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Dying in jail, ‘better than a cold alley.’ Is there another option?

Detaining people for public intoxication is a tool Torrington police use to keep people safe, but a death in the county jail raises questions about the policy and the lack of alternatives in Wyoming.

Torrington Police officers brought Wesley Moorehouse to the Torrington Community Hospital for medical clearance the night he was booked into the Goshen County Detention Center. He died the next morning. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

by Tennessee Watson, WyoFile

TORRINGTON—Lt. Wes Deen was working at his desk when he heard an inmate was unresponsive in holding cell No. 3. He hurried through the two doors that separate his office from the cell area at the Goshen County Detention Center to see if he could help. 

Two deputies were already performing chest compressions while the jail’s nurse administered breaths to Wesley Moorehouse. The 66-year-old man had been found unresponsive under a blanket in bed. The bed — a knee-high cement platform with a thin mattress — was a hard enough surface to perform CPR without pulling him onto the floor. 

Deen, the lieutenant in charge at the jail, remembers EMTs hooking Moorehouse up to the Lucas Machine — a device that provides mechanical chest compressions — before transporting him to the emergency room. 

Despite those efforts, staff at the Torrington Community Hospital were unable to revive Moorehouse. 

“In the 19 years, I’ve been working here, that’s the first in-custody death we’ve had,” Deen said. “It’s very unfortunate.” 

Shortly after Wesley Moorehouse was pronounced dead at 12:09 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2022, Deen was on the phone with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. The state agency reviews in-custody deaths upon request, and Deen wanted an outside perspective. 

“The Goshen County Sheriff’s Office, we don’t investigate our own stuff,” said Deen, a broad-shouldered man with a gray goatee. 

Lt. Wes Deen said Wesley Moorehouse was the first person to die in the county jail in his 19 years with the Goshen County Sheriff’s Office. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

In making his request for an investigation, Deen explained to DCI that “Moorehouse had been charged with Public Intoxication, but the Portable Breathalyzer Test had shown a relatively low blood alcohol content of .036,” according to the agency’s eventual report. That’s less than half of the legal limit for driving in Wyoming.

The state agency’s investigation involved interviews with jail staff and a review of video footage from Moorehouse’s 12 hours in the Goshen County Detention Center, a beige and brick low-slung building. 

During hourly cell checks, Moorehouse slept, “occasionally snoring loudly,” according to an interview with one deputy. 

At around 9:17 a.m. Moorehouse woke in distress, the video showed, but the details are redacted in the DCI report to protect the dead man’s health privacy. He was still alive during a cell check at 10:49 a.m., according to the investigation. 

But when it was time for lunch at 11:30 a.m., Moorehouse was unresponsive. 

The county coroner ruled the death was of natural causes — hypertensive cardio disease with contributing factors of smoking and alcohol use.

Per procedure, DCI presented its investigation to Goshen County Attorney Eric Boyer, who cleared Moorehouse’s death of criminal wrongdoing. With no one to prosecute, the case was closed.

Moorehouse was one of six people to die in Wyoming county jails last year.

A heart condition is the simple answer as to why Moorehouse died. But why he died in jail — a 66-year-old man booked for public intoxication when he wasn’t even drunk — is a more complicated question. 

‘Something else going on’

Torrington is an agricultural community on the eastern side of the state. Grain silos ring the edge of town, giving a sense of fortification. Main Street has a quaint collection of crafting stores, a pharmacy, a barbershop, a bakery and several watering holes. The Broncho Bar, with its wooden facade and a window covered in hand-painted cattle brands, is hard to miss. A sign above the door advertises the coldest beer in town. 

The Broncho Bar in downtown Torrington. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

A taxidermied bear welcomes you at the door. A long bar leads back to a dance floor. Moorehouse was a regular here, especially in the months before he died. On a Wednesday afternoon in July, bartender Candis Stewart recalled that Moorehouse would “come in and get a beer and smoke on the patio.”

She pointed to Moorehouse’s usual perch next to the register at the bend in the L-shaped bar. 

“Nice quiet guy with a lot of issues,” Stewart said. “But we all have issues.” 

She was aware of his drinking problem, but “could tell he had something else going on,” referring to his hacking cough. 

She thought his half-brother might know more, pointing down the bar to a slender guy in a baseball cap nursing a shot and a beer. 

Gary Moorehouse had just moved back to Torrington from Connecticut. The last time he remembers seeing his half-brother was in the 1980s. “It was in this bar,” Gary said. “We got in a fight and I kicked his ass. He was a dirtbag and an alcoholic.” 

Wesley Moorehouse was a regular at Torrington’s Broncho Bar. He sat in the same spot every time, recalled a bartender. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Moorehouse started finding trouble as a kid, Gary said. He remembers his half-brother being sent to the Wyoming Boys’ School — a state facility for juvenile offenders. 

