BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — The family of a Kansas inmate who hanged herself at a rural county jail has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges incompetence by law enforcement officials, citing video surveillance that showed her repeated suicide attempts.
No one was monitoring the surveillance station, which showed the minute-by-minute efforts by Olivia Rennaker in April 2018 to hang herself in her cell at the Barber County Jail about 25 miles north of the Oklahoma border. It was more than an hour later before her body was finally discovered hanging from the bars.
The lawsuit against the unaccredited jail cites its failure to screen for suicide risk the 29-year-old Medicine Lodge woman after her arrest for unlawful possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. It also alleges officials failed to do adequate periodic cell checks and properly train employees.
The complaint notes that it has long been known that suicide is the leading cause of death in U.S. jails, and that many of those suicides occur due to staff shortages and inadequate training. According to the lawsuit, suicides in local jails are about 3.5 times more frequent than in the general population and 2.5 times more than suicides in state prisons.
The federal civil rights lawsuit was filed in March by Overland Park attorneys Michael Kuckelman and Michael Crabb on behalf of the dead inmate’s former husband, Robert Rennaker, as administrator of her estate. It names as its defendants Barber County Sheriff Lonnie Small and his undersheriff, Virgil Brewer.
The sheriff did not respond to phone and email messages left for him at his office and the civil attorney who represented him in an unrelated wrongful death lawsuit said he no longer represents him. Brewer did not respond to phone and email messages, and his civil attorney in that other lawsuit also did not return phone and email messages.
Brewer went on unpaid leave after he was charged in 2018 with reckless involuntary manslaughter in the October 2017 shooting death of Steven Myers with a homemade beanbag round. Myers, who was unarmed, was killed after deputies responded to a call about a man threatening people with a gun outside a bar in Sun City.
Brewer is free on bond awaiting his criminal trail. A separate wrongful death lawsuit filed against him on behalf of Myer’s widow, also handled by the same Overland Park law firm, was settled in March.
Kuckelman told The Associated Press that he has written to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training requesting that they revoke Brewer’s law enforcement certification. They have refused and are waiting for his criminal trial, he said.
He said he had also written letters to Barber County officials demanding that they fire Brewer before someone else died, and he blamed the incompetence of Brewer and Small for Olivia Rennaker’s death.
“How many more people need to die in Barber County before taxpayers and voters will have had enough? They ignored Olivia Rennaker when she was in distress,” Kuckelman said Friday in a news release announcing his second wrongful death lawsuit against Barber County law enforcement officials.