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James Mercer, 37, died May 16, 2016, a day after he escaped from a Hamilton County Sheriff's deputy during a domestic violence call at a home on Stormer Road in Sale Creek. Photo contributed.

The woman called her sister from the bathroom while James Mercer fixed a noose over the stairs.

He was going to kill her, he said.

Last time, she'd called 911 and hung up, and then the dispatcher called back over and over again, until Mercer asked, "Who the —— was on the phone," and why did they keep calling?

This time, the woman called her sister and asked her to call 911, to get the police out to the rural home on Stormer Road in Sale Creek. It was about 12:20 p.m. on May 15.

A Hamilton County sheriff's deputy arrived at 12:32 p.m., and 18 minutes later, Mercer was on the floor with the noose around his own neck. He died the next day.

An internal affairs investigation by the sheriff's office sheds light on how Mercer, 37, managed to escape from a deputy while handcuffed, barricade himself inside the house and commit suicide during what began as a routine domestic violence call on May 15.

Internal affairs investigators found that the first deputy to arrive that day, Jamie Gravitte, acted within policy and did not do anything wrong, even though Mercer was found with his hands cuffed in front of his body, not behind his back as required by standard policy.

Deputies are allowed to handcuff a suspect in front of their body in "exigent circumstances," but doing so gives the suspect more range of motion and can pose a risk to the deputy, sheriff's spokesman Matt Lea said.

Gravitte and the woman both told internal affairs investigators that Gravitte handcuffed Mercer behind his back and that the man must have pulled his hands in front after he ran from Gravitte and hid inside the home.

However, the medical examiner noted Mercer did not have the bruises typically seen on the wrists of people who pull handcuffs to the front.

* * *

After Mercer died, the woman Mercer had threatened to kill told investigators he'd been abusing her for months.

Sometimes he dragged her around, sometimes he poured water over her face. He punched her, choked her. Sometimes he heard voices in his head and thought she was being controlled by a CIA device implanted in her body. He'd try to pull out her tooth because he thought it was a recording device. She'd bite at his hand.

But he loved her, and always apologized, the woman said, beautiful apologies. She will not be identified by the Times Free Press because she was a victim of domestic assault.

On May 15, Mercer had been going on for hours, the woman said. He walked through the house with a machete, chopping into the walls. Then he fashioned the noose.

"I been taking the abuse for so long," the woman said, crying, the day after the incident. "Yesterday wasn't so bad. I was just exhausted. I was tired. I wanted to lay down."

So she grabbed the phone and ducked into the bathroom.

When Gravitte arrived, the deputy put herself between Mercer and the woman. The woman explained that Mercer had attacked and threatened her, but as she spoke, Mercer became irate, Gravitte told internal affairs investigators.

Mercer began to rant about not going to jail. Gravitte initially told investigators she decided to put Mercer in handcuffs for her own safety while she waited for backup. Later, she said she decided to arrest Mercer after she saw a scratch on the woman.

Either way, she managed to handcuff Mercer. Gravitte said she handcuffed him behind his back and started to put him in the back of her patrol car when he lunged up, kicked her and pushed her back, then sprinted into the house.

She followed but he shut the door and braced it with his weight. Gravitte was unable to budge it, she told investigators. She called for backup and waited outside the house.

When later describing how Mercer blocked the door, Gravitte demonstrated by motioning with her right arm in front of her body, something Mercer wouldn't have been able to do with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Records show Mercer escaped at 12:37 p.m., five minutes after Gravitte arrived. When more deputies pulled up, they forced their way into the home and discovered Mercer hanging in the stairwell at 12:50 p.m., hands cuffed in front.

They cut him down, removed the handcuffs and began CPR. Mercer was pronounced dead at a hospital the next day.

While internal affairs investigators noted the slight discrepancies between Gravitte's two accounts of what happened, the 139-page report concludes her actions did not "constitute a criminal violation."

The woman who was attacked told investigators Mercer was out of reach from the moment he leapt from the patrol car.

"Did [Gravitte] actually have a hold of him at one point?" the investigator asked.

"No, no, she couldn't grab him," the woman said.

"OK," he replied.

"He was gone," she said.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @ShellyBradbury.

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