Family sues Bradley County over jail hanging

Ralph Nelms

The family of a man who hanged himself in the Bradley County Jail last year has filed a $5 million federal lawsuit in the death.

Ralph Nelms' ex-wife, Kristin Danielle Nelms, filed the suit this week on behalf of his two young sons, claiming jail personnel knew Nelms was addicted, mentally ill and suicidal but failed to properly monitor and supervise him.

The defendants are Bradley County government, Sheriff Eric Watson, three corrections officers identified by name and four "John Doe" employees of the sheriff's office.

The lawsuit claims Nelms was charged on Sept. 15, 2016, with multiple counts of theft and burglary and booked into the jail. It states he was being held in the booking area, "an area where Bradley County Jail staff can see into the fronts of all the cells.

"Despite the fact that [Nelms] exhibited unstable, erratic behaviors making him a suicide risk," the lawsuit states, Bradley County Jail staff failed put him in a suicide-proof cell. Instead, they left him in the booking area, "covering the window completely blocking their view into his cell as well as leaving him with an instrument to complete any suicidal ideations, his cloth gown straps," the suit states.

It claims corrections officers Ronald Joshua Reddick, Gabriel Nathaniel Black and Timothy Jason Boyd failed to keep proper watch or stop Nelms. It notes the three subsequently were charged with official misconduct and Black was charged with tampering with evidence and tampering and destruction of records.

Nelms was the third person to die in the Bradley County Jail in 2016 after what the lawsuit claims was failure to provide adequate medical treatment.

The lawsuit asks for $5 million in compensatory damages for Nelms' sons plus additional damages for loss of familial relations, Nelms' pain and suffering and other expenses, plus punitive damages.

At least three other lawsuits are pending against the Bradley County Sheriff's Office:

- The family of Allan F. White Jr. filed a $3 million claim after he was shot to death last year by Deputy Tiffany Oakley. The deputy has said she acted in self-defense after White attacked her while she was trying to arrest him.

- Justin Christopher Presley is seeking $2 million in a 2016 suit claiming jail personnel knew he was "mentally compromised" and a suicide risk, but allowed him to jump from a high place in the jail and severely injure himself. The lawsuit says that while Presley was in the hospital and unable to attend, a judge held a hearing and granted him an "own recognizance" bond so the county would not have to pay his medical bills.

- Christopher Lee Yarber and Lisa Yarber are asking for $800,000, saying Christopher Yarber, a jail inmate, was attacked by another inmate in December 2015. The suit claims jail staff denied Yarber medical attention. It states that Lisa Yarber took him to a hospital after three days where he was diagnosed with multiple fractured vertebrae, a punctured lung, several fractured ribs and a concussion. He eventually needed spinal surgery, the suit claims.

The list doesn't include a half-dozen civil rights claims filed by inmates and dismissed in federal court, including one that claimed a prisoner with a broken hip was denied food and medical attention and forced to lie in his own urine.

It also doesn't include a lawsuit filed last year against Watson by the American Atheists Inc. and a Jane Doe plaintiff claiming Watson proselytized for Christianity on the official Bradley County Sheriff's Office Facebook page and censored posts critical of his stance.

The county settled that suit in August, agreeing to pay $41,000 and promising not to use the sheriff's office page to promote any religion.