Coroner on jail death: Inmate couldn't breathe

An undated photo of Arthur Thomas, 22, who

An undated photo of Arthur Thomas, 22, who died while in the custody of the county-run jail in Riverhead. (Credit: Handout)

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A Mastic Beach man died in June while in the custody of the county-run jail in Riverhead because he couldn't breathe, the Suffolk coroner's office said.

The family of Arthur Lee Thomas, 22, said he died when his tracheal tube, inserted at the base of his throat to help him breathe, became clogged by mucus because it was not suctioned daily by the jail's staff as ordered by its doctor.

The autopsy report, written by Deputy Medical Examiner Odette R. Hall, who examined Thomas' body to determine the cause of death, was issued about 21/2 months after he died.

"This portion of the upper airway is completely occluded [closed or obstructed]," Hall said in the report, dated Aug. 28.

Thomas was in jail on a robbery charge. His family, who blames his death on the lack of medical care and access to care, has hired attorney Sharon L. Silver of Islandia, who has initiated a wrongful-death lawsuit against Suffolk County, its health department and the sheriff's office. The family seeks $250 million in damages.

In the notice of claim, the first stage of a lawsuit, the family alleged, among other things, that the county was negligent and careless.

"Had he been going to the medical unit every day, he would be alive right now," Thomas' mother, Jannie Butler, 47, said in an interview. "His death could have been prevented."

Representatives for County Executive Steve Bellone, Health Commissioner James Tomarken and Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said they do not comment on pending lawsuits.

Thomas' death is still under investigation by the state Commission of Correction, Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Monday.

In April 2011, an automobile accident left Thomas with injuries that included collapsed lungs, his mother said. In July 2011, doctors implanted the tracheal tube to help Thomas breathe. With the help of a suction machine, she said, Thomas cleaned the tracheal tube himself while he was living at home for nearly nine months without any problems until April 17, when he was sent to jail.

The machines are not allowed in the cells with inmates.

During the two months Thomas was incarcerated, his mother said, she and Thomas repeatedly complained to the jail that he had difficulty breathing because his tracheal tube wasn't suctioned on a regular basis.

On May 28, the jail's medical staff ordered that Thomas get care for his tracheal tube daily, according to Silver. That didn't happen, she said.

Medical records released by the jail showed that Thomas was seen sporadically by the jail's medical staff. Silver said Thomas was seen twice -- on May 30 and June 9 -- in 16 days before he died.

He died June 12 after a nurse practitioner found him unresponsive but breathing in his bed.

Within minutes, Thomas had no pulse and he was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, where he was pronounced dead.

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