The Thurston County Coroner's Office has determined the death of a 28-year-old Native American man who became unresponsive three days after he was booked into the Nisqually jail, then died in an Olympia hospital, was a homicide.
The Coroner's Office finished its nearly 9-month investigation into the death of Joseph Cagey, who was a member of the Lummi Nation and who family members say had been living on the tribe's reservation west of Bellingham, last week.
Lummi Tribal Police arrested Cagey on Dec. 18, 2019, and booked him into the Nisqually jail on a suspected drug paraphernalia possession violation, The Olympian reported, based on jail records at the time.
Lummi Nation does not have its own jail and contracts with other jails to house people arrested on tribal land, according to Cagey's uncle, Henry Cagey, a longtime Lummi Indian Business Council member and former chairman for the tribe.
Cagey's family shared an autopsy report from the Coroner's Office with The Olympian Tuesday. According to that report, Cagey initially said he did not use opioids when questioned upon intake, but complained of opioid withdrawal symptoms on Dec. 20. Jail video shows Cagey was "not well" while in a general population cell as early as Dec. 18, the day he was booked, according to the report.
"Video review demonstrates the decedent was in significant distress prior to collapsing while still detained in the general population cell," it reads. A toxicology report the Cagey family shared with The Olympian shows Naloxone was the only compound identified in his blood.
Naloxone is used to counter the effects of opioids and also used for the diagnosis of suspected opioid overdose, according to the report.
Lacey Fire District 3 was among agencies that responded to a call reporting an unconscious male inmate the morning of Dec. 21 -- three days after Cagey was "not well," according to the autopsy report, and a day after he complained of withdrawal symptoms.
Battalion Chief Steve Crimmins told The Olympian responders were able to get a heart rate, and that the inmate was intubated before he was transported to Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia.
According to Coroner Gary Warnock, Cagey arrived at Providence St. Peter Hospital, in Olympia, just after 7 a.m. on Dec. 21 and died there Dec. 22, at 1:25 p.m.
The Coroner's Office has determined he died of complications of opioid withdrawal and was likely suffering from dehydration and a probable electrolyte imbalance before he became unresponsive, Warnock told The Olympian on Friday.
"Death from opioid withdrawal is rare, if proper care and support is provided," the autopsy report reads.
Based on autopsy findings, video footage from the jail, and medical records, the manner of Cagey's death is "best classified as a homicide," Warnock said.
A homicide is the act of one human killing another, Warnock explained, and not all homicides are of a criminal nature. For instance, it can be an accident without intent, or it can be negligence.
While someone is incarcerated, that facility is tasked with their health and comfort, supervision, and general welfare, Warnock said. The evidence that the Coroner's Office saw showed Cagey did not receive the care that he should've received, according to Warnock, and that resulted in his death.
"The reason we're making it a homicide is because he is under the care of the jail, and he shouldn't have died at the jail," Warnock said.
Asked for comment in response to the Coroner's findings, Nate Cushman, a Tribal Attorney with Nisqually Indian Tribe, wrote the following response in an email to The Olympian Tuesday:
"The Nisqually Tribe has requested a copy of the Coroner's Report, but has not received or had a chance to review it at this time."
Cushman did not respond to a follow-up question specifically regarding the homicide finding or a request for general comments in response to Cagey's death.
The case has been passed to the FBI, Warnock said, because the Nisqually jail falls under federal jurisdiction. As part of the federal investigation, the homicide determination could change.
Henry Cagey told The Olympian he talked to the tribal council last week about the Coroner's findings, and that it voted unanimously Tuesday to end its contract with the Nisqually jail.
It also started the process to investigate the incident, Cagey said, which will involve reconstructing it, including what led to Cagey's initial arrest.
'One of the pillars of our family'
Family members describe Joseph Cagey, who many called "Joe," as a strong-willed, funny, independent man who was a lifelong performer and willing helper of family and strangers alike.
His father, Monty Cagey, told The Olympian in a phone interview that Joseph was "brought up in the traditional way." Monty raised him as a single parent from 3 months old, he said, but had a lot of help from family.
