When people die in the custody of Louisvilles jail, the city eventually tells the public a few things: A name, an age, a sex, what charges the person was held on and, sometimes, a manner of death.
Between Nov. 29, 2021 and Oct. 3, 2022, the span of less than a year, the city sent out 12 jail death notifications. According to city officials, before the surge in deaths, Louisville Metro Department of Corrections averaged three in-custody deaths per year for the previous decade and a half.
Absent from the sterile notifications sent out by the city is who the people were, the paths that landed them in jail and who they are survived by. Also absent is the fact that of the 12, at least four were homeless, and ended up at Louisvilles already struggling jail as a result of crimes related to their homelessness. One man ended up at LMDC after he was arrested for panhandling at a South End gas station; All four homeless individuals had bonds placed on them that they were incapable of paying.
In recent weeks, LEO Weekly spoke to friends and family of three homeless people who died in the custody of Metro Corrections during that deadly year. Here are their stories.
THOMAS TJ BRADSHAW, 43Last August, when Jenny Griesbaum heard that her friend TJ was in a coma following a suicide attempt at Louisvilles jail, she struggled to understand what he could have been arrested for.
The TJ she knew years ago didnt have a violent bone in his body. Shed never seen him get angry or raise his voice. Did he steal something maybe?
He was very gentle. Sweet. I just couldnt imagine him even going to jail, she said.
Griesbaum met TJ back around 1996 when she was 18 and they instantly bonded over a love of music. She introduced him to death metal bands like Entombed and Slayer; He would always bring around mixtapes packed with good songs. TJ had ambitions of a career in music and, for a while, they formed a band, but it didnt go anywhere.
Griesbaum remembers how TJ would quote the 1994 film Forrest Gump by saying he and her were like peas and carrots and by stylizing her first name as Jen-nay just like Tom Hanks character pronounced it.
I never heard the end of it, said Griesbaum.
Theyd walk around Louisvilles South End, where they both lived, talking about life. Sometimes theyd go to Cherokee Park with a radio and a blanket to spend the afternoon sitting on the grass listening to music. Hed smoke weed, but he didnt really drink and didnt do any hard drugs.
He was caring. He was a sweet guy. We never had anything bad between us at all, she said. He was like one of my best friends during that frame. Wed hang out almost every day.
Griesbaum said TJ worked odd jobs in construction and roofing, but struggled to find a set path in life.
As happens, she lost touch with him around 2003 or 2004 when she moved back to her native Indiana and started a family.
Then, in 2015, she saw TJ at a friend reunion at Iroquois Park.
He looked a little rougher than I remembered, like he probably hadnt been taking real good care of himself, she said.
They hung out for a couple of days around the time of the reunion, but those were the last conversations shed have with him.
Later, when shed ask about TJ on Facebook, people who knew him would write back saying he was living on the streets of Louisville and didnt look too good. She told them that if anybody saw him, they should pass her number to him so she could bring him to lunch or at least check up on him.
In August of this year, TJ died several days after attempting suicide by hanging at LMDC. He had been arrested by a Louisville Metro Police Department officer for panhandling in front of the Circle K on South 3rd Street next to the I-264 off-ramp, an area where homeless people frequently congregate. He had been arrested other times in recent years, mostly for shoplifting items from local pharmacies and convenience stores. He was held in jail on a $1,000 bond for his panhandling trespassing charge as well as open bench warrants related to other criminal charges for which he had failed to return to court.
One of the warrants that led to his incarceration was tied to a November 2019 arrest for allegedly stealing a couple sandwiches, a flashlight, a hat and gloves from a Speedway gas station convenience store on West Jefferson Street.
Christen Tiny Markwell, founder of the homeless outreach group Forgotten Louisville, only ever knew TJ during his life on the streets.
Over the years she knew him, TJ would move around the South End, finding a new place to live whenever he got run off from his previous spot; An encampment down by the train tracks off of Crittenden Drive, on the porch of an abandoned house on 5th Street or in a tent near the Circle K where he was arrested for the last time.
He was a staple at Forgotten Louisvilles weekly distributions of food, clothing and supplies like Sterno heaters and camping-size propane tanks. Those distributions often take place at the same gas station where TJ was arrested.
