, who is representing Rathbun along with attorney Lester Syren, said video of Bolus' death is important to their case. Both sides of the lawsuit should be able to view its contents, he said.

The attorney has worked with other families who had loved ones die in the custody of Alaska prisons.

"I watched over 500 hours of video of somebody dying in our jail system. I could see the deterioration over time," Skala said. "And it helped the family, as hard as it was to go through it, to see how it happened and see how he was alive and the circumstances that led to his death. As inexcusable as the reasons were, they were now comprehensible."

The ongoing scrutiny of the corrections department exemplifies that there are systemic problems within the system, the mother said. She recognizes her son wasn't the only victim.

About a month before Bolus' death, Davon Mosley, 20, died alone in a cell at the Anchorage jail. He had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"This isn't just for Mark," she said. "This is for everybody. I thought he'd be safer in jail than he would be on the street. I was wrong."


Rathbun expressed shortly after Mark's death that she often felt an uncomfortable sense of relief when he was in prison. She said she thought it offered stability and an assurance he'd be on medication. She no longer feels that way, she said, adding if she'd paid $250 bail her son would be alive.

She recently attended a suicide prevention walk in the Mat-Su. This weekend, she'll attend an organ donation celebration, as Bolus' organs have helped six people since his death, she said. His heart is somewhere in Spokane, Washington.

"I will hear his heart again," she said.

Bolus belonged to the Eagle River band Mudpuppy during his formative years. Rathbun said the band met and listened to her son's songs over the weekend. She has many of those songs herself.

"I can't listen to them yet," she said.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.