Family cries foul in former Rhea County executive’s death in federal prison

Staff Photo/ George Thacker is shown in this 2001 file photo as a Rhea County businessman who had built his dream home, on Watts Bar Lake near Spring City, that celebrated his love of music and his passion for collectibles, such as this special-edition Martin guitar.
Staff Photo/ George Thacker is shown in this 2001 file photo as a Rhea County businessman who had built his dream home, on Watts Bar Lake near Spring City, that celebrated his love of music and his passion for collectibles, such as this special-edition Martin guitar.

Lawyers for the family of former Rhea County Executive George Thacker, who federal officials said died in a South Carolina federal prison in December from COVID-19 after having been incarcerated less than three weeks, contend there was negligence on the part of the prison.

A native of San Antonio, Thacker, 59, formerly of Spring City, was serving a 33-month sentence as part of an Oct. 6 agreement to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud involving COVID-19 relief funds.

Thacker was ordered to pay restitution and a fine and to remain on supervised release for three years following his release from prison, according to court records.

He had been investigated by the U.S. Secret Service stemming from the use of funds acquired under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which is a federal law designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans suffering the economic effects brought about by the pandemic.

Thacker was incarcerated Dec. 9 and died 17 days later, according to a federal statement issued on Thacker's death March 30. Thacker, before his legal issues, had been Rhea County's longest-serving county executive, having held the seat since 2010. According to his obituary, he was also a well-known local musician and had played harmonica at the Grand Ole Opry on several occasions.

The coroner's report said the cause of death was complications of a perforated duodenal ulcer and peptic ulcer disease, according to Robbie Harter, deputy coroner of Edgefield County, South Carolina.

"Then he had some contributing factors of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, arthroscopic cardiovascular disease, diabetes, renal failure, congestive heart failure and SARS2 infection," Harter said Thursday in a phone interview. "So it was ruled natural."

Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis said the Thacker family isn't buying that explanation and has been gathering information about Thacker's death. Davis said Thacker's daughter, April Thacker, has been gathering information in the case on her father's behalf and now has a lawyer of her own.

"I have received communications from several individuals who were incarcerated at the time with George or were in the visitation room on the day of his death when he was brought out in an emergency medical condition," Davis said Friday in a phone interview. "I turned that information over to the Office of Inspector General, and it's my understanding that they are conducting an internal review. From my reading of these witnesses' statements, clearly there was neglect and a complete lack of appropriate medical response to Mr. Thacker's needs, and I know his daughter is reviewing options the family has. Of course, sadly, nothing is going to bring George back."

Davis said the prison system's response regarding Thacker's in-custody death was not unexpected.

"That is not surprising to me that that would be the notation on the report," Davis said. "They don't report negligence or the withholding of appropriate medical care, they just note that it was a natural death. The question is, was this a natural death that could've been prevented had he been given adequate care?"

According to the March 30 news release from the federal Bureau of Prisons, Thacker was found unresponsive at the satellite prison camp adjacent to the Federal Correctional Institution Edgefield in Edgefield, South Carolina. Responding staff immediately initiated life-saving measures. Staff requested emergency medical services, and life-saving efforts continued, the release states. Thacker was transported by emergency medical services to a local hospital and subsequently pronounced dead by hospital personnel.

"Mr. Thacker, who had pre-existing medical conditions which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, tested positive for COVID-19 post-mortem," the release states. "Following a review of the recently received autopsy report, it was determined Mr. Thacker's death was related to COVID-19."

April Thacker's attorney, James Slater, who represents her with co-counsel Chris Mills, said the prison's portrayal of Thacker's cause of death is wrong.

"In March, the Bureau of Prisons issued a press release stating that -- based on a review of the autopsy report -- Mr. Thacker's death was related to COVID-19. That is not accurate. According to the autopsy report, Mr. Thacker's immediate cause of death was complications of a perforated duodenal ulcer, not COVID-19," Slater said Friday in an emailed statement. "We believe that Mr. Thacker's death was entirely preventable and the result of deliberate indifference."

According to federal prison information, the satellite camp at Edgefield is a minimum security facility and houses 350 male offenders.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Staff Photo / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, appears with Rhea County Executive George Thacker in 2019 to announce the arrival of a manufacturing business in Dayton.
 
 

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