GEORGETOWN, Ohio -- The Brown County Sheriff’s Office could be facing a federal lawsuit after accusations that deputies killed an inmate and covered up his death.
Zachary Goldson was found hanging from a bed sheet in the Adult Detention Center on Oct. 5, nine days after his arrest on Sept. 26.
For months after the 24-year-old’s death, Goldson’s mother was told by the sheriff’s office her son committed suicide.
But her world turned upside down in December, when Brown County Coroner Judith Varnau ruled Goldson’s death a homicide by strangulation.
She has since met with civil rights attorney Scott Greenwood.
“If Zach Goldson was killed by sheriff’s deputies, the people of Brown County deserve to know that,” Greenwood said. “If it’s a homicide, it means someone killed him. That requires justice.”
Greenwood said Goldson’s civil rights were violated when he died behind bars inside the Brown County detention center.
“This case is horrifying. It’s horrifying because while an in-custody death is relatively rare, it’s almost never intentional,” Greenwood said. “In this case, there are a number of issues that kind of just pop out.”
At about 2:41 a.m. the day before his death, Goldson was taken to a hospital after swallowing a pen. He returned to his cell at 3:38 a.m.
Later that same day at 11:18 p.m., he began vomiting after swallowing another pen, as well as a toothbrush and some staples, according to jail documents.
Goldson was scheduled to have an endoscopy to remove the objects and was discharged to Deputy Travis Justice for transportation. But when the deputy unlocked his vehicle, authorities said Goldson attacked him and used his shackles to hit him over the head. Documents show Goldson also attempted to steal the deputy's firearm.
When Goldson hit Deputy Justice with his shackles, three county and city law enforcement officers responded to the scene.
Dashcam video from Georgetown Police Patrol Officer Matt Staggs recorded the response, as well as a conversation between the officers and Goldson.
Goldson can be heard panting on the recording as he is held down.
“Shut up dude," one officer yells.
“What’s your name, trash?" another asks.
“Zach Goldson,” Goldson responds, choking and gulping in air.
"Since we’ve got an injured deputy, that’s another felony,” an officer later tells Goldson.
"Yeah. Hope you like prison b***h," another chimes in.
Then later, “I’d like to break your f***ing neck right now.”
Several hospital staff members were out for a smoke break during the attack and were able to hold Goldson down.
At 2:35 a.m., three jail personnel put Goldson back in cell No. 15, first removing his belongings and his blanket. Documents say the three "did not notice" that his bed sheet was still with him.
Twenty-five minutes later, Goldson was dead, found hanging from a sprinkler head in the cell.
“They’re overt threats,” Greenwood said, referring to the statements made by officers in the hour before Goldson’s death. “I mean, they specifically threaten to give him a ‘welcome party’ back at the jail. That’s a term for a group of deputies or corrections officers beating somebody up.”
Goldson’s mother Christina Dennis said she has a hard time watching video from that night.
“Calling him trash, and they were going to have a party with him when he got back to the jail -- I don’t know if that’s why he was trying to escape,” Dennis said. “Maybe he was terrified.”
Four days before his death, Goldson wrote Dennis and another family member a letter from jail that discussed his future.
“(I’m) ready to do these 5 years im about to get for these gun charges,” Goldson wrote in the letter. “Im just writin you to tell you I love you…I’m going to miss you both and Im prayin you are still around when I get out because I don’t want to loose my mom while im in jail. (sic)”
After hearing about her son's death, Dennis didn’t know what to believe.
But as time went on, she grew angry and confused – her son had never threatened to hurt himself before, she said.
"At first I thought it was a suicide until all the information started coming in,” she said. “There was so much evidence, it became clear that something was wrong."
Goldson was discovered hanging from a bed sheet fastened to a sprinkler head 9-and-a-half feet above the floor of his cell, according to the coroner.
The 24-year-old was 6-foot-1.
In order to determine how Goldson could reach the sprinkler head, the coroner said every surface and object in the room was measured.
The coroner's conclusion: "It would be physically impossible for (Goldson) to reach the sprinkler..."
“I think it’s extremely unlikely that it could come back as suicide given the timeframe and given the very specific findings the coroner made,” Greenwood said. “Inmates don’t typically find themselves dead seven minutes after they’re put into their cells. Doesn’t happen.”
Greenwood wouldn’t say when he plans to file his lawsuit, but he has met with Goldson’s family.
State investigators with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) continue to investigate Goldson’s death and Chief Deputy J.K. Schadle said he is confident BCI’s investigation will prove Goldson hanged himself.
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