CRASH PRESS CONFERENCE

Scott Fewins

TRAVERSE CITY -- They found Sarah Clark slumped in a segregated shower area in the Grand Traverse County Jail, unsupervised, water running, a plastic bag draped across her face and a noose made of socks knotted around her neck.

Authorities hadn't considered her a suicide risk, "had not gotten any clue," Sheriff Scott Fewins said shortly before Clark, 21, of Kingsley was removed from life support, three days after Feb. 28, when she hanged herself in the county jail.

In fact, clues to Clark's suicidal tendencies were plentiful, from jagged, self-inflicted wound scars on her arms and legs to repeated notations in medical and jail reports -- records generated and maintained by the Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department.

Documents obtained by the Record-Eagle under the state Freedom of Information Act show sheriff's officials recorded multiple instances of Clark's suicidal thoughts and acts dating from 2004 -- during the first of her half-dozen stints in the county jail -- through her last incarceration beginning Feb. 24, 2008.

Yet sheriff's officials didn't consider Clark a suicide threat during her final stay and made no precautions to prevent her death.

Included in sheriff's documents: a Feb. 27 request from Clark to meet with a mental health caseworker, the day before she hanged herself and effectively ended a short life gone downhill from a devastating car crash, drug abuse, and an endless cycle of courtrooms, jail cells and personal tragedy.

Sheriff's records don't show whether a mental health worker was provided.

Four of Clark's six trips to jail since 2004 note suicidal tendencies, sheriff's documents show, including a June 2007 medical assessment given to Clark during a one-day stint for driving with a suspended license.

That report states Clark "has contemplated or attempted suicide," and "had psychiatric care or been treated for suicidal behavior."

And a medical assessment following her February arrest on drug charges noted the presence of self-inflicted injury scars and listed an earlier suicide attempt.

A corrections deputy wrote last month "Clark has past suicide attempts, at this time she states not suicidal," on an intake questionnaire.

That deputy checked off a box indicating Clark wasn't a suicide risk, but checked another box indicating a need for immediate psychological referral.

Internal probe

Fewins did not respond to a reporter's calls for comment on the Clark documents, and Undersheriff Nathan Alger refused to answer a reporter's questions about the incident unless those questions were submitted in writing.

The department's legal counsel told sheriff's officials to avoid responding to verbal questions, Alger said.

"We're still looking at this internally, and we also believe other people are looking at this ... probably for litigation," he said. "We have been advised by our counsel that this is the way we should handle this."

The Record-Eagle did not provide written questions to the sheriff's department and its attorneys.

Clark's mother, Wendy Blodgett, contends deputies knew her daughter personally and knew she was a suicide risk.

Her daughter may have been determined to kill herself, Blodgett said, but the jail should have prevented the Feb. 28 incident.

"When a person who's set their mind on suicide makes a decision, they will elude everything and everyone around them and seem very happy and content, and they will succeed," Blodgett said. "The Grand Traverse County Jail was not prepared for her elusiveness."

In a series of calls to family members from the jail in the days leading to her suicide attempt, Clark spoke of being depressed and dreading another round of court appearances.

She also told family members she loved them, but did not indicate she planned to kill herself, according to death investigation reports compiled by Traverse City police and obtained by the Record-Eagle through FOIA.

Jail suicide policy

Clark severely cut herself and took large amounts of drugs in an attempt to kill herself at a local hotel in December 2005, her mother and brother said.

A psychological profile questionnaire given during a seven-day jail stay in January 2006 for a probation violation indicates Clark had a past suicide attempt, and she was assessed by Community Mental Health for suicidal tendencies before her release on that charge, sheriff's documents show.

And a questionnaire from a 2004 felonious driving jailing indicates she admitted to having suicidal thoughts.

The Grand Traverse County Jail's suicide prevention policy states that any employee who notices an inmate with depression or suicidal thoughts must notify a supervisor. The inmate can then be segregated for closer observation or restrained, depending on the situation.

The policy also calls for careful documentation of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Blodgett contacted attorneys and might file a lawsuit, but she's most concerned with changing policy at the jail to prevent future suicides. She wants the jail to work together better with mental health officials.

"I want to make sure this doesn't happen to somebody else's child," she said. "I'll spend the rest of my life making sure this doesn't happen again, with or without a lawsuit."

Traverse City attorney Aaron Bowron said Blodgett hired him, but he isn't sure if he'll file a suit. He requested information from the department under FOIA and will make a decision thereafter, he said.

"We are in the process of compiling all the facts," Bowron said.

Clearing the Record

Because of a photographer's error, the caption should have said Sarah Clark, who hanged herself in the Grand Traverse County jail on Feb. 28, was in the jail awaiting court proceedings.

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