The outcome highlights the lack of full transparency and accountability that can occur when a local government agency — in this case the city of Yelm — enters into an agreement with an Indian tribe to provide jail services.

Share story

The city of Yelm has agreed to pay $375,000 to the family of a 19-year-old man who died last year in the Nisqually tribal jail after staff didn’t seek medical attention when the man reported he felt like his heart was thumping out of his skin.

The family of Andrew Westling also has reached a separate, confidential settlement with the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which provides jail services to Yelm.

Yelm’s settlement was obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request, but the tribal agreement is not subject to state or federal disclosure laws because of the Nisqually Tribe’s status as a sovereign nation.

The outcome highlights the lack of full transparency and accountability that can occur when a local government agency in Washington enters into an agreement with an Indian tribe to provide jail services. In addition to Yelm, the Nisqually Tribe has agreements with other nontribal entities in the surrounding area.

Westling, whose death was chronicled in a Times watchdog story in January, was arrested by Yelm police on April 10, 2016, for allegedly being a minor in possession of alcohol and spitting on a customer at a gas station minimart.

Although Westling wasn’t a tribal member, he was taken to the Nisqually Corrections Center in Thurston County under a contract in which Yelm pays the tribe to house its prisoners.

Westling told a jail officer he had a heart condition that once required his resuscitation, prompting his placement in a cell where jailers were supposed to keep an eye on him.

No one asked a doctor or nurse to check on him, nor did jail officers seek medical help or call 911 when Westling later mentioned the thumping in his heart. His lifeless body was found in his cell some 24 hours after he was booked into the facility.

The Thurston County coroner listed the cause of death as “cardiac dysrhythmia” — an abnormal heartbeat — due to congenital heart anomalies.

A University of Washington emergency-medicine specialist retained by attorneys for Westling’s parents found he had a “familiar, readily recognized, and easily treatable” heart condition.

“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,” University of Washington medical professor Richard Cummins wrote in a report for the attorneys.

Another expert who reviewed Westling’s death for the attorneys concluded jail personnel “failed egregiously in their individual and collective duties to secure medical care for Westling.”

“I have rarely, if ever, seen such a blatant violation of basic corrections standards of care, both on an individual and institutional level,” wrote 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.

The attorneys, Erik Heipt and Edwin Budge, had planned to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city of Yelm on behalf of Westling’s mother, Carmen Rowe, and stepfather, Sean Rowe.

The tribe, as a sovereign nation, has immunity from being sued in federal court. But Heipt and Budge had planned to name tribal members who were working at the jail, saying those individuals don’t have the same protection as the tribe and could be sued for actions carried out on Yelm’s behalf.

Court action was avoided, however, when the settlements were reached in the past few months.

“The claims were resolved by mutual agreement prior to any litigation, by mutually confidential terms,” Heipt wrote in an email in which he said he couldn’t comment further.

Before the settlements, Heipt and Budge said the arrangement between the city of Yelm and the tribe raises questions of training and oversight of the Nisqually jail.

They also noted the tribe’s contract with Yelm and its similar agreements with other nontribal entities appear to be unique nationwide.

In an opinion solicited by the attorneys, former Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna called such contracts unlawful, stating Washington law only allows for contracts between cities and counties for jail services — not with Indian tribes or reservations.

Among the cities and agencies currently using the Nisqually facility to house prisoners are Tumwater and Lacey and the state Department of Corrections, according to an online jail log.

The tribe’s attorney didn’t respond to Seattle Times inquiries about the settlement. The tribe has previously declined to comment on Westling’s death.

The city of Yelm, in its settlement agreement, denied liability for Westling’s death.

In an email, Yelm Mayor JW Foster, wrote: “All I’m allowed to tell you now is that the family accepted the terms of that settlement. Part of that settlement states that the City of Yelm was determined to have no responsibility in the death of Mr. Westling.”

Foster added: “I personally feel terrible this happened, and I will be diligent in working with our law enforcement, court and contracted jail facilities to have in place policies and … procedures that prevent this type of incident from occurring.”