Death exposes laxity in work-release program

Wesley Fitzpatrick landed in St. Tammany Parish’s work release program in 2012 for violating the terms of his probation for possession of marijuana and simple criminal mischief. But his stint at Northshore Workforce Solutions was to be a short one, with far more freedom than most inmates in the program are allowed.

The 29-year-old tech worker was able to keep his job in the French Quarter, drive his own car to work and have a cellphone — all because he had been sentenced to four months in what is known as an “8-4” program, according to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. George Bonnett.

Normally, program participants do community service work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and are not incarcerated. However, they can choose to serve their time in work release in order to keep their private-sector jobs, Bonnett said, earning money instead of doing community service.

But Fitzpatrick didn’t live long enough to serve out his brief sentence. On Feb. 19, 2012 — a Sunday morning — his lifeless body was discovered in Bed No. 68 at the Covington facility, the middle bunk in a tier of three. He was already cold and stiff when he was found by other inmates, according to the 911 log from the incident.

Fitzpatrick had died of an accidental drug overdose, according to the St. Tammany Parish coroner, who found Xanax, Prozac and methadone in his system.

His death — like the earlier drug-related death of work release inmate Jonathan Doré — raises questions about how inmates are supervised and how strictly state rules governing them are enforced at the privately owned and operated facility on Champagne Street.

Close friends and associates of St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain play key roles at Northshore Workforce Solutions, including Marlin Peachey Jr., Strain’s former longtime campaign manager, and Jimmy Laurent, a campaign contributor.

Work-release programs are intended to help soon-to-be-released inmates readapt to life outside prison and gain work skills, and to pay for a portion of their incarceration. The programs are allowed to keep 62 percent of inmates’ earnings, or $63.50 per day, whichever is less. They operate under stringent rules laid down by the state Department of Corrections. Among other things, the state’s standard operating procedures manual says that work release inmates must be in the facility unless they are at work or in transit to or from their jobs. At most, they can be unsupervised for only 45 minutes before or after work.

They are tested randomly for drugs, and there are strict limits on what kind of personal items inmates can keep at the facility — all electronics, including cellphones, are banned.

As an 8-4 inmate, Fitzpatrick drove himself to work, although when he returned, he had to park his car offsite and leave his cellphone in the car. Friends, and sometimes work-release personnel, provided transportation to back to the work-release facility from the Rouse’s parking lot on U.S. 190 where he left his Dodge Stratus, according to the Sheriff’s Office report.

But Fitzpatrick was still obligated to return to the work-release facility and spend every night there. The night before his death, a Saturday, he didn’t arrive at the facility until 9:52 p.m.

It’s not clear whether he worked that day, and if so, for how long.

But it is clear that he didn’t go straight back to the facility. According to the report, Fitzpatrick’s father, Jerry, dropped him at a friend’s house in Covington at around 9:30 p.m. That friend, Michael Vinti, told investigators he then drove Fitzpatrick back to work release.

Fitzpatrick spoke briefly to a security guard and submitted to a breath-alcohol test, according to video surveillance cited in the Sheriff’s Office report. But according to Bonnett, not a single staff member at the work release facility noticed any sign of problems with Fitzpatrick.

Others who encountered Fitzpatrick that night, including Vinti and three fellow inmates, said he was clearly intoxicated and was slurring his words and vomiting. One said Fitzpatrick told him he was “loaded on Xanax.” Another said he had to help him get into his locker; the report said his cellphone and an iPod were found there, in violation of state policy.

Logs from the work-release facility indicate that a head count was done at 7 p.m. — more than an hour before Fitzpatrick’s return — and that all are accounted for “and or present at this time.” The same log shows that at 10:21 p.m., work-release personnel conducted 11 alcohol breath tests and 11 pat searches on beds, one of which was Fitzpatrick’s. All results were negative, it said.

What isn’t mentioned in the log is that Fitzpatrick’s bunk was shrouded from view by towels.

“There was a white colored towel hanging from the lower part of the upper bunk,” the Sheriff’s Office report read. “The towel restricted the view of the decedent from the left side of the bed. There was a second white towel hanging at the head of the bed in the same fashion which restricted the view of the decedent from the far side.”

Bonnett said that there were nine walk-throughs and head counts performed at the facility between 10:04 p.m. and 8:10 a.m. Fitzpatrick was seen by another inmate going to the laundry room at 5:30 a.m. and was seen awake in his bunk at 6:45 a.m., Bonnett said.

“During the routine checks, Fitzpatrick was not observed to be in obvious physical distress,” he said.

His dead body wasn’t discovered until 10 a.m.

Bonnett did not answer a question about why the discovery was made so late or why personnel did not notice the towels blocking the view and investigate. Peachey did not respond to requests for information.

“No program in the state can prevent a participant from violating their contract by walking off a job site or by taking illegal drugs while away from the facility,” Bonnett said in an email.

Northshore Workforce had nine escapes last year, the highest number of any such program in the state, according to Department of Corrections records. But Bonnett said that a more fair analysis would look at the rate of escape; Northshore Workforce, as one of the largest work-release programs in the state, has a lower escape rate than many facilities.

He pointed out that Fitzpatrick’s family decided against filing a lawsuit. That’s in contrast to Doré, who died on April 18, 2011, while in the work-release program. The 26-year-old was found dead of a heroin overdose in a trailer maintained by Baker Pile Driving and Site Work. His mother, Jane LeBlanc, says her son was living in the trailer along with other work-release inmates, which the Sheriff’s Office has disputed.

She sued, but a federal judge ruled that she had failed to adequately allege that the personal actions of St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain, Robert Wayne Baker of Baker Pile Driving or Peachey had deprived her of a federally secured right.

While Fitzpatrick’s family did not sue, they are critical of his treatment.

Fitzpatrick’s mother, Robin Hurston, said her son was struggling at the time of his death. “He was severely depressed and under a great deal of stress,” she said.

His boss, Nancy Kuo Vicari, also saw evidence of stress in the young man who she described as hard-working, good at his job and dedicated in caring for his young son and ailing father.

“He really was a good person,” she said. “He is anybody’s son, anybody’s brother. He is the guy next door, you know, this quiet guy next door, kind of nerdy, loved working on computers.”

The Sheriff’s Office report notes that Fitzpatrick was being treated for anxiety, bipolar disorder and manic depression. Several bottles of prescription drugs were found in his car, according to investigators, and while some were prescribed to him, one carried his father’s name and another his brother’s.

His mother said that it was difficult for her son to get any sort of mental-health counseling while in the facility.
“Wesley needed to keep his job to maintain his home for his son, to try and keep up on school expenses, travel to and from work, and maintain his life in as normal manner as possible,” his mother said in an email. “He was caring for his hospitalized father and working to move forward in his position as an IT manager at his job. He was jumping through so many hoops, with drastically reduced financial resources due to the amount of money taken from his check by the program he was in. Wesley was the most caring person, and because of indifferent law enforcement he is gone.”

Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said that a work-release facility is an extension of a jail. But when a private vendor is involved, he said. “the question becomes, are they placing profit above the safety of their inmates or the safety of the public?”

The sheriff has a responsibility to see that rules are being strictly enforced, Goyeneche said, and he said random, uannounced visits by sheriff’s office personnel to the work-release facility would be the best way to make sure that happens.