The last time Teresa Alvarado spoke with her son, Keenan Thomas, he sounded upbeat — all things considered.
Locked away in a medium-security unit at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for domestic violence-related convictions, Thomas, a Pasco resident, had taken steps to turn his life around. He was taking classes, reading business and self-help books, and looking forward to a transfer — approved one day earlier — to a minimum security unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center. Though serving a five-year sentence, with good behavior he would have been released next summer.
“‘I am in the best place I have been in my adult life. I can’t wait to get out of here,'” Alvarado recalls her son saying in their phone call on Oct. 16, 2019.
The next day, Thomas was found dead, his body tucked tightly under a sheet in the top bunk of his cell.
His death drew a brief mention in the local newspaper, which quoted a penitentiary spokesperson saying the 27-year-old had been “found unresponsive in his cell” and “could not be revived.”
There is a lot more to the story.
A wrongful-death lawsuit filed on behalf of Thomas’ family alleges he was “brutally killed” — strangled in the night by his cellmate, James L. Boyd, and that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) bears responsibility for the death.
Documents and testimony uncovered in the civil case — scheduled for trial next month — reveal the DOC was advised by its own staff against placing Boyd in a cell with anyone due to a prior vicious attack on a sleeping cellmate. But those warnings went unheeded at DOC headquarters.
“In short, the DOC forced Mr. Thomas to cell with the dangerous Boyd and then made Mr. Thomas a sitting duck by keeping him in the dark about what it knew,” says the wrongful death complaint filed on behalf of the family in King County Superior Court by Seattle attorney Ed Budge and Yakima attorney George Trejo.
The lawsuit seeks damages on behalf of Thomas’ four children. Alvarado and Keith Thomas, Keenan’s father, who are no longer together, had separately sought out the attorneys to probe their son’s death and provide for their grandkids.
Boyd has not been charged with killing Thomas. A Walla Walla police detective last year concluded there was enough evidence to charge him with second-degree murder. James Nagle, the Walla Walla County prosecuting attorney, said through a spokesperson the case remains under review.
However, in an unusual twist, a judge presiding over the family’s lawsuit ruled last month that Boyd killed Thomas — for purposes of the civil case — after an attorney for the state missed a deadline to contest that assertion.
Jacque Coe, a DOC spokesperson, declined to discuss the lawsuit or the decision to place Thomas in a cell with Boyd, saying the agency “does not comment on pending or current litigation, which includes this case and any processes related to it.”
In legal filings, an assistant state attorney general has argued the DOC “lacked information suggesting Mr. Thomas was particularly vulnerable or susceptible to assault by Mr. Boyd such that any additional protections were reasonable or necessary.”
Boyd had been sentenced in 2014, at age 24, to about 20 years in prison for kidnapping, assault, witness tampering and unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun in connection with crimes including the shooting of a man in a Moses Lake gas station parking lot.
While in Grant County Jail in September 2014, Boyd attacked a sleeping cellmate, yanking him off a bed, pummeling his face and choking him, according to an incident report. The cellmate managed to reach an emergency button to summon guards before blacking out. He told investigators he awoke to Boyd laughing, saying “welcome to hell” and threatening to kill him.
The thrashing left the man’s face bloodied and swollen, with lacerations and a punctured lip, requiring 19 stitches. Boyd pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to an additional 50 months in prison.
As he was transferred to DOC custody in January 2015, Boyd underwent a standard evaluation to determine whether he could safely be housed with a cellmate.
A DOC classification counselor, William Thacker, flagged the jail attack, among other factors, in recommending single-person cell placement for Boyd. A DOC supervisor signed off on the recommendation.
But when Boyd’s screening forms arrived at DOC headquarters in Lacey, Thurston County, the DOC officials’ judgment was overruled by a committee of agency officials, with no reason given. Boyd was assigned to bunk with other men.
DOC officials questioned in the lawsuit have been unable to explain the decision. “No minutes of any meeting, no written record — they can’t even tell me the date or time it was denied,” Budge said.
Sent initially to Clallam Bay Corrections Center, Boyd assaulted another incarcerated man there in June 2015, blindsiding him in a kitchen hallway in an “unprovoked, premeditated attack,” causing the other man’s head to bounce off the cement wall and floor, according to an incident report.
In 2016, Boyd was cited for brawling with other men during a fight in the Walla Walla prison yard. After that, Boyd’s DOC file, released under a public records request, shows no other significant violent incidents before Thomas’ death.
Alvarado says her son never mentioned feeling specifically threatened by Boyd but was aware of the risks inside prison.
“A few times he had commented on just how dangerous the whole atmosphere was,” she said. “His main goal was to get his education.” He signed up for as many courses as he could “and tried to stay away from the drama that is going on inside there.”
