A Macclenny woman who is suing Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook and four deputies in a wrongful death lawsuit wants to know why the accused deputies who allegedly beat and neglected her brother in the county jail, resulting in his death, have not been fired or even placed on administrative leave.
A Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed Friday that the four accused deputies are actively working for the sheriff’s department.
The agency is awaiting the results of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation before responding to any specific questions about the jail death, the spokesman said.
“It should be noted that the lawyer’s perspective is only one side of this case,” the spokesman said.
The sheriff’s office did not release information to the news media about the death in the county jail that occurred in March 2023. Earlier this week, a NewsBreak reporter asked the sheriff’s office why information regarding the death had not been reported.
The spokesman told NewsBreak Tuesday that the sheriff concedes her agency has “not been consistent” in reporting serious injuries and deaths that occur in the Clay County Jail to media outlets and the public.
“Moving forward we will be sure to put out a release for serious injuries and deaths because we have done that for some, but not all,” Cook said.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office has not released the names of the jail deputies allegedly involved in the inmate’s death. The lawsuit lists them by last name only.
Heather Swann, the sister of Joshua Swann who died in the jail on March 6, 2023, has more questions for Cook.
“What is your plan to make sure this never happens again? What training are you going to put all of these deputies and jail guards through? What reform will you initiate on the handling of inmates with mental illnesses? Not to mention, why are mentally ill people in solitary confinement for extended periods of time?”
These are all questions Swann said she wants answers to.
Joshua Swann, 33, of Macclenny, Baker Acted himself into the HCA Florida Orange Park Hospital on Jan. 24 due to the onset of a schizophrenic episode. Two days after the voluntary Baker Act, he was arrested and released to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office on a misdemeanor battery charge due to an altercation with another Baker Acted patient at the hospital over a TV remote.
Click here to read more about the incident and subsequent arrest of Joshua Swann.
The other patient involved in the altercation was not arrested.
Heather Swann believes that HCA Florida Orange Park Hospital should also be held accountable for the incident, she said.
“The arrest report even reads that he [Joshua] was still in an agitated state and given more medication. I don’t understand why he would have been released from the facility that was intended to help him,” she said. “I know that Jacksonville and other nearby counties follow a standard that they will not take someone to jail who is having an active mental crisis. Why did the hospital release my brother to Clay County Jail?”
Swann's attorney, Christopher Wickersham, agreed.
“Nobody gets into a physical fight like this over a TV remote unless something is wrong mentally,” Wickersham said. “So, why was he released to the jail when medical staff knew from the jump that he was suffering from a mental disorder? And, why was he not given his medication while in the Clay County Jail?”
Tara Stewart, HCA Healthcare assistant vice president of strategic communications, said that when a patient is discharged to a facility of any kind, their care instructions are passed on to the next level of care.
“The safety and security of our patients, physicians, staff and visitors is of utmost importance,” she said. “HCA Florida Orange Park Hospital has policies, processes and protocols in place to maintain a safe environment. We have zero tolerance for harassment or violence of any kind in our hospital and, when necessary, we take appropriate action which may include contacting local law enforcement, to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all.”
Wickersham’s complaint in the wrongful death lawsuit against Sheriff Cook and the four deputies states that, while in jail, Swann was denied his medication, food and water. It also states he was abused by deputies (resulting in a cracked skull), held in solitary confinement and suicide watch and regularly kept in restraint chairs and restraint beds. Click here to view the full complaint.
The sheriff’s spokesman reiterated that the department would only respond to questions regarding Swann’s death after the ongoing Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation is complete.
Both Swann and Wickersham explained that without proper schizophrenia medication, patients suffering from the disorder can experience extreme agitation, hallucinations, disordered thinking and muscle-like spasms. They believe Joshua Swann’s behavior while in jail would have been impacted by lack of medication.
“I am sure there were some events where maybe he became combative with them once they started torturing him,” Heather Swann said. “But I know my brother and I know that in most situations he will run instead of fight unless he is in severe danger.”
Swann said that she could not contact Joshua while he was in jail, nor could he contact her, due to his being held in solitary confinement for reasons undisclosed by the sheriff’s office. She said she attempted to call the jail multiple times to inform them he needed daily medication. Heather is the only living member remaining of the immediate Swann family.
“I am the only one left. I was his only advocate,” she said.
Swann said her brother was an amazing person who was great with her children. He worked in telecommunications for Black Creek Contractors in Macclenny and also had artistic talents, sometimes doing tattoos on the side, she said.
“He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back,” Swann said. “He was wise beyond his years and had a great understanding and empathy for other people and how the world works.”
Joshua Swann was found dead in his jail cell March 6, 2023. His sister said nobody from the Clay County Sheriff’s Office informed her of his death and that she was informed by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who showed up to her work regarding their investigation into the case.
In Wickersham's complaint, he describes deputies pulling Swann out of his cell and beating him with knee kicks, hit him with shackles, placing knees on his hands and slamming his head into the concrete floor which caused his skull to fracture.
A cause of death report has not been released, as it takes approximately 90 days from the date of examination to complete the request, a spokeswoman from the District IV Medical Examiner’s Office said.
The Swann family is asking for $5 million in damages, saying Swann died as a result of abuse and neglect. Wickersham said there is a history of bad behavior at the jail and they hope this case will bring it to light.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation is still active at this time.
No court dates have been scheduled at this time in the wrongful death lawsuit against Cook and the four deputies.
If you have a news tip in Clay County, contact Zoey Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter at @zoeyfields0.