Suit filed over death in Bradley County jail

File Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Dec 5, 2013— The Bradley County Jail is in Cleveland, Tenn.
photo Billy Joe Rogers

Another Bradley County family has filed suit over the death of a county jail inmate.

Billy Joe Rogers, 39, was found unresponsive in his cell in late April of 2016 after fighting with another inmate. He died three days later at Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.

His mother, Betty Rogers, says in the suit filed April 28 that the Bradley County Sheriff's Office has kept information from the family and has lost or destroyed video and witness statements, so "the victim's family remain in the dark as to how their loved one died."

The suit claims the "vastly overcrowded" jail has a "tremendous problem with gang violence" that "jail authorities have tried to hide or diminish." The suit says the "unregulated gang problem may have been a factor" in her son's death.

The suit also claims that after Rogers was injured, jail authorities got a judge to grant an "own recognizance" bond - without his or his attorney's knowledge or participation - so the jail wouldn't have to pay his medical bills.

The suit names Bradley County, Sheriff Eric Watson, Corrections Chief Gabe Thomas and three individuals as defendants. Betty Rogers is asking for $11 million and for a grand jury to "investigate the widespread presence of drugs, alcohol and gang violence within the Bradley County Jail." She also wants the county to pay her son's medical bills.

The suit was filed by Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe, who has two other lawsuits pending against the sheriff's office.

The family of Allan F. White Jr. filed a $3 million claim against the sheriff's office after he was shot to death in July 2015 by Deputy Tiffany Oakley. The deputy 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 Bradley 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 claims Presley also was placed on an "own recognizance" bond without his knowledge or participation so the county would not have to pay his medical bills.

Wolfe was part of the legal team that won a $750,000 settlement with Bradley County last year for the children of Armetta Foster, who was shot to death by a deputy in 2011 after the officer said she slashed him and stole his patrol car.

A separate lawsuit seeks $5 million in the February 2016 death of inmate Ralph Nelms, who hanged himself in a glass-fronted cell in the booking area. The suit claims corrections officials knew Nelms had addiction and mental health problems but failed to exercise proper care. The attorneys in that case are Franklin Chancey and Rachel Fisher.

Three former jailers were charged with official misconduct in Nelms' death. One officer was also charged with tampering with evidence and tampering with governmental records.

In August, a state inspector cited the Bradley County Jail for "very vague" security check logs, suicide watch observation reports and restraint checks. The inspection also cited the facility for understaffing and inmate overcrowding.

In another pending suit, filed in December, Christopher Lee Yarber and Lisa Yarber are asking for $800,000, saying Christopher Yarber was attacked by another inmate at the Bradley County Jail 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.

That suit was moved in January from Bradley County Circuit Court to U.S. District Court. Their attorney is Robert L. Jolley of Knoxville.