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Medical Examiner Says He was Threatened over Jail Deaths by Sheriff Clarke

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has more choice words for a county supervisor demanding his resignation.

The sheriff saying on Facebook that Supervisor Supreme Moore Okomunde has some nerve blaming the sheriff for four deaths in the jail in less than a year when hundreds are overdosing in the county.

The sheriff asks why Moore  "has nothing to say about the 217 heroin related deaths in Milwaukee County or the 138 homicides in the city of Milwaukee in 2016.

The jail deaths have also led to friction between the sheriff and medical examiner. 

CBS 58 obtained emails and the chief medical examiner says he was threatened by the sheriff after releasing information about the jail deaths to us.  

Back in October, CBS 58 was the first tv station to report that four deaths happened inside the Milwaukee County jail this year.

Emails showed a day after our report aired the sheriff called Chief Medical Examiner Brian Peterson threatening to get his license revoked.  

In an email sent to County Executive Chris Abele on October 29, Peterson said he sustained some 20 minutes of yelling and threats against my license for ultimately no good reason.

He said the sheriff took issue with information released on the death of Terrill Thomas and also this tweet from October 28 advising the public of an overnight death in the jail.

Peterson also said in the email the sheriff was furious that any information had been released on a non-disclosure case.

Peterson then cited an email sent to me as proof of no-wrongdoing saying the ME's office sent nothing inflammatory and all in accord with open records statutes.

The County Executive's office responded to Peterson’s concerns over losing his license sending an email that reads in part “we obviously have your back unfortunately our office is no stranger to his bullying behavior."

CBS 58 checked with the state licensing board which says-complaints are not public record so they cannot confirm or deny that one was filed by the sheriff.

The sheriff’s office did reach out to the county executive via email-saying they have the whole phone conversation recorded.

The County Executive requested a copy of that recording and never got a response.

Two families are suing to get their hands on more information about what happened behind bars the newborn baby of inmate shade Swayzer died shortly after delivery.

At issue, was her request for help denied or delayed?

The family of Terrill Thomas is also suing to find out if he was denied water leading to the medical examiner’s ruling of extreme dehydration in his death.

Milwaukee County is  taking a closer look at medical care inside the jail.

Statement from Medical Examiner Brian Peterson:

One is the Terrell Thomas death and the other two (not including the one from last night) have not been finalized by our office yet. There were zero deaths in 2015 and zero in 2014. And one of those deaths was not an “inmate.”  It was an infant of an inmate that the inmate gave birth to in her jail cell.

 This was the only information released; adding the numbers (three inmates and one infant) gives the number 4, so that in fact was correct. Nothing inflammatory, and all in accord with the open records statutes under which we operate.

 The second issue about which I was excoriated was the Terrell Thomas death mentioned above. Sheriff Clarke took me to task for not notifying his office when that report was to be released (following months of work and investigation). As I explained to him, twice, our practice is to notify the investigating agency (in this case, Milwaukee Police Department) and the next of kin; at that point, it would have been up to the Milwaukee Police Department investigators to speak with the Sheriff’s Department. For us to do wo would have been inappropriate and would surely have produced an appearance of impropriety, if not impropriety itself. We were absolutely not trying to keep Sheriff Clarke or his department ignorant, we were simply following appropriate investigative protocol.

 The final issue about which I was verbally pummeled involved the death of an 89-year-old individual at General Mitchell Airport that occurred on October 10. After explaining (loudly) that he did not want to tell me how to do my job, Sheriff Clarke told me how to do my job. He expressed his extreme dissatisfaction that my staff did not respond to the crime scene (an airport restroom) to rule out issues (that he listed) including decapitation and incineration, and poisoning. He was further shocked that a funeral home transported the body (to my office).

 In this case, an elderly man with well-established medical history, accompanied by family while traveling from New York, collapsed while transferring himself from the toilet to his wheelchair. There was neither trauma nor family concern, in fact, the family noted that this man was in “do not resuscitate” status. The family engaged a funeral home on the spot, and wished for his remains to be transferred back to Gurnee, IL, where he resided with his daughter. To facilitate their wishes and not introduce undue delay, we asked the funeral home to bring the remains to our office, where he had a complete external examination and specimens were taken for toxicology. This is completely in accord with our usual practice in such cases including both appropriate investigation into the death and concern for the next-of-kin.