He was just so sweet. Hes just like a really big kid, said Markwell. And so my memory of him is this sweet, big old kid. But he was just always so broken.
There were things that pointed to normalcy in his life at one point in time: whenever volunteers were handing out Vans branded clothing hed light up and he loved talking about riding dirt bikes when he was a teenager.
But, for all the time she knew him, TJ was in the clutches of heroin addiction, Markwell said. Oftentimes, hed tearfully open up to her, talking about the trauma of losing his parents and his fears about the life he was living.
I cant live this life anymore, hed tell Markwell. These streets are going to kill me.
While the streets were brutal, there was also compassion to be found. Markwell said TJ had people looking out for him, and sometimes shed get calls from concerned friends on cold nights asking if she could bring him a blanket. And TJ also looked out for others, telling her about homeless people he knew who needed supplies or needed to be checked in on.
In the moment, Markwell said, TJ was interested in being connected with services and getting off the street. But as is the case for many on the street, it was hard for him to take the next step.
I personally get told all the time: Tiny, you can lead a horse to the water, but you cant make them drink it. But if I keep showing up, theyre going to be thirsty some day. So I keep showing up, said Markwell.
In 2019, TJ was featured in a WHAS documentary about addiction in Louisville. With creases on his face, he looks significantly older than the 40-years-old he was at the time of filming, and cries at points while talking.
Ive been a drug addict for 17 years. I watched my mom pass away. I watched my dad pass away from alcohol. Im slowly watching my friends pass away too, he said of his life in the documentary.
He also expressed hope, telling the camera: So what Im doing now is Im digging a hole so damn deep, man, but Im crawling up out of it slowly.
After Griesbaum learned TJ was in a coma, she reached out to his sisters and went to see him at the hospital. She said she was there as he was taken off of life support and staff lined the hallways as a walk of honor before his organs were donated.
TJ was another person lost, like others who died in Louisvilles jail, in the churning undertow of a self-proclaimed compassionate city. He was a homeless person in the throes of substance use disorder who was arrested for what amounted to petty crimes tied to his addiction and living situation. He was handed a bail he was unable to pay, ensuring that he would be sent to a jail that had, at the time of his incarceration, already seen nine deaths in the previous nine months. And even if he did manage to pay the bail, a judge stipulated that he would have to go on home incarceration, despite not having a home to go to.
Markwell does the work that she does in the hopes that people like TJ are not rendered forgotten or invisible in Louisville.
TJ was somebodys son. He was somebodys father. He was somebodys brother, she said. And we lose that when we just think of somebody flying a sign or somebody who is passed out drunk on the sidewalk. It blows my mind that people drive past that every single day without stopping and seeing if somebodys okay.
BUDDY STEVENS, 39On his good days, when he was on his meds, Buddy Stevens was a dedicated husband and father. But when he was off his meds, he would go off the deep end and was difficult to deal with as mental illness took control.
Buddy was a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions that he was being followed and that people were out to get him, according to his family. He would hear voices, but they did not tell him to hurt himself. When he was on his meds, his mental illness was manageable. But when he was off them, his wife Kasey felt like she was dealing with a third child.
His continued refusal to stay on his medication led to the couple separating in 2020. Buddy moved out of their Western Kentucky home, and eventually, he found his way to Louisville, and to the street.
When he was in Louisville, it was hard for Kasey to keep in touch with him. Sometimes hed send a message from somebody elses phone or social media profile, but it was hit or miss if hed still be around when Kasey responded. The last time he sent one of those messages was in late July. Kasey responded, but didnt hear anything back.
Kasey didnt hear anything back because Buddy was in jail, arrested by LMPD on Aug. 8 for breaking into a building in Old Louisville. According to an arrest citation, the buildings owner called police to the building after seeing a window busted out, believing that people were inside. When he was arrested, Buddy told officers he had entered the building the day before. The Aug. 8 arrest was one of several burglary and trespassing charges Buddy faced in 2022.
I believe thats because he was homeless, he was looking for somewhere to sleep, said Kasey of his last arrest.
He was held in pre-trial detention on a $5,000 cash bond.