It’s possible the roots of his brother’s troubles took hold young. “My mom and stepdad were drunks. We got treated like crap,” Gary said. “[My half-brother] had a hard time getting over it.”  

The only other family member willing to talk about Moorehouse was his son Kevin. His dad was estranged from most of his family, Kevin said, “because he refused to get his life together.” 

Even with heart and lung issues, his dad just kept smoking and drinking, “all of the time,” Kevin said. He wasn’t surprised to get the call informing him that his dad died in jail. 

“I told a friend months before that I kind of expected next time I even hear about him that would be a phone call like that.” 

‘Injured or drunk’

Torrington Police picked up Moorehouse after receiving a report of a male — possibly injured or drunk — lying on the sidewalk in a residential area on the edge of downtown, police reports show. When officers arrived just short of 9 p.m., Moorehouse told them he’d fallen, hurt his knee and hadn’t been able to get up for 30 minutes. 

His words were labored and slow. The officers would sit him up, but without their continued assistance, he’d slowly lay back down. It was 44 degrees that night — warm for January but chilly nonetheless. 

The block where a bystander found Wesley Moorehouse laying on the sidewalk on Jan. 13, 2022. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

What led to Moorehouse’s fall is unclear. He’d been drinking, but when he arrived at the jail around 11 p.m., after a trip to the ER to check out his knee, he had the equivalent of one drink in his system. 

The sheriff’s deputy who booked him into the jail said he couldn’t smell alcohol on Moorehouse, but “he had to be supported and moved slowly and unsteadily,” according to the DCI investigation. 

Unlike driving under the influence, there is no specific blood alcohol concentration that delineates when someone meets the definition of public intoxication. In other words, it’s a judgment call. Deen says if he had been working that night, he would have told the officers who brought Moorehouse to the jail: “no.” 

“If I deem it unnecessary, I’ll refuse to house,” he said, explaining that the sheriff’s office, which oversees the county detention center, doesn’t have to take people arrested by Torrington Police into custody.

“I don’t like the idea of my jail being a detox center,” Deen said, “and that’s what public intox is.”  

A humanitarian arrest

 You don’t actually have to be drunk to be arrested for public intoxication. 

“If you look at the ordinance, it says drunkenness or intoxication,” Torrington Police Chief Matthew Johnson explained. “But it’s behavior based — you know, staggering, slurred speech, unable to stand — those types of indicators of intoxication.” 

No matter the cause of Moorehouse’s inability to get himself off the sidewalk or his slow, labored speech, that was enough for officers to charge him with public intoxication. The ordinance’s ambiguity makes it an important tool, Johnson said. 

“There’s really two applications that we have for public intox,” he said. “One is the disorderly person who has had too much to drink and is disruptive, yelling at people, doing whatever.” The other, “is more of a humanitarian arrest, where we have someone that we know is intoxicated, and we don’t think they’re able to take care of themselves. So we take them into custody so that they have a safe place with somebody monitoring them so that nothing bad happens to them. And that’s very much the issue that we dealt with with Mr. Moorehouse.”

Following Johnson’s logic, if what appeared as intoxication were actually symptoms of heart disease, then all the more reason for officers to get Moorehouse off the street. 

Torrington Police Chief Matthew Johnson. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“I would note that we took him to the emergency room,” where he was medically cleared to go to the jail, Johnson said. 

Medical clearance means “the person has been evaluated,” Johnson said. “They’ve been assessed for any health concerns, and we don’t believe that there’s an immediate health concern that’s endangering them at that point.” 

Hospital staff checked out his injured knee, according to police reports. They also discovered he’d defecated in his pants and gave him a new pair. More detailed health information is redacted in the DCI investigation, making it unclear if he received any other care. 

The Torrington Community Hospital did not respond to a request for information about the standard protocol for clearing someone for detention. 

As to whether officers should have encouraged the hospital to keep Moorehouse longer, Johnson said, law enforcement in Wyoming doesn’t have the authority to challenge the hospital’s decision. “And frankly we shouldn’t. I’m a long way from a medical doctor.” 

After Wesley Moorehouse was found unresponsive in his cell at the Goshen County Detention Center, he was transported to the Torrington Community Hospital, where staff were unable to revive him. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Moorehouse didn’t have permanent housing and was crashing on a buddy’s couch.  Given his inability to walk unsupported and his friend’s unsavory reputation with law enforcement, officers decided jail was the best option, Johnson said. 

As soon as Moorehouse left the hospital, an officer advised him he was under arrest for public intoxication and placed him in handcuffs, according to the police report. He had to keep Moorehouse from falling as he placed him in the patrol car.

“We have a professional and ethical responsibility to provide the best help we can,” Johnson said. “And while I am not happy that Mr. Moorehouse’s last time on this earth was in jail, I also would be incredibly unhappy if our officers hadn’t taken action, and we found him dead in an alley. That would be awful, and not something that I would feel good about, and not the sort of service that we want to provide to a community that we care about.”