"I had to hold the baby bottle under my armpit, so he'd think that I was nursing," Cagey reflected.
His son was a dancer from the moment he began to walk, Monty Cagey said, and started performing when he was just 4 or 5 years old. He was the "main attraction" in a group that performs traditional dances called the Swan Clan Dancers.
Beverly Cagey, Joseph's grandmother, told The Olympian the group performed all over the country, from Texas to Michigan, in the summertime. Joseph was the person who took care of the tickets, the luggage, and was "always on top of everything," she said.
As a young man, the family had a lot of hope for Joseph, his uncle Henry Cagey told The Olympian.
Cagey was going to be the legacy of the dance group and mentor young dancers, his dad said. He has hundreds of cousins, and many nephews and nieces "don't know what they're missing."
Beyond his dancing, he was also a war canoe racer, helped his dad with commercial fishing, and would sing beside his grandparents at elders dinners and other public gatherings.
"He was just like one of our pillars of our family," Monty Cagey said.
Cagey went to a boarding school in Oregon for a couple of years of high school, but never graduated and moved out of state for awhile, his dad said. But he would come home still in the summer to perform. Ultimately, he moved back to the reservation.
After he came back, he fell in with a bad crowd, his family says, and began using drugs.
"He was a good kid, he just got caught up in the wrong crowd...those drugs took a toll on him," uncle Henry Cagey said.
Joseph had been living in a trailer on family property, according to his dad. After his girlfriend got pregnant, he started to clean up his act -- applied for housing and worked on getting his GED, he said.
His daughter was born in mid-2019 and lived with members of his girlfriend's family, where she still lives today.
"He was sure excited about the whole process of becoming a dad," Monty Cagey said.
But Joseph Cagey's life was cut short last December. Beverly Cagey, who said her grandson would often visit and do chores for her without her asking, still thinks of her grandson every day.
"I still can't get over losing him," she said.
"I know that he'd still be here with us, if they only checked on him," Monty Cagey said.
Echos of recent lawsuits against the Nisqually jail
This isn't the first time the lockup has come under scrutiny for inmates who have died in custody in recent years, and several municipalities have contracts with the Nisqually jail.
In 2017, a lawsuit alleged the jail didn't provide proper medical attention to 19-year-old Andrew J. Westling, who died in his cell about 24 hours after his arrest for causing a disturbance at a Yelm service station. The young man suffered from a heart condition and had notified jail staff, according to the suit.
In that investigation, the Thurston County Coroner's Office determined Westling died due to cardiac dysrhythmia due to congenital coronary artery anomalies, and determined his death to be natural, according to Coroner Warnock.
The city of Yelm settled that case for $375,000, and the Nisqually tribe paid an undisclosed amount, according to Olympian archives.
Westling's attorney also sought to challenge the legality of Yelm's contract with a jail that's located on sovereign tribal land, The Olympian reported. That sovereignty means the tribe is not subject to public records disclosure, and it was unclear whether jail staff had complied with proper training and regulations as required by counties and cities, according to The Olympian's reporting.
In 2018, the jail faced a civil rights lawsuit after a then-43-year-old Lacey man, Kevin Michael Bell, was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting, spent 19 days in custody and suffered a stroke, according to Olympian archives.
Documents show the court dismissed Bell's claims against the tribe based on sovereign immunity, and that many other parties involved have settled for a total of $750,000.
That's lower than Jackson Millikan, one of Bell's lawyers, would've wanted. But, Millikan told The Olympian, Bell needed to pay off costs for the Medicaid-funded nursing home where he's staying -- he's staying there because the stroke now requires him to use a wheelchair, his previous subsidized housing wasn't wheelchair accessible, and it's been a struggle to find wheelchair-accessible, subsidized housing.
Millikan explained that the case is still going to trial against the person who has the title of Health Care Authority at the jail, and a related Public Records Act case is ongoing in Thurston County Superior Court.
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