In the early hours of Sept. 22, more than a month after he was taken into custody, Buddy hanged himself. At the time, he was the 11th person to die in the custody of Metro Corrections in the span of less than 10 months.
After Buddys suicide, Kasey said a Louisville detective and the coroners office were quick to return her calls. But since then, she and her mother Debbie Stevens have struggled to get answers from the city or even get anybody to pick up the phone.
Its like were just another number because of everything theyve got going on, said Kasey.
Kasey and Debbie worry that Buddy was not properly monitored and did not receive proper mental health care when he was incarcerated.
I dont think the jail gave him the mental help that he needed, said Debbie. Were going to try to get the report to see if mental evaluations were done on him. Were in the process of trying to get that information, but if they were actually doing mental evaluations on him, he would have been under watch. He wouldnt have been in a single cell by himself.
LMDC did not respond to requests for comment about the circumstances surrounding Buddys death.
Kasey cant shake the feeling that something is off. Her husband of 12 years haunts her dreams. He threatened to harm himself once when they were together, but backed down his delusions were more about fears of being harmed by others than of wanting to harm himself. She cant imagine that his mental state would have gone unnoticed by officers.
When hes in that mental state of mind, hes not quiet. He will weep and cry loud. And beg for help. Hes not quiet about it, she said. Thats what I dont get.
Living in Muhlenberg County, more than two hours away from Louisville, has made Kaseys ordeal even more difficult as she cant simply show up at city government offices and demand answers (though she did that once anyways and again felt like she got a run-around). She and her mother reached out to a few lawyers for help; the one who seemed to be the best fit said they were too busy to get involved with the case until the new year.
For now, they are left in limbo.
Something has got to give, not just for me Ive got an 8 and a 10-year old that he leaves behind, that dont understand why the people in jail didnt help him, said Kasey. I mean, how do you explain that to an 8 and a 10-year old?
While they lack answers, both Debbie and Kasey say they know that there is something seriously wrong at the jail given the number of deaths.
The system is broke somehow. You dont have that many people die in a years time in jail, said Debbie.
Like other loved ones of people who have died at LMDC, Kasey wants to see changes.
Somethings got to be done. Not just for justice for him, but for the other families as well. Nobody deserves to die in jail, said Kasey. I dont care what youre in jail for: Nobody deserves to die in jail like that.
STEPHANIE DUNBAR, 48Stephanie Dunbar was determined to make her own way, even if that meant living in a tent on the streets of Louisville.
When she lost Section 8 housing, her oldest son, Javon, put her up in a hotel for a few months. But when she found out how much it cost him, she worried she was taking away money from her grandchildren and left for the streets.
She preferred the streets to shelters, telling her son that people at shelters messed with her because she was small. Javon would bring her supplies and kept insisting on getting her bigger and bigger tents when they would inevitably get filled with clutter. In all, he bought her five tents.
I wanted her at least to be comfortable, he said. That was her decision to continue living homeless, and I couldnt force her to come back, so I at least wanted her to be comfortable. It just eats me up to this day.
While Stephanie had little money, Javon said she would buy other homeless people food when shed run into them in stores.
This woman would give you the shirt off her back in the winter time, said Javon.
He asked her to move in with him, but she declined. She wanted to get back on her feet. She wanted to get an apartment where three of her sons who were incarcerated could go after they were released.
Then she got arrested a block away from an I-65 underpass in Old Louisville, charged with 2nd degree assault for causing serious physical injury on another person with a knife, according to an arrest citation. Dunbar family attorney Trenton Burns told LEO Weekly that the incident was the result of somebody trying to take her belongings.
Three days later, she committed suicide at LMDC, hanging herself with a pair of jail-issued trousers. For the last 18 hours of her life, she was held in a cramped attorney booth that lacked a bed, running water or a toilet. Despite LMDC policy mandating that detox inmates like Stephanie be checked on every 20 minutes, an internal investigation concluded she was largely forgotten about and officers only looked in on her when they happened to walk by. One of those officers who walked by gave Stephanie the middle finger.
To Javon, 34, it is the system the system that took away her kids, that saw her put on the streets, that had her locked away and forgotten about in an attorney booth that killed his mother.
No kid should have to go through what we are going through because of the simple fact that the system let her down, he said. If it wasnt for the system letting her down so many times, she would still be here.