While incarcerated, Thomas obtained his GED and completed several community college classes, focusing on construction trade courses, earning all A’s and B’s, a transcript shows. He’d worked in construction before and dreamed about starting his own business.
Night of death
On Oct. 16, 2019, after talking with his mother on the phone, Thomas turned in for the night. He and Boyd both entered cell A-201 at around 8:34 p.m. Lights were out by 9:45.
The next morning, video shows Boyd exiting the cell just after 5 a.m.; he sat at a table alone for a few minutes and then reported to his prison job. Thomas did not follow.
Over the next 12 hours, prison guards logged a dozen routine tier checks and counts — at least once an hour — to scan for problems, a Walla Walla police report shows. Thomas never emerged from his cell.
At 5:22 p.m., corrections officers began a recount of men in the unit. They soon zeroed in on Cell A-201 where Thomas was laying in his bunk, not responding to their commands to stand up and be counted.
Guards asked Boyd to wake Thomas up. He ignored them.
Entering the cell, the officers found Thomas deceased, according to a DOC critical incident report. A sergeant reported Thomas’ neck looked “extremely unnatural” and that his body was tucked into the sheet “like a burrito.” Officers at the scene said they saw a pile of what appeared to be bloody linen or clothing on the floor, and a bloodstained jacket draped over Thomas.
One correctional officer reported “it looked like he had been dead awhile” and described his body as rigid and “cold to the touch.”
Boyd was sitting on the cell’s toilet, his shirt up over his nose, wringing his hands, officers reported. He said nothing.
Despite signs that Thomas had been dead for many hours, DOC officers pulled his body off the bunk and performed CPR. Medics arrived and continued the efforts, also cutting into Thomas’ neck to try and insert a breathing tube.
Cause of death
Those efforts “frustrated” attempts by a medical examiner to conclusively establish how Thomas died, Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood wrote in a report. The official cause of death was ruled to be undetermined.
J. Matthew Lacy, the county’s chief medical examiner, found “some evidence that Mr. Thomas died of asphyxia due to neck compression many hours before his body was discovered,” he wrote in a report. There were no apparent signs of other medical problems that could have caused the death, and toxicology tests found no drugs.
Still, Lacy added that limitations in the postmortem examination, including some tests that did not get performed, “preclude a definitive diagnosis.”
That conclusion has been disputed by Carl Wigren, a forensic pathologist hired by Budge. In a written report, based on a review of the autopsy and medical examiner reports, Wigren noted Thomas had numerous burst blood vessels in his eyes, neck abrasions and a puffy face — among other signs of strangulation.
He wrote that Thomas likely had been dead at least 12 hours before being found, and that “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty” he had been choked to death by Boyd.
Boyd declined to speak with police investigating Thomas’ death, and remained silent during a brief video deposition in the civil lawsuit. He did not respond to an interview request from The Seattle Times.
Attorneys for the state have disputed the state’s responsibility for Thomas’ death in the ongoing civil lawsuit, and a recent mediation session yielded no settlement.
But the state was forced to concede one crucial legal dispute — whether it can be proven Boyd killed Thomas — due to a deadline blown by an assistant attorney general, Scott Barbara, who acknowledged in a legal filing he and his team overlooked a key motion that had been sent by email.
As a result, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts ruled in August the state cannot dispute Boyd’s culpability. “Whether Mr. Boyd actually killed Mr. Thomas may remain the subject of factual debate, but the defendant has forfeited its ability to engage in such a debate,” she wrote.
In its official prison death statistics, the DOC has not categorized Thomas’ death as a homicide, still listing zero in state prisons for that year.
Earlier this year, the agency agreed to expand its single-cell screening criteria after an investigation by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds found vulnerable persons have been assaulted or otherwise harmed due to being housed with others in DOC custody.
Thomas’ parents say they hope the lawsuit brings a measure of accountability.
“My fight is not only justice for Keenan but to make sure that this never happens to another family ever again,” Keith Thomas said. “No matter how much they say they’re sorry, that’s not going to bring my child back.”
Alvarado remembers her final conversation with her son.
“It was probably the best conversation we’d had since he’d been in there. It was so focused, on his kids and what he wanted to do for them in his life,” she said. He talked about building her a deck and traveling together to Italy.
The transfer order approval would have sent him soon to the Coyote Ridge prison, where he’d be a little closer to family and was looking forward to enrolling in an auto-body repair program offered there.
“He was supposed to be in there for a short period of time. And he served a life sentence,” she said.
Boyd is now housed at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in a high-security unit, according to Coe.
He has no cellmate.