The Vista Detention Facility / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Attorneys for a woman suing San Diego County over her husband’s suicide in the Vista jail say county lawyers knowingly failed to disclose the name of a witness because her testimony would undercut their defense.

The witness, a medical records clerk at the jail, said in a recent court filing that she was threatened with retaliation if she told anyone that she’d confronted a jail sergeant who’d refused to put Heron Moriarty on suicide watch.

In a written declaration filed last week, Jeanette Werner, who’s worked for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department for 15 years, said she lives “with guilt and remorse for staying quiet” about the events leading up to Moriarty’s death on May 31, 2016.

Because the deadline for gathering evidence in the case has passed, a judge will need to decide whether Werner can be deposed as a witness. Chris Morris, who’s representing Moriarty’s wife, Michelle, said it was “unconscionable” that the Sheriff’s Department and county lawyers withheld Werner’s name, a potential violation of court rules.

“Mrs. Moriarty is beyond grateful that Ms. Werner had the courage to step forward to finally provide a firsthand account of what happened to Heron,” Morris told Voice of San Diego. “As part of the case, we asked for the names of anybody who recommended that Heron be placed in a safety cell, and they concealed her from us.”

A county spokesman did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

According to Michelle Moriarty’s lawsuit, her husband, a devoted, church-going father of three, suffered a psychotic break in April 2016. Prior to then, the 43-year-old showed no signs of mental illness. He spent three days at Sharp Mesa Vista psychiatric hospital. When his symptoms got worse, Michelle obtained a court order to have him hospitalized for another two weeks. In the hospital, he was diagnosed with psychosis, bipolar disorder and mania and placed on medication.

Heron Moriarty was the “quintessential family man,” attorneys for his wife Michelle say, before a psychotic break landed him in the Vista jail, where he died by suicide in May 2016. / Photo courtesy of the Moriarty family
Heron Moriarty was the “quintessential family man,” attorneys for his wife Michelle say, before a psychotic break landed him in the Vista jail, where he died by suicide in May 2016. / Photo courtesy of the Moriarty family

Near the end of May, Moriarty experienced another psychotic episode. On May 25, he threw a chair through a window at his brother’s house and drove off, hitting several parked vehicles. When sheriff’s deputies arrested him, he was in the middle of a street in Jamul, trying to get hit by passing cars. He told the deputies he was going to force them to shoot him. They placed him in restraints and took him to the Central Jail in downtown San Diego.

Because Moriarty was actively suicidal, Sheriff’s Department policy normally would have required deputies to take him to the county’s emergency psychiatric unit for clearance before booking him into jail. But in April 2016, the department implemented a pilot program that directed deputies to skip the clearance requirement and take suicidal arrestees directly to the Central Jail.

During the booking process, a nurse asked Moriarty if he was suicidal. He answered “no” then “yes,” triggering a safety cell placement. But the jail’s safety cells — basically empty rooms with a hole in the floor that serves as a toilet — were full, so Moriarty was taken to the Vista jail. This time, during booking, he said “no” when asked if he was suicidal.

At the jail, he refused to take medication. Michelle called repeatedly, begging that her husband be transferred to a psychiatric hospital so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

In the recently filed court document, Werner describes how Moriarty’s howls filled the jail. His howling was so loud, she had to plug her ears. She describes the sounds “like a wounded animal crying out for help.”

According to the court document, Werner’s desk was near the nurses’ station and she could hear them talking about Moriarty. The morning of May 31, Werner said, a deputy told her that a psychiatric nurse who evaluated Moriarty had recommended he be placed in a safety cell, but the sergeant responsible for signing off on the placement, Dale Weidenthaler, rejected the recommendation.

Werner confronted Weidenthaler.

“Don’t you hear him howling?” she asked. “He’s been howling for two days.”

“It’s my big five,” Weidenthaler responded, using a colloquialism for five days off after working five 12-hour shifts. According to court records, he’d told other staff that he planned to leave early.

He asked Werner if she wanted to fill out the necessary paperwork to place Moriarty on suicide watch.

“I can type faster than you can talk,” she responded. “He needs to be placed in the safety cell.”

“Stand down,” Weidenthaler told her.

That night Moriarty used two T-shirts to choke himself. According to the medical examiner’s report, he was found just after 9 p.m. with a jail-issued T-shirt tied around his neck and another T-shirt stuffed in his mouth. No one had checked on him for nearly two hours.

When Weidenthaler returned to work, he told Werner not to tell anyone about their conversation, according to her declaration. A lawyer for Weidenthaler did not respond to a request for comment about Werner’s account. Weidenthaler has since retired.

For four years she kept quiet, except when she was interviewed by a county investigator about Jason Nishimoto, who’d died by suicide at the Vista jail in August 2015. (Nishimoto’s family also filed a lawsuit, which was settled last year for $595,000.)

“You’re actually going to testify to that?” the investigator asked Werner after she told him about confronting Weidenthaler, according to court records. Records also show that Werner told the investigator that county officials had altered documents in the Nishimoto case.

Michelle Moriarty’s lawsuit was supposed to go to trial in June, Morris said, but was delayed when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the courts.

On July 13, according to her declaration, Werner called Morris after reading a newspaper article about the Sheriff’s Department exploring the possibility of outsourcing jail medical and mental health services to a private contractor. Morris was quoted as someone who’d sued the county over deaths in its jails. Werner told Morris she believed the Sheriff’s Department wasn’t doing enough to protect staff and inmates from the coronavirus.

Near the end of the conversation, she brought up Heron Moriarty, unaware that Morris was representing Michelle.

Moriarty’s death had haunted her, she told Morris. She wished she had come forward sooner.

Werner’s version of events differs from what Vista jail employees have said in depositions. Werner claims nearly everyone working in the jail knew Moriarty was suicidal. The county’s position is that they believed he was homicidal, not suicidal, because he’d made comments about killing anyone who entered his cell.

In her deposition, Amanda Daniels, the psychiatric nurse practitioner who recommended Moriarty be placed in a safety cell, said she didn’t feel he was at immediate risk of harming himself. But text messages she exchanged with Duane Johnson, a deputy who served as a liaison to the jail’s psychiatric staff, the night of Moriarty’s suicide, say otherwise. Screenshots of the exchange are included in court records.

“Moriarty just killed himself,” Johnson texted Daniels close to midnight on May 31. “I heard you had recommended safety cell but we’re [sic] overruled.”

“Yes,” Daniels responded. “I asked but sergeant said no.”

“This was Nishimoto all over again” Johnson replied, adding later in the conversation, “Yea, this one is gonna cost the county.”

Daniels asked Johnson if he could print up her note recommending Moriarty be placed in a safety cell. “I don’t want someone getting rid of it,” she wrote.

They exchanged more text messages the following morning. Daniels wrote that she was worried about being made a scapegoat.

“Don’t worry as usual everyone else dropped the ball not you,” Johnson responded. He questioned why Moriarty wasn’t put in enhanced observation housing, or EOH, a relatively new suicide prevention program.

“EOH is a good thing, but they have to use it,” Johnson wrote.

Weidenthaler, through his attorney, has asked the judge to rule that the text conversation is hearsay and should be excluded as evidence.

Kelly Davis

Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis...

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