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Lawsuits, special investigator arise in wake of deaths of two Lake County Jail inmates

Lake County's Robert H. Babcox Justice Center Waukegan is shown this file photo.

Lake County's Robert H. Babcox Justice Center in Waukegan is shown in this file photo.

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Updated: July 10, 2012 6:08AM

Lyvita Gomes launched a 15-day hunger strike while locked in the Lake County Jail, then died of malnutrition and dehydration less than a week later at a north suburban hospital.

Eugene Gruber suffered paralyzing neck injuries while struggling with officers in the jail, then died months later after being transferred to a Chicago rehabilitation center.

Their deaths this year outraged family members and sparked two federal civil rights lawsuits, the most recent filed this week by relatives of Gomes, a 52-year-old native of Mumbai, India, initially jailed for missing jury duty she was ineligible to serve.

The uproar over the deaths prompted Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran to appoint a former prosecutor to independently investigate how jail employees dealt with Gomes and Gruber, a 51-year-old Grayslake man.

Attorney Terry Ekl, an ex-Cook County prosecutor who has conducted investigations of several suburban police departments, also will examine whether officials should change procedures for handling inmates -- particularly those needing medical attention -- at the 608-bed jail in Waukegan.

The two deaths within the span of two months clearly demonstrate something is wrong at the jail, attorneys representing Gomes and Gruber said.

“It’s obvious the jail needs to make some changes so people don’t end up injured or dead because they’re detained there,” said attorney Jan Susler, who represents Gomes’ relatives in their civil rights suit.

A critical issue is how inmates needing health care are assessed and treated, said attorney Mark Smolens, who represents Gruber’s sister in her pending federal lawsuit. A contract medical firm, Correct Care Solutions, is paid about $2 million annually to provide health services at the jail.

“There are big problems at the Lake County Jail. Something needs to be done with the way medical care is provided to inmates,” Smolens said.

Gruber was arrested Oct. 31 for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, then allegedly became uncooperative in the jail, prompting officers to physically restrain and pepper-spray him.

He suffered a spinal injury while in custody, and security cameras later showing him being dragged as his legs dangled unmoving, though an attorney representing Lake County said jail personnel weren’t aware Gruber had been seriously hurt. Gruber was transferred a day later to a Waukegan hospital and died March 3 while being treated for his injuries at a Chicago rehab center.

The lawsuit contends he was beaten during the altercation and that his requests for medical assistance were denied. Medical staffers from Correct Care didn’t properly assess or treat Gruber for his injuries, the lawsuit alleges.

The Lake County state’s attorney’s office reviewed the case and concluded there was no indication jail officers intentionally harmed Gruber, though that probe didn’t touch on the role played by medical workers.

Gomes initially was arrested in October in Vernon Hills for failing to answer a jury summons -- though she was ineligible to serve because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen -- and resisting arrest. When she later missed a court appearance, she was taken into custody Dec. 14. She immediately declared a hunger strike, refusing to eat or drink, Susler said, contending it was apparent Gomes “was struggling with mental health issues.”

Despite that assessment, health workers and jail officials “stood by as she withered away before their eyes,” Susler contended in the lawsuit. Gomes lost at least 18 pounds in the 15 days she was jailed, before authorities moved her to a hospital, where she died Jan. 3.

“We believe that the judiciary system, the prison services and the health care services to the prison system have let down the Gomes family through a collective failure that should not have submitted Lyvita to such a tragic end,” Gomes’ brother-in-law, Rodney Fernandes, said in a statement.

Citing the lawsuits and pending review, Curran declined to comment, though an attorney denied there was a “systemic problem” in the way inmates are treated and supervised at the jail.

“There is no systemic problem in the jail with the way inmates are handled,” attorney James Sotos said. “These are isolated incidents; that’s the fact of it.”

Officials with Nashville-based Correct Care couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ekl said his investigation will include examining how medical personnel reacted to both Gomes’ hunger strike and the injuries Gruber suffered while in custody.

He will use medical experts to try to determine how Gruber was injured -- and the type of force required to inflict his injuries.

Ekl promised an “impartial” investigation despite the fact that he was hired by Lake County to conduct the probe of its jail.

“My report is going to be fair and it’s going to be impartial,” Ekl said.

Gruber’s relatives hope his death will at least lead to changes that benefit others detained at the jail.

“They’re angry at the way Eugene’s life was taken from him, and nothing can bring him back,” Smolens said, but added: “if there’s an improvement at the Lake County Jail, that’s obviously a good thing.”

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