Under an unusual contract, Yelm police sent 19-year-old Andrew Westling to the Nisqually tribal jail for two alleged misdemeanors. About 24 hours later, he was found dead after jail officers didn’t seek medical help when he alerted them to a heart condition.
On April 10, Andrew Westling was arrested in the city of Yelm for allegedly being a minor in possession of alcohol and spitting on a customer at a gas station minimart.
Although the 19-year-old wasn’t a tribal member, Yelm police took him to the nearby Nisqually Corrections Center in Thurston County under an unusual contract in which the city pays the tribe to house its prisoners.
After Westling told a jail officer he had a heart condition — and once had to be resuscitated — he was put into a cell where jailers were supposed to keep an eye on him.
No one asked a doctor or nurse to check him, nor did jail officers seek medical attention or call 911 when he later reported he felt like his heart was thumping out of his skin, police interviews with the guards show.
Some 24 hours after Westling was booked into the jail, his lifeless body was found in his cell.
The Thurston County coroner listed the cause of death as “cardiac dysrhythmia” — an abnormal heartbeat — due to congenital heart anomalies. “Manner of death is best described as natural,” the coroner wrote.
But Westling’s death was not inevitable, according to an emergency-medicine specialist retained by attorneys representing Westling’s parents.
Westling had a “familiar, readily recognized, and easily treatable” heart condition, University of Washington medical professor Richard Cummins wrote in a report for the attorneys.
“If it were not for the unreasonable neglect of the staff of the Nisqually Corrections Center, Andrew Westling would be alive today and would very likely enjoy a normal life span,” Cummins wrote.
Seattle attorneys Edwin Budge and Erik Heipt said they plan to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of Westling’s parents. They say the arrangement between the city of Yelm and the Nisqually tribe raises questions of training and oversight of the jail.
The suit will name Yelm, but the tribe, as a sovereign nation, has immunity preventing it from being sued in federal court, they said.
The city declined to discuss the matter, citing the likelihood of litigation. The Nisqually Indian Tribe, without explanation, also declined to comment.
The tribe’s contract with Yelm and its similar agreements with other nontribal entities appear to be unique nationwide, according to Budge and Heipt.
And in the view of former Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna, who was hired by Budge and Heipt, the arrangement is illegal. Washington law allows for contracts only between cities and counties for jail services — not with Indian tribes or reservations, McKenna concluded.
Heart trouble in past
Westling’s mother, Carmen Rowe, and stepfather, Sean Rowe, choked on tears as they recalled him.
He was friendly, funny and smart, enjoyed riding horses and outdoor activities. He played football and baseball, once driving in the winning run in a big game, his mother said. Her last conversation with her son was an abbreviated call from the jail.
At age 14, Westling reported to his doctor that his heart would occasionally speed up for one to two minutes before spontaneously returning to normal, according to a medical history compiled by Budge and Heipt.
When he was 16, he experienced heart palpitations and visited a cardiologist, but a monitor didn’t record any abnormalities.
In December 2012, he had an episode of tachycardia, a common heart rhythm disorder in which the heart beats faster than normal while at rest.
He went to a fire station in Yelm, where medics gave him medications that didn’t work before administering an electrical shock that restored his normal heart rhythm.
He was then taken to a hospital and given instructions to follow up with his doctor and cardiologist.
His doctor taught him self-administered methods to restore his normal heartbeat — such as plunging his face in very cold water — and prescribed medication should he need it.
At a cardiologist visit, an echocardiogram showed no significant dysfunctions.
After that, Westling was able to manage occasional episodes of tachycardia and knew he could seek medical attention, according to Budge and Heipt.
‘Anxiety’ after jail phone call
Westling struggled at times. He failed to graduate from high school and, according to his mother, dreamed of becoming a rapper.
There were brushes with the law, including, at age 16, a guilty plea to breaking into an abandoned house.
On April 10, he was arrested at the minimart.
Surveillance video of the Sunday night incident showed he spat on the face of a customer and acted belligerently toward others, the manager told the Nisqually Valley News. She said he appeared to be intoxicated.
An autopsy found some evidence of marijuana in Westling’s system.
Westling was booked into the Nisqually jail in the early morning hours of April 11.
During his booking, Westling didn’t report a history of heart disease, marking “no” on a medical form.
In the afternoon, Westling spoke by phone to Yelm Municipal Court Judge Thomas Meyer about bail and conditions of release.
Afterward, Westling appeared to be experiencing “some anxiety because the phone call didn’t really go in his favor,” jail officer Michael Althauser recalled in a recorded statement to a Lacey police detective who conducted an independent investigation into Westling’s death. The investigation was later closed without criminal charges.
Westling had learned he could be sentenced to up to a year in jail, Althauser said.
No public defender nor attorney representing Westling participated in the call. Otherwise, Westling might have been told his potential sentence likely would be far less.
Bail was set at $1,500.
‘A little distraught’
Around 6 p.m., Westling banged on his cell door.
Westling “proceeded to tell me about his heart condition,” Althauser told the Lacey detective. “He said that he has an abnormal heartbeat. And so then he also told me that the last time his heart condition acted up he had to be resuscitated in the ambulance.”
