Photo of Tasharra Thomas (courtesy of Rochelle Thomas-Boyd)
Rochelle Thomas-Boyd addressed a crowd gathered outside the Guilford County Detention Center in downtown Greensboro on a sunny day in late June 2020.
“A lot of you knew Tasha,” Thomas-Boyd said. “And if you knew Tasha, you knew what type of person she was: honest, outstanding, outspoken. And always right — that part’s a joke. Tasha gave so much to so many people. And I cannot give up the fight for justice for Tasha, because Tasha was my oldest child. Tasha gave me my only grandchild.”
Tasharra Thomas died at the age of 33 in the Greensboro jail on May 2, 2018, and her mother lamented that at the time news coverage had been fleeting. But on June 24, 2020, George Floyd had been dead for scarcely a month. Cities across the country had erupted in a historic wave of protest against racist policing and incarceration. The world’s focus was squarely on people of color victimized by law enforcement. One of Tasha’s family members held a sign reading “Black Lives Matter.” Supporters chanted Tasha’s name.
The official cause of death was sepsis due to infective endocarditis, an infection caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream that undermines heart function and often causes damage to other organs. The infective endocarditis was caused, in turn, by chronic injection drug use, according to a report by a medical examiner and later confirmed by an autopsy.
But Tasha’s mother had long suspected a cause far more nefarious, and on that day in June 2020, she voiced her suspicions to the crowd of supporters outside the jail.
“What we think is they just killed her,” Rochelle Thomas-Boyd said. “She often told me: ‘Mama, they’re going to come one day and tell you that I’m dead.’ She said, ‘But just know that they killed me when they get tired of me. They’re sick of looking for me. They’re sick of picking me up.’”
Horrific injuries alleged by family contradict autopsy
Thomas-Boyd, as administrator of her daughter’s estate, filed a civil lawsuit against the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office for a claim of wrongful death in November 2020. Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are Sheriff Danny Rogers; BJ Barnes, who was the sheriff at the time of Thomas’ death; Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America; and Wellpath, the medical provider contracted to provide healthcare at the jail.
The depiction of events during Tasha’s three-day jail stay in the spring of 2018, as detailed in the lawsuit, is horrific, and in almost every aspect diverges from the official narrative put forward by the sheriff’s office, which is in turn backed up by the autopsy completed by the NC Office of Chief Medical Examiner. Virtually the only points of agreement between the lawsuit and the autopsy is that Tasha had admitted to using heroin and Suboxone when she was booked into the jail around midnight on April 29, and that in the days leading up to her death she was running a fever.
The lawsuit asserts that “Tasharra was given drugs while in the custody” of the sheriff’s office “and was physically attacked while in custody,” while assigning responsibility to the defendants for either causing or ignoring those harms.
In stark contrast, the autopsy bluntly states: “No injuries were found that caused or contributed to death.”
The lawsuit provides a description of Thomas’ body that is gruesome: “Tasharra’s nipple had been ripped off; she had what appeared to be unexplained bite marks on her body; some of her hair had been ripped out; her wrist appeared to be bruised as if she had been handcuffed; she had other bruises and contusions; and some of her bones appeared to be broken.”
Reginald Alston, a Winston-Salem lawyer who represents the estate, told Triad City Beat the depictions of traumatic bodily injury come from a video that someone provided to Thomas’ mother.
Alston and Rochelle Thomas-Boyd did not respond to requests from TCB for the video purporting to show mutilation and other injuries to Thomas’ body.
Thomas-Boyd also did not respond to an invitation to comment on the lawsuit, and Alston said in an interview that he did not want to be quoted.
The lawsuit also references statements from a woman named Sharice Daughtery described as having shared a cell with Thomas. According to the lawsuit, Daughtery said she observed jail staff “harass Tasharra on multiple occasions and recalls that one officer visited Tasharra in the cell that they shared on a regular basis.” The lawsuit describes the officer as bullying Tasharra and making “derogatory and/or threatening comments to her.” On at least two occasions, the lawsuit says, Tasharra was removed from her cell late in the evening without explanation.
On one occasion, according the lawsuit, when she returned to the cell, Tasharra “appeared despondent and quiet and she cried uncontrollably. Tasharra also appeared to be in a great deal of pain upon her return and was barely able to move. She stated to Daughtery when discussing her interactions with [detention] officers, ‘You don’t know what they do to me.’”
James Secor, the sheriff’s attorney, told TCB the sheriff’s office conducted criminal and administrative investigations into the allegations.
“Both investigations determined that Ms. Thomas was not physically abused,” Secor said.
Secor said investigators at the sheriff’s office did not attempt to interview Daughtery for one simple fact.
