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Jury to decide if Brown County inmate death was suicide or deputy-staged homicide

Deliberations to begin in excessive force suit
Video from Brown County Jail shows last moments of inmate Zachary Goldson's life.
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 05:01:01-04

CINCINNATI — A jury could decide Friday whether a Brown County inmate found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell in 2013 died of suicide or if deputies killed him and staged his death.

Jail officers found Zachary Goldson dead in his cell less than an hour after a deputy was captured on video yelling into his ear, “I’d like to break your f***ing neck right now,” and "That mother***er … is getting a welcome party when we get to the jail."

Questions have swirled around Goldson’s death for years after a Brown County coroner ruled his death a homicide and said deputies were to blame.

But a grand jury cleared deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in 2014, as did the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations. A Montgomery County coroner who performed Goldson’s autopsy also said his death was caused by suicide.

A jury will finally decide how Goldson died after a civil trial that began in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Monday.

Goldson’s sister, Ashley Bard, is suing the two deputies who were alone in the cell with her brother during the moments before his death. She seeks punitive damages that could rise into the millions of dollars if the jury sides with her.

“There is something that’s fishy with the whole thing,” said Dustin Downing, who was an inmate at the Brown County Jail on the day that Goldson died. “I was suspicious from the beginning.”

Prison officers brought Downing to the courtroom to testify this week. He is serving a 16-month sentence for possession of heroin at Madison Correctional Institution. But on October 5, 2013, he was an inmate at the Brown County Jail and watched from his open cell door what happened when deputies brought Goldson in.

Brown County Sheriff's deputies bring Zachary Goldson into jail on Oct. 5, 2013.
Brown County Sheriff's deputies bring Zachary Goldson into jail on Oct. 5, 2013.

“'That’s what you get for hitting a cop,'” a deputy said, according to Downing's testimony. “I can’t pinpoint who actually said it, there was four or five of them out there in a group.”

Deputies booked Goldson, 24, into the Brown County jail Sept. 26, 2013, on charges he shot a gun across a roadway, and two related gun charges.

Brown County jail video captures moments before inmate Zachary Goldson's death in 2013.
Brown County jail video captures moments before inmate Zachary Goldson's death in 2013.

Days later, Goldson swallowed a toothbrush and pen while showing other inmates how he could regurgitate items.

After Goldson complained of stomach pain, Deputy Travis Justice took him to a hospital emergency room for treatment.

When the deputy escorted Goldson to his cruiser outside the hospital to transfer him back to jail, Goldson attacked and injured him, hitting him in the face with his handcuffs and trying to grab his gun. A nurse called 911, while hospital staff helped to hold Goldson to the ground.

Georgetown police, who had a dashboard video camera, and other Brown County deputies responded to the scene to help.

“What the f*** is wrong with you, you stupid mother***er,” Deputy Ryan Wedmore said to Goldson, according to the video. "I'd like to break your f***ing neck."

Less than an hour later, deputies found Goldson hanging from an overhead sprinkler mount in his cell.

The deputies’ attorney, Dan Downey, told the jury during opening statements that Goldson committed suicide and that officers had nothing to do with it.

“What occurred in that cell in that 96 seconds is what this case is about,” Downey said, referring to the amount of time former Brown County Correctional Officer Zane Schadle and Deputy George Dunning were alone in the cell with Goldson. “They did not rig a death scene in 96 seconds.”

Attorneys Ben Maraan and Alan Statman
Attorneys Ben Maraan and Alan Statman

Schadle, one of the two jail officers who was alone in the cell with Goldson before his death, is the son of then-Brown County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy John Schadle, according to court testimony.

Zane Schadle testified that the welcome party awaiting Goldson at jail was not a threat but “basically a call for all hands on deck,” that was “typically used for violent people being brought in.”

Then-Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau testified that she listed Goldson’s cause of death as homicide. She didn’t think it was physically possible for Goldson to tie a sheet around the sprinkler head while he stood on a sink in his cell.

She believed the marks on Goldson were not like a typical hanging and theorized that they could have been caused by a hobble strap.

Zachary Goldson Facebook page
Zachary Goldson Facebook page

When she responded to the jail after Goldson died, she said a deputy told her that inmates were “led around by hobble straps in the jail,” and “they lead them like on dog leashes,” according to court documents.

Bard’s attorneys believe that Goldson could have been bound in leg shackles and handcuffs when jail officers left his cell.

“It is undisputed that Goldson was restrained in leg shackles at the time he entered the cell, and Bard argues that the officers left Goldson with some type of collar around the neck connected to the shackles that tightened as Mr. Goldson struggled thereby causing his asphyxiation … it was by the manner of struggling with the leg shackles and neck collar that led to his death,” according to a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

Bard’s attorneys hired crime scene reconstruction expert Scott Roder to build an exact model of Goldson’s jail cell.

Roder showed the jury a video animation of his testing. He hired a young man, who was also 6 feet tall like Goldson, to attempt to tie a bed sheet around a ceiling sprinkler head.

“He had failed in every one of his attempts,” Roder said, of the 40 minutes he spent trying. “This kid was the perfect height and he had a wider wing span … and amazing dexterity,” because he was a guitar player.

Court documents also reveal that Goldson had an impaired finger.

But Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Dave Hornyak testified that he was able to stand on the sink in Goldson’s cell and reach “well beyond the sprinkler head.” Hornyak said he is 6-feet-1-inch tall.

Hornyak testified that he did not uncover any evidence that Goldson’s death was anything but a suicide, and the FBI also reviewed his findings.

Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department Major Laetitia Schuler, who worked for BCI in 2013, testified that Goldson’s death, “appeared to be a suicide.”

“I could stand on the sink and reach the ligature that was hanging down,” Schuler said of her own experiment in Goldson’s cell. She testified that she is 5-feet-2-inches tall, and that other agents who were shorter than Goldson could also reach the sprinkler head.

Dr. Susan Brown, a deputy coroner at the Montgomery County Coroner’s office, also testified that Goldson’s death was caused by suicide, consistent with the ligature furrow markings and the lack of burst blood vessels that would indicate strangulation.

The final witness, an expert for the defense, is expected to testify on Friday morning, followed by closing arguments.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott said the jury may begin deliberating toward a verdict on Friday afternoon.