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'Tortured' Oklahoma inmate settles lawsuit

Victim to receive $200,000 for mistreatment in Bryan County jail
by Juliana Keeping Published: June 18, 2014
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— Bryan County jailers punished Thomas Wesley Cofer for being loud by restraining him in a “suicide chair” for weeks at a time. They also choked and beat him, made him eat like an animal, wouldn’t let him use the restroom and denied the schizophrenic, 22-year-old Atoka man his medication, according to family members. At one point, a deputy sheriff told Cofer to face a cell wall and then used a stun gun to shock him, they say.

In May, the county agreed to pay $200,000 to settle a lawsuit Cofer filed in federal court over the often-brutal treatment he endured during seven months he spent in the jail in 2010.

Testimony in Cofer’s civil lawsuit and evidence in a 2012 federal criminal case involving a jail supervisor convicted of abuse provide a disturbing picture of the cruelty that several inmates suffered while housed in this town of about 16,000 residents about 150 miles southeast of Oklahoma City.

“It was inhumane,” Tulsa-based attorney Kirsten Palfreyman said of her client’s treatment by jail staff. “I was absolutely shocked something like this could happen in Oklahoma or even America. It’s something you think you would hear about in a Third World country, not Durant, Oklahoma.”

In his lawsuit, Cofer alleged that then-Sheriff Bill Sturch, Undersheriff Ken Golden and county commissioners either knew, or should have known, about the jail incidents, but did nothing to stop them.

In their response, attorneys for the commissioners and sheriff’s department employees denied the allegations. Philip Anderson, an Oklahoma City lawyer who represented Bryan County in the lawsuit, could not be reached this week for comment.

In an interview Wednesday, Sturch, who retired in January 2013 after 20 years as sheriff, used the word “nightmare” three times when asked about the incidents alleged to have occurred in his jail.

“I did not know anything about it,” said Sturch, a former rancher and Navy veteran. “If I had, it would have stopped immediately.”

In 2012, voters elected Golden to replace Sturch as sheriff. Neither Golden or the chairman of the county commissioners could be reached by The Oklahoman for comment. The settlement will be paid from a county insurance policy, court officials said.

‘Not a human’

Cofer was arrested on April 16, 2010 on complaints of burglary and assault and battery with a deadly weapon. Cofer, then 18, and three others were accused of beating a 17-year-old boy and taking his cellphone. The victim suffered serious head injuries. Cofer was booked into the Bryan County jail.

On his first night, Cofer broke a light bulb and cut himself, the first of several cutting incidents during his Bryan County stay, according to court documents. Cofer tampered with a jail lock, was found hiding razor blades and makeshift knives in his cell and threatened a jailer with a broken cup. He often talked back to guards and refused orders to be quiet.

During his time in Bryan County, Cofer rarely had access to medications, making him subject to severe depression, mood swings, paranoia and seizures.

Authorities initially declared Cofer mentally incompetent to stand trial. Then, in early July 2010, Cofer underwent a 30-minute exam at a state mental health facility in Vinita. On July 21, 2010, the state declared him competent. The next day, he pleaded guilty to the charges.

By then, guards had tormented her client, Palfreyman said, at times keeping him in the restraint chair for days on end. At one point, Bryan County sheriff’s office Lt. Kevin Bennett Holt ordered Cofer be strapped in the restraint chair as punishment for, among other things, being loud, according to the civil suit.

Inmates who witnessed the abuse and knew Cofer’s family sought out his mother, Tammie Seabourn, of Atoka, to tell her what was happening, Seabourn said in a deposition.

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by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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We should have clearer laws on how long a restraint chair can be used.”

Attorney Kirsten Palfreyman,

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