 In summary, then, I appear to have sustained some 20 minutes of yelling and threats against my licensure for, ultimately, no good reason – or even a bad one. Given his mood, Sheriff Clarke was not particularly interested in listening to explanations. He simply demanded that I listen, and had me repeat, three or four times, that I was licensed in the State of Wisconsin by the Medical Licensing Board – so that he could correspond them in an attempt to have me sanctioned, my license revoked, or whatever. In my opinion, my office did its usual excellent work, always under very trying circumstances, and there was no fault, no wrong committed. Sheriff Clarke’s attitude was hostile, his mood was angry, and my attempts to mollify him were rudely rebuffed. I am accustomed to such treatment in court or by the press, but not by a law enforcement official who is not, strictly speaking, even in my chain of command. As I prepare for whatever additional stress and pain Sheriff Clarke attempts to send my way, I most assuredly appreciate your support and patience. I would appreciate your advice as to next steps, as to whether either the Chairman of the Board or perhaps Corporation Counsel ought be notified.

Email to Chris Abele from Brian Peterson:

Dear Chris:

It strikes me as unusual to be writing you regarding a threat made against me; I only do so as the threat came from within the county (Sheriff David Clarke), and if he carries through with his threat to attack me via the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board, this could pose issues both regarding my licensure and my ability to appear successfully in court., not to mention my ongoing employment with Milwaukee County.  That his threat was based on, as best I can discern, completely faulty information, makes the situation even more ironic.

Sheriff Clarke asked me to call him on Friday afternoon, October 28. Once I did, and respectfully introduced myself, he proceeded to yell for roughly 15 minutes. His concerns involved three issues.

The first issue regarded an inmate death occurring on Oct 27 in the Milwaukee County Jail. Sheriff Clarke accused me, several times, of political activism, in that my office had “tweeted out” about the death and reportedly had tweeted that this was the fourth jail death in 2016. He was furious that any information had been released on a “non-disclosure case,” and also that the number of deaths had been reported, and to him, reported incorrectly. The Sheriff has his facts wrong. Here is the tweet:

            Medical Examiner ?@mkemedexamine

MCMEO investigating the overnight death of an inmate at the Milwaukee County Jail. Autopsy today - no further info to be released.

7:52 AM - 28 Oct 2016 · Milwaukee, WI, United States

In other words, the only information that we released via Twitter is identical to the information that we release on any other non-disclosure case; no further details, and certainly no number of other jail deaths for the year. I explained to the Sheriff that we use this Twitter mechanism to allow simultaneous release of information to multiple news agencies, thereby saving my small staff innumerable phone calls (particularly an issue during third shift, when only two investigators are available). We have not, do not, and will never release information on non-disclosure cases beyond the fact that we are investigating a death; my interpretation of state statures regarding “open records” is that this type of release is both appropriate and necessary. I am baffled that such an appropriate information release could be termed “political activism.” It could be that Sheriff Clarke simply read material put out by a local news organization and mistook their words for mine.

Email from Milwaukee County Executive’s Chief of Staff to Medical Examiner:

Dr. Peterson,

First of all, I'm sorry you had to deal with that. Second, I think it is appropriate for you to forward this email to the entire county board (and corp counsel), if for no other reason then they're getting ready to vote on his budget and this is helpful context. 

Regarding any impact this could have on you thru the medical board or otherwise, we obviously have your back. I'm guessing he won't take this any further but if you think there's something we can do proactively to prevent any damage from his threats, let me know.

Unfortunately our office is no stranger to his bullying behavior. We should discuss how to effectively send a strong message that this kind of behavior won't be tolerated. 

Chairman Theodore Lipscomb Sr. released the following statement on the alleged attacks:

“The recent deaths and reports of poor care at the jail and HOC are upsetting and frustrating, and the lack of action by the sheriff and the county executive should be troubling to the public.

“The County Board is taking action. Supervisors continue to question the administration of these facilities, which operate under the control of Sheriff Clarke and County Executive Abele, and I have requested an immediate audit of the Armor contract.

“Recent reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests that the privatization of medical services – which I opposed – is a failure. I'm hopeful that Sheriff Clarke and County Executive Abele will acknowledge this and we can work together to ensure that quality medical services are in place as soon as possible.”

Pete Koneazny, an attorney for one of the people who died in the jail said, “There’s a crisis going on with the level of vacancy rate with staffing not just with medical staffing but with sheriff staffing too.  There is an issue with the level of training the staff are given when it comes to dealing and noticing levels of distress and mental health.  All deaths seem to point at sheriff staff not being able to recognize an issue and calling in health staff for assistance.”

Jerry Herr with Comptroller’s Office said:

They have received and approved the request for an audit. At this time they are getting their ducks in a row before diving in. This means they are doing their research and gathering information.  They plan on hiring experts in this matter who can give them a second opinion on things, if need be.  Because of all the above, they do not plan on starting the actual audit until January. Once started, they will be looking at things like Armor’s contract.

-Are they getting the return they are paying for?

-They will be looking at the pay rate and the mix of staffing.

-They will be looking at management and seeing if they are being managed well.

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