“The first time we learned about Sharice Daughtery was when they filed a complaint in November,” he said. “The estate told us they had an affidavit from a witness. We said, ‘Great, we’d love to see it,’ but they haven’t turned it over to us. The reason she was not interviewed was she was not in the jail in the three and a half days that Ms. Thomas was there.”
Alston and Thomas-Boyd also did not respond to a request from TCB for the Sharice Daughtery affidavit, which together with the video in Thomas-Boyd’s possession, forms the basis of the most troubling claims in the lawsuit.
The sheriff’s office agreed to a request by the plaintiffs to publicly release surveillance video from inside the jail depicting Thomas’ interactions with detention and medical staff, and in November, Guilford County Superior Court Judge Stuart Albright signed off on the release. The sheriff’s office posted more than 23 hours of continuous video on its website on Jan. 25. The agency explained in a note on the website that the video “speeds up the actual elapsed time of events and does not retain the actual date and time stamps.” The sheriff’s office is also providing news media with the original video on thumb drives that runs at actual speed and includes time and date stamps, along with the software necessary to view it.
“The video is striking in that it shows that Ms. Thomas never had a cellmate,” Secor said. “Ms. Daughtery doesn’t appear in any video.”
TCB was not able to reach Daughtery.
The lawsuit also describes a conversation between Rochelle Thomas-Boyd and Danny Rogers that took place “shortly after Tasharra’s death.” Rogers was elected sheriff on Nov. 6, 2018 — six months after Thomas’ death — defeating incumbent BJ Barnes.
“During the meeting, defendant Rogers contacted a GCDF [Guilford County Detention Facility] officer to gather more information about the circumstances surrounding Tasharra’s death,” the complaint says. “While defendant Rogers was in plaintiff’s presence, this officer read information to defendant Rogers from a GCDF record and told defendant Rogers in plaintiff’s presence that Tasharra died in jail of a drug overdose.”
Secor said Thomas-Boyd met Rogers in May 2018 when he was a candidate for sheriff, and that she showed him video or photographs of her daughter’s body. He said the two met again in a parking lot after the autopsy was completed in August 2018.
“As for this conversation where the sheriff has another officer read from a report which confirmed a drug overdose, there’s no truth to that,” Secor said. “It didn’t happen.”
Secor said there is no evidence that Thomas received drugs while she was in jail or that she overdosed in jail. Secor noted that toxicology testing detected fentanyl and methamphetamine in Thomas’ body, adding, “It’s my understanding those were trace amounts from prior to her coming into the jail.”
The lawsuit suggests a coverup, stating that Rochelle Thomas-Boyd asked to see her daughter’s body after learning of her death.
“GCDF refused to allow plaintiff to see Tasharra’s body while it was in the morgue, claiming that it was ‘on restriction,’” the lawsuit states.
Secor said that’s not true.
“The body lay in the cell waiting for the representative of the ambulance service,” he said. “To my knowledge, there was no request to the sheriff’s office. If they wanted to view the body at the hospital and they were denied access, I think any body that is received by the medical examiner’s office is going to be secured to make sure no one is able to tamper with the body.”
An alleged cover-up deemed ‘implausible’ by sheriff’s office
The lawsuit suggests a troubling theory for why the autopsy findings undercut the claims of physical abuse and access to drugs, as laid out in the complaint.
“Upon information and belief, GCDF did not use the medical examiner that it typically uses to conduct autopsies,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, it used a medical examiner in another county with whom Sheriff Barnes had a close relationship.”
Records provided by the NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner indicate that the autopsy was authorized by Timothy K. McNeal, a Guilford County paramedic EMT. The autopsy was conducted at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh, and certified by Dr. Michelle Aurelius and Dr. Adesuwa Egharevba.
“There’s three medical examiners listed on the report; Sheriff Barnes does not know any of those three people and will testify unequivocally that he had no role in cherry-picking the medical examiners,” Secor said.
“That conspiratorial allegation that Sheriff Barnes swapped out the medical examiners is untruthful,” he continued. “In order to believe what the plaintiff is throwing out to be true, you’d have to believe that the medical examiner falsified the autopsy report. That’s implausible.”
Aurelius, who was appointed to the top job in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in May 2019, could not be reached for this story.
While firm in its conclusion that Thomas had “no injuries causative of or contributory to death,” the autopsy does cite “blunt force injuries” that have not been explained. The autopsy lists a “red superficial abrasion” measuring a quarter-inch in diameter on Thomas’ right thigh and another “red superficial abrasion” on the backside of Thomas’ lower right leg measuring 3/16-inch by 1/8-inch. Those are in addition to multiple scars on different parts of Thomas’ body that are cited as “evidence of injection drug use.”
One detail in the autopsy report is also consistent with the characterization in the lawsuit that “some of her hair had been ripped out.”
The autopsy report reads: “Accompanying the body are two separate hair braids wrapped in multi-colored yarn.”