Repeat customer

Kevin assumed his dad was wasted, even though he wasn’t. It makes sense why the Torrington Police were operating off the same assumption. 

“It wasn’t his first public intox,” said James Eddington, Torrington’s city attorney. “I’ve been here 34 years and Wesley was one of my first customers.” He’d prosecuted Moorehouse enough that they knew each other by name and said their exchanges outside the courtroom were pleasant. “If I saw him in the post office he’d say ‘Hi, Mr. Eddington,” the lawyer said.    

But what if that well-informed expectation of Moorehouse’s drunkenness overshadowed a health condition? 

“That very well could be,” Deen said. “But the problem with Mr. Moorehouse was he was a known alcoholic, to everybody in law enforcement.”

“I can armchair quarterback this stuff all day, but I wasn’t there at the time,” Deen said. “I wasn’t there with the officers when they decided he needed to go to jail.” 

But it still bothers Deen that Moorehouse’s low blood alcohol level didn’t raise some questions.

“Once I would have seen the .036 I would have said, ‘You’re not drunk,’” Deen said. “So how can you be here?” 

In hindsight, the hospital might have been a better option than jail. “Then hospital staff would have been there,” Deen said, “but I don’t know if they could have done any more than we did.”

Alternatives to the ‘drunk tank’

In 2022, 17.36% of arrests in Goshen County were for public intoxication. That number is 36.01% for Fremont County and 15.09% statewide, according to a Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police report.

Public intoxication is, strictly speaking, a minor municipal crime. Most people charged with it spend a night in jail. But while the individual stakes are usually small, collectively the crime demands significant resources and raises big questions: How should communities handle substance abuse issues? Is the criminal justice system the best tool for solving a mental-health crisis? And if there’s a more effective option, who should pay for it?

Wesley Moorehouse’s usual chair at the Broncho Bar in Torrington. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“I personally and professionally don’t like public intox ordinances,” Deen said because it doesn’t address the underlying substance use issues faced by “repeat customers” like Moorehouse. 

Johnson doesn’t disagree but believes that public intoxication laws serve a purpose when there’s no other way to keep people safe. 

“Wyoming is one of a relatively small number of states that don’t have a medical detox statute,” Johnson said. “A lot of states have a civil procedure, where you place a person on a hold — similar to a mental health hold — related to intoxication so that they can detox in the medical facility. We don’t have that option.”

Where Johnson worked previously in Colorado, Moorehouse — a known alcoholic — could have been a candidate for medically supervised withdrawal, especially because he presented a low threat to public safety.  

“He was literally called in as being too intoxicated to stand,” Johnson. “So we don’t have a motivation for the criminal charge.” 

But without medical detox as an option, Johnson said, police rely on Torrington’s public intoxication ordinance, “that we try to use, as judiciously and appropriately as possible to keep folks safe, and to keep our community safe.”

Deen would love an alternative to the status quo, but he’s skeptical that Wyoming would be willing to invest in such a program. He’s watched the Legislature struggle for years to reform Title 25, Wyoming’s system for involuntary holds on those suffering from mental health issues. 

“We get so much money for Title 25 [from the state] a year,” Deen said, “and probably six months into it, we’re already done.” Then it’s on the county to find a way to cover the costs, he said.

“I understand cost is irrelevant when it comes to human life,” Deen said, “but that’s the first thing that’s going to come up at the legislative level.” 

Rep. Scott Smith (R-Lingle), who represents Torrington, is an advocate for limited government spending. During the 2023 legislative session, he voted against funding a suicide hotline and a measure to allow counties to raise additional revenue to fund EMS services, if approved by voters. 

As for the challenges with alcohol and substance use facing his community, “my initial thought on making changes and funding programs is finding the root cause of the issue of the crisis at hand,” Smith said. “I believe most of the issues we see are facing are more of a spiritual issue than a physical or mental health crisis.” 

Spirituality helps fight “the demons that lie to us,” Smith said. “We should get back to our church communities taking care of the greatest needs.” 

Speaking generally, Deen said he’s frustrated with the lack of problem-solving by elected officials, but he’s also sympathetic. “I think what the thing is, we’ve been doing it the same way for so long that change is hard for people,” Deen said. “I don’t mind change as long as it’s going in the right direction.” 

But he’s not going to stick around to see if that happens. After 24 years in the Navy followed by 19 years with the Goshen County Sheriff’s Office, he plans to retire in April. 

Deen was reluctant to be interviewed because of a bad experience with a reporter while working on an aircraft carrier, but he hopes that by sharing his perspective on what happened to Moorehouse that it helps people see, “that maybe we need a better way to deal with drug use and alcoholism.”

Wesley Moorehouse is one of 35 people who have died in Wyoming county jails since 2011 — the majority of them suicides. In an ongoing investigative series, WyoFile will examine why people die in jail, why the public knows so little about these deaths and how they might be avoided in the future. 

This reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.