Taken away from his mother by the state when he was 13, Javon spent most of his life away from her. At one point, he didnt see her for ten years.
She was just a caring person, a loving person. Had some hard times coming up. No help. And very independent, he said. And the little time I did get to spend with her as a child, she was hard working and dedicated to our family. Made sure we ate, clothes on our back, roof over our heads. And we were never in no itty bitty apartment, she always kept us in a big apartment because there were so many of us.
As an adult, most of his recent memories of his mother are from trying to help her get off the street when he would travel back and forth between Louisville and Tennessee, where he was living.
As a strong, Black, independent woman she did her thing for years. She survived for years. And I used to tell myself waking up trying to figure out where she was and not knowing where she was, I used to be like: As long as she was living, I was okay. So when I got the phone call, it devastated me. And I havent been straight ever since, he said.
Back in Tennessee after his mom died at LMDC, Javon says he was robbed at gunpoint. He had set up a GoFundMe to cover his mothers funeral expenses. When the assailant pulled a gun on him, he told Javon he knew he had money because of the GoFundMe and brought him to an ATM to pull out cash. Javon worried he was not going to escape the encounter alive.
All because I was trying to bury my mom because Louisville failed to protect her, he said.
Since his mothers death, Javon feels like his mind is racing 1,001 thoughts in a second. He has trouble sleeping, so he took a third shift job on top of the two jobs he already has. From the moment he got the phone call that his mother was dead a year ago, he feels like a different person.
Last year, he started spending more and more time in Louisville trying to help out his mother and siblings. With his mother dead, he lives in Louisville full-time, uprooting his life in Tennessee and moving away from his children. His mother used to be the one who would care for his siblings in Louisville, there for lifes difficult moments like trips to the emergency room when needed, or navigating the court system. But now he feels that responsibility on his shoulders.
If she was still living, I would not be here right now. Because she would have a place to stay and my brothers would have a place to go, he said.
For his three incarcerated brothers, he makes sure they have money in their commissary accounts and support. After his mothers death, he worries even more about the conditions they face behind bars and how they are faring. One of his brothers in prison went silent when their mom died; Javon keeps putting money on his commissary and writing him letters, but doesnt hear anything back. The prison wont tell him anything except that he is alive and being held at their facility.
Javon tries not to go out at night. He fears that as a Black man in Louisville, it can be easy to end up in jail.
My mom died in that jail. So if I become another Black man to come up in there and then they know her last name is the same as mine .I dont know if theyre going to treat me worse than what they treated her, he said.
They disrupted my whole life, he added.
An internal Metro Corrections investigation into Stephanies death found that eight LMDC officers had violated the jails observation policy. Two more were found to have forged observation sheets, saying they were conducting checks on certain parts of the jail when they were actually elsewhere in the facility. And one officer was found to have violated LMDCs code of conduct and code of ethics when she gave Dunbar the middle finger.
An LMDC spokesperson told LEO Weekly in July that several officers were disciplined and received suspensions of between two and 15 days.
The punishment isnt enough for Javon.
I dont look to get back, get even with nobody, but I do look for justice, he said. For them to be walking freely and my moms dead and our life is corrupted, its not fair. Its not fair at all. No way possible. They neglected her, abandoned her and treated her as if she was a dog that wasnt cared for.
In March, Javon filed a lawsuit against the jail and its healthcare provider, Wellpath. According to Javon, the city is looking to settle, but keeps asking him to come up with a number. But he feels like that is not justice and that the city wants to pay out to quiet him, a situation he fears will result in what happened to his mother happening to somebody else.
Justice is punishing the officers with the appropriate punishment, not just suspensions. They dont need to be working and caring for nobody no human beings, he said. They should have something on their record where they cant work with people. They should not have nobodys life in their hands. None of them.
Of the 12 people that died at Louisvilles jail in a ten-month stretch, at least a third were homeless like Stephanie. To Javon, those who went from the street to a cell had little chance of fair treatment.
I feel as if once they enter into jail and the officers are used to these people knowing they have no help from the outside, I feel like they treat them like crap. They dont care, he said. And thats not right. Because somebody out there cares; they just didnt get to them in time.
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