Victoria Sheppard-Anderson, an assistant sheriff’s attorney, said that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as evidence that Thomas’ hair was were forcibly removed. Speaking as someone who has worn her hair in braids for more than 20 years, Sheppard-Anderson said, “Those things do easily come out.”
The lawsuit also faults the jail staff for failing to place Thomas on “four-times-per-hour direct observations watch,” contending that it was required by state law.
Secor said in response that Thomas did not qualify for four checks per hour based on her condition, but he added that other inmates on the cell block did qualify so detention officers included Thomas in the full rotations. Secor said when investigators tabulated the round count, they actually came up with more than four checks per hour.
The lawsuit also charges that detention officers “shirked their constitutional duties and failed to provide proper protocol” by failing “to render CPR to Tasharra for more than six minutes” after she was found unresponsive.
Secor did not directly address the claim in his comments to TCB.
“The issue of CPR is something we’re going to address during the course of the lawsuit,” Secor said. “We were more concerned about allegations in the complaint that Ms. Thomas was subject to horrific physical abuse. We wanted to dispel that.”
Wellpath under fire, again
In addition to its claims against jail staff, the lawsuit also accuses medical provider Wellpath (formerly Correct Care Solutions) of negligence and deliberate indifference.
Wellpath has come under significant scrutiny for its handling of inmate medical care over the past decade due to medical emergencies in jails in both Guilford and Forsyth counties that ended in inmate deaths.
Dino Vann Nixon died in the Forsyth County jail in 2013 as a result of withdrawal from benzodiazepine, according to a medical examiner’s report. His family alleged in a lawsuit that medical staff denied his request for the prescribed medication. Forsyth County settled the lawsuit with a $180,000 payment to Nixon’s widow.
Jennifer McCormack Schuler died at Baptist Hospital after experiencing a heart attack at the Forsyth County jail in 2014. Her family claimed in a lawsuit that she died as a result of nursing staff failing to provide her with Zofran, an anti-nausea medication, and as a result she was unable to hold down other medications. Correct Care Solutions settled with McCormack’s estate for an unspecified amount.
Stephen Antwan Patterson was one of two men who died in the Forsyth County jail in May 2017. Patterson died from an irregular heartbeat caused by hypertensive cardiovascular diseases, according to an autopsy report. In 2020, Patterson’s family and Wellpath settled a lawsuit under undisclosed terms.
Deshawn Lamont Coley died the same month as a result of complications from asthma, and medical staff ignored his pleas for help and failed to get him medical treatment, as alleged in a lawsuit brought against Wellpath by his family. The case is scheduled to go to trial in April 2023. James Seramba described a similar medical emergency when he was incarcerated in the Forsyth County jail in November 2015 stay, although he fortunately survived. Seramba told TCB he had an inhaler and prescribed medications, along with a sheet from the US Department of Veterans Affairs listing his medications, when he was arrested. Seramba said the jail nurse refused to call his physician to confirm he was prescribed to take the medications or use the inhaler, and after four days of begging for his medication he experienced a blackout and was rushed to Baptist Hospital for treatment. Seramba was more fortunate than Coley, and hospital staff was able to stabilize him after getting him his proper medication.
Ellin Schott died at Cone Hospital in 2015 as a result of “complications from prolonged seizure activity” following a stay at the Guilford County Detention Center in Greensboro. A medical examiner’s report stated that Schott requested her prescribed anti-seizure medications Keppra and Gabapentin, but never received them over the course of her three-day jail stay. In June 2017, Correct Care Solutions agreed to hire one additional pharmacy tech at each of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s detention facilities in Greensboro and High Point to coordinate prescription medications for inmates booked over the weekend. The changes were made as a result of Schott’s death.
In December 2019, John Neville died at Baptist Hospital as a result of “complications of positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint” while in custody at the Forsyth County jail. A Wellpath nurse, along with five detention officers, face involuntary manslaughter charges in Neville’s death.
In the most recent legal challenge, Wellpath faces accusations that its staff failed to provide adequate care to Tasharra Thomas as she was undergoing withdrawal from heroin, leading to her death in the Guilford County Detention Center in Greensboro in April 2018.
Among other failings, the lawsuit says, Wellpath “violated its duty of care,” by failing to provide appropriate withdrawal treatment, failing to appropriately monitor her condition, and failing to ensure that her medical records were accurately maintained. The complaint faults Wellpath nurses, along with detention officers, for failing to call for emergency medical services or request authorization to transfer Thomas to the hospital when jail records indicated she “was ‘extremely warm to touch,’ had a temperature of ‘103.0,’ ‘experienced severe withdrawals’ and became diaphoretic.”
Judy Lilley, the vice president for corporate communications and public affairs at Wellpath, said the company does not comment on active litigation.
“Additionally, due to privacy laws,” she said, “Wellpath is unable to comment on the care provided in this case.”