Westling didn’t say “anything was happening right that second” or ask for hospitalization or immediate medical attention, Althauser said.
But when Althauser decided to move Westling into a special cell for a medical watch, he wrote in the segregation referral that Westling “was complaining about irregular heartbeats.”
Althauser said he told Westling he didn’t want his “heart condition to act up in here where somebody’s going to check you in 30 minutes and, you know, it’s going to be too late.”
I have rarely, if ever, seen such a blatant violation of basic corrections standards of care, both on an individual and institutional level.” - Arthur Wallenstein
Althauser said Westling told him he had previously taken medications for his heart condition but had stopped because he couldn’t afford the cost.
In an incident report documenting the exchange, Althauser wrote that he had Westling moved so he “could go onto a medical watch until a doctor comes to check on him.”
Budge and Heipt maintain that, under jail protocol, the move required a medical staff signature and comment, but that no medical provider was contacted.
In his new cell, Westling seemed healthy but was “a little distraught” and “crying here and there,” another officer recalled in his police statement.
A third officer, Edna David, told the Lacey detective that, between 7:30 and 8 p.m., Westling pounded on his door and said his heart was skipping beats. He was leaning over the toilet with a drenched towel on his head.
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“I thought he was detoxing because he kept talking about his heart coming out of, or … he felt like his thumping was coming out of his skin,” David said.
Otherwise, Westling seemed “perfectly fine,” she said.
David reported her observations to another officer, the designated person in charge because no supervisor was available.
No medical help was summoned, according to information gathered by Budge and Heipt.
The officer in charge told the Lacey detective that Westling was checked “multiple times.”
Jail officers were supposed to check Westling every 15 minutes, Budge and Heipt say. Yet there is no record or documentation officers conducted what should have been at least 23 mandated checks, they say.
Jail video shows that shortly after midnight Westling pulled most of a blanket off himself and began to move in what appeared to be “convulsive involuntary movements,” according to the coroner’s report. He stopped moving after about three minutes.
About 12:50 a.m. April 12, Westling was found unconscious in his cell. He was not breathing and cold to the touch, one jailer told the Lacey detective.
Medics were called.
Despite efforts to save his life, Westling was pronounced dead at 1:26 a.m.
It may, in and of itself, violate the constitution to bring a U.S. pretrial detainee into a tribal jail.” - Erik Heipt
Westling’s death was reviewed for Budge and Heipt by Arthur Wallenstein, director and jail administrator for King County’s Department of Adult Detention from 1990 to 1999 during a career of more than 40 years as a corrections administrator.
“In my professional opinion, Nisqually jail personnel failed egregiously in their individual and collective duties to secure medical care for Westling from 6 p.m. on Monday, April 11, 2016 through his death approximately six hours later, just after midnight on Tuesday, April 12th,” Wallenstein wrote in a scathing report.
“Andrew Westling never should have died in the Nisqually Jail without the opportunity to receive professional medical review and assistance,” Wallenstein wrote. “I have rarely, if ever, seen such a blatant violation of basic corrections standards of care, both on an individual and institutional level.”
While the coroner found Westling died of “cardiac dysrhythmia due to congenital coronary artery heart anomalies,” Cummins, the University of Washington medical expert, reached a different conclusion, attributing the dysrhythmia to a treatable condition called paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT).
“Indeed, there is little evidence that these congenital anomalies are associated with a reduced life expectancy,” he wrote. “It is very likely that Andrew would have experienced a normal life expectancy had he not died in the Nisqually jail.”
Jail contracts criticized
The 288-bed jail opened in 2014, part of a $20 million public-safety complex built with a grant from the U.S. Justice Department and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Yelm, a city of about 8,500 residents, entered into a five-year contract with the tribe for jail services that began on Jan. 1, 2014.
Yelm Mayor JW Foster, in an email, wrote, “We all grieve as a community when someone so young is lost.” He added he couldn’t discuss details of the case because of the pending litigation.
Budge and Heipt said in addition to naming the city in their planned suit, they will name individual tribal members who were working at the jail. The individuals don’t have the same sovereign-immunity protection as the tribe and can be sued for actions carried out on Yelm’s behalf, the attorneys said.
The tribe holds similar contracts with several other cities — including Fife and Tenino — and nontribal entities.
Budge and Heipt said they have been unable to find another tribal jail nationwide operating with the same kind of contracts.
As part of the lawsuit, they said, they will ask a judge to declare such contracts to be unlawful.
McKenna, in his legal analysis, found the underpinnings of the contracts — the state’s City and County Jails Act and the state’s Interlocal Cooperation Act — don’t authorize cities or counties to enter into contracts with Indian tribes for jail services.
“The City and County Jails Act does not provide for contract with sovereign nations, such as an Indian tribe or Canada, for the provision of jail services,” McKenna wrote.
Budge and Heipt suspect Yelm didn’t ensure the Nisqually tribe was complying with constitutional requirements, including training and supervision.
“It may, in and of itself, violate the constitution to bring a U.S. pretrial detainee into a tribal jail,” Heipt said, “without assurances that the constitutional protections … do apply.”
Westling’s mother, in layman’s terms, said: “I want to know why nobody did anything.”