April 19, 2014

SLED, prosecutor: No criminal activity in inmate's death at York Co. jail

A fellow inmate who became friends with William Joseph Blinn at the York County Detention Center was the first to find him hanging from a light fixture with a bed sheet tightly knotted around his neck last summer, according to State Law Enforcement Division documents released this month.

A fellow inmate who became friends with William Joseph Blinn at the York County Detention Center was the first to find him hanging from a light fixture with a bed sheet tightly knotted around his neck last summer, according to State Law Enforcement Division documents released this month.

Jail officers and later paramedics rushed to Blinn’s cell, where they performed CPR and used an automatic heart defibrillator.

Blinn, 26, died at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, after suffering a brain hemorrhage while on life support. Medical examiners said his official cause of death was asphyxia because of hanging. The manner of death, they say, was suicide. He was last seen alive standing at his jail cell door at 12:39 p.m. Aug. 31. He had been hanging for five minutes before an inmate discovered him, according to an autopsy report.

Blinn’s suicide, the first at the York County Detention Center since 1992, was investigated by SLED, which after closing the case gave the file to 16th Circuit Kevin Brackett, responsible for deciding if charges would be filed in Blinn’s death. After reviewing the file, Brackett wrote to SLED that he found no basis to support filing charges, and agreed with the coroner’s decision that Blinn “died by his own hand.”

The Herald obtained SLED’s entire case file on Blinn’s death through a Freedom of Information Act request. The file details steps agents took to probe Blinn’s death.

Blinn, who in jail documents claimed he was a sovereign citizen, had been housed at the detention center for three days without bond before he tried to kill himself, according to court records. He had been accused of breaking into a store and stealing two cash registers.

Deputies charged him with two counts of grand larceny, safecracking and possession of burglary tools after they say he used three knives to break into the Country Club Market on Saluda Road in Rock Hill, where he allegedly stole cash from locked cash boxes and stowed away two cash registers. He was also accused of stealing a collection of gold coins, arrowheads and other miscellaneous items worth about $200,000 from a Pinecrest Drive home in the Meadow Lakes neighborhood, according to arrest warrants.

Police found Blinn in his Saluda Road home, where they say he stashed the stolen cash registers while carrying $1,200 cash and three knives on him. Once in jail, Blinn allegedly refused to eat, drink or go outside for recreational time, according to statements made by a jail officer and detention center inmates.

Zenas Clifton, a Rock Hill man who had been jailed at the detention center on drug charges, told investigators he left the recreational area on Aug. 31 to speak to Blinn, whom he called “Will Bend,” because they had become good friends.

When he reached Blinn’s cell, “I looked through the glass in the door and saw him hanging from a bed sheet,” Clifton told investigators.

Clifton said he began screaming and ran downstairs, where he pushed an intercom button to call officers. The first guard on the scene was Jordan Philbeck, who told investigators he ran to the cell and saw Blinn hanging from the sheet. He removed from the cell a cot Blinn apparently used to climb closer to the light fixture. He was unable to detect Blinn’s pulse or see signs of breathing.

Clifton could not be reached for comment.

Philbeck and another officer removed the sheet from the fixture, he told agents, and then from around Blinn’s neck before a lieutenant arrived. Together, Philbeck, the lieutenant and several other officers took turns performing CPR on Blinn until a sergeant arrived, followed by paramedics.

“I then left the cell to get some air,” Philbeck said, adding that he only spoke to Blinn once that day when he refused to eat or drink. Philbeck theorized that Blinn wedged the bed sheet between the light fixture and wall, tying a knot at the top of the sheet “so that his weight could be supported without the sheet slipping from in between the light fixture and the wall.”

Paramedics rushed Blinn to Piedmont Medical Center, where his pulse briefly recovered, his autopsy report shows. He was soon airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center, where he was placed on a ventilator. Some hours later, he suffered the hemorrhage and was taken off life support. The report shows he suffered from redness on the left side of his neck, brain damage due to a lack of oxygen, fluid buildup in his lungs, a brain hemorrhage and inflammation in his stomach.

“This appears to be a suicide,” 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett told The Herald last week. “I don’t see any evidence of anything other than that.”

A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that suicide was the leading cause of death among inmates at local jails that year. Of the 918 inmates to die in jail, 305 committed suicide. Twenty-six of the 31,964 inmates to die in state prisons between 2001 and 2010 were South Carolina inmates, the report shows.

“I know people in the detention center are concerned about the welfare and safety of the inmates there,” Brackett said. “They had no idea that this was going to happen. There was nothing that they could do.”

‘He did what he thought was right’

Jed Blinn still doubts that his brother would kill himself. He told The Herald last week that he did not realize the investigation into his brother’s death had been closed. He said he tried calling SLED and York County authorities, but had trouble reaching them after another inmate apparently killed himself a month later.

In October, Joshua Matthew Grose, a 34-year-old Rock Hill man charged in a double murder after deputies say he ran over his stepmother and a neighbor with a car, banged his head against a jail cell wall while he was strapped into a restraint chair. York County Coroner Sabrina Gast determined that he committed suicide. Brackett last week said he’s received the SLED file on Grose’s death and will likely make a decision about charges within the next few weeks.

Jed Blinn and his brother were both adopted by a family in Connecticut, where they were rasied in a family of eight children. Because they were biological brothers before adoption, they developed a very close bond, Jed Blinn said. Over the years, despite rough beginnings, Blinn tried to help people. His brother said he took in people “who didn’t deserve to be taken in.”

In jail documents, Blinn told detention center officers that he was born in Canada. He claimed to be a sovereign citizen, one of a group of people who do not consider themselves subject to state and federal laws. Jed Blinn said he had heard his brother talk about sovereign citizenship in the past.

“He did what he thought was right at the time,” Jed Blinn said. “He did what he had to do.”

Jed Blinn believes that it’s likely his brother stole from the Country Club Market to provide for his 2-year-old daughter. “He had a rough time trying to find work and everything else,” he said.

On a jail form assessing his risk for suicide, Blinn disclosed that he never contemplated suicide and was not considering killing himself after his arrest. A booking officer evaluating him also indicated that Blinn did not display behavior suggesting that he was a suicide risk. Jed Blinn said he last spoke with his brother a week before he got the call that Blinn attempted suicide.

“He seemed perfectly fine happy go-lucky,” he said. “Nothing makes sense about the whole thing.”

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