Multnomah County inmate's drug death sparks indictments
Sheriff Michael Reese and county health officials have been working to turn Multnomah County jails into a tool to break the cycle of drug addiction and to reduce crime in greater Portland. But those changes won't come soon enough for Richard Jason Forrest.
A graduate of Taft High School in Lincoln City, Forrest died at the age of 37 on July 25, 2019, after suffering what authorities called a 'medical emergency' at Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland.
Earlier this month, in response to a records request, officials for the first time confirmed a long-rumored drug link: the county medical examiner's autopsy found Forrest died from the "combined toxic effects of methamphetamine and heroin."
This while he was serving time in Multnomah County's Inverness Jail.
While many inmates bring drugs into the jail hidden in their anus, vagina, or both, there's no reason to think that's how Forrest obtained the drugs that killed him. That's because he spent three months in the secure confines of Inverness since his April 29 booking. In theory, he should have long kicked any habit — perhaps giving him a shot at changing his lifestyle to better care for his wife and two boys, ages 5 and 15.
A death, then indictments
The story of Forrest's death and its aftermath, based on interviews and documents obtained by The Portland Tribune, shows how local authorities in the last six months quietly have been forced to come to grips with what sheriff's employees have long said privately: Multnomah's jails at times are awash in heroin, meth or other illegal drugs accessible to any inmate willing to pay the price — a free tattoo, a sex act, money, candy bars, whatever.
As a result, in a city where a large portion of crime is driven by addiction, local jails are not helping people get clean the way they could be.
So common were drugs at the time of Forrest's death that an investigation led by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Special Investigations Unit found no less than a dozen people had been actively smuggling drugs into Inverness.
The Forrest investigation directly led to prosecutors filing indictments against 12 individuals on Aug. 30, 2019, a Portland Tribune records request confirmed.
New safeguards going into effect this year should help. Multnomah's elected Sheriff Mike Reese recently purchased two X-ray body scanners. That was several years after sheriff's employees internally began recommending the agency do so. Led by Washington County, other county jails in Oregon started purchasing the machines in 2017.
"Wow," said Elmer Dickens Jr., a lawyer for Washington County, when told of the dozen indictments related to Forrest's death. Dickens spearheaded Washington County's purchase of a scanner, and he said Multnomah's new body scanners should help.
"I think it will likely have a big impact," he said. "They'll be finding stuff that they would have never found before."
Drugs inside the walls
Forrest was booked April 29 for violating probation. He had convictions for burglary, drug possession and car theft in his past. He'd last been indicted in 2015.
Every man and woman booked in Multnomah County jail undergoes a strip search overseen by a corrections deputy of the same gender. Jails are supposed to be safe places, where inmates with substance-use disorders can rehabilitate, and where they don't have access to recreational, illegal narcotics.
That doesn't always happen. In the first three weeks of March 2015, for instance, a wave of fentanyl overdoses swept the jail, the final one fatal. That helped lead to the federal conviction of Channing Lacey, then 30, who'd smuggled the potent opioid into the jail concealed in her vagina.
Another inmate died of overdose later that year. But the vast majority of overdoses that happen inside Multnomah's jails are not fatal and never become public.
Inmates can hide all kinds of things: drugs, paraphernalia, tobacco, even small motors with which to make tattoos — one of the pricier commodities behind bars.
A spokesman for Sheriff Reese said the jail does not track amounts of illegal narcotics seized inside the jail or how many inmates have been cited on a year-to-year basis.
But according to current and former corrections deputies, it's always been a big problem. One recently departed former Multnomah deputy, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Inverness has a dorm set up for inmates who enter programs to kick their addiction. But the deputy said inmates in that dorm complained that they could not stay clean because so many people in the dorm were using illegal narcotics.
"Even in the sobriety dorm, we can't keep drugs out," the deputy said.
Drugs in the jails are "quite commonplace," said another former deputy.
Tim Moore, a former Multnomah Chief Deputy Sheriff, said drugs frequently and "routinely" infiltrate the jails. Often it's an inmate overdose that tells managers it's time to crack down.
Reese's Chief Deputy Steve Alexander, for his part, said finding drugs inside the jails is "more the exception than the rule," but acknowledged part of the problem is finding it. "If we can find a way to hold people accountable, we're going to hold them accountable to the full extent of the law," he said.
The recently departed former deputy said that, due to lack of staffing, Multnomah's jails typically shake down a dorm once per month, not the once-a-week cycle that it used to be.
Alexander, however, said that's not true. "Shakedowns and individuals' cell searches are a regular part of business. I mean, that's something that happens on a daily basis. … Every week we're doing a couple of shakedowns in a dorm or a module."
Work crews work the system
Sporting orange outfits, Multnomah County's inmate work crews can be seen throughout the county, picking up trash along highways or cleaning up illegal dumps or homeless encampments.
Forrest lived in Dorm 9 at Inverness; sleeping quarters for inmates who participate in the work crews. There are typically about one sergeant and 13 deputies overseeing 10 crews, each numbering between four and seven inmates.
In the wake of Forrest's death, deputies tossed his dorm and found, not just drugs, but syringes, lighters, pipes and other contraband.
Six days after his death, on Aug. 1, 2019, investigators got a tip from a confidential informant; prosecutors filed their first indictment on Aug. 5 against Stephanie Alice Bauer. A prosecutor's court affidavit alleged Bauer was "supplying narcotics to the inmate population at Inverness Jail," and "Bauer and her boyfriend had been planning and executing missions to get heroin inside of the jail using drop sites nearby and having inmates on the work crew pick up packages that were left for them."
Drug deliveries were arranged using jail telephones and paid for using the jail's system of inmate accounts. Bauer would withdraw money from inmate accounts to pay for the narcotics, according to the affidavit.
The amount of drugs Bauer and her boyfriend allegedly were trafficking was not small: She was busted with 75 grams of heroin, and the affidavit noted she and her boyfriend were caught with 275 grams of meth and about 250 grams of meth just a few months before.
One of the indictments filed since Bauer remains secret and has not been publicly disclosed, Tribune reporting confirms. All 12 indictments issued in connection with the Forrest's death similarly allege the crime of supplying contraband — smuggling into a jail — or conspiracy to do so. The 11 public defendants have pleaded not guilty, and none have reached trial yet.
The alleged ring hid ingestable packets of heroin and meth under rail ties near an equipment shed just outside the confines of Inverness that was used by work crews, and the drugs smuggled using the scheme "resulted in the death of an inmate," Deputy District Attorney Mariel Mota told Judge Andrew Lavin in a hearing last month.
The indictments have contributed to an upsurge in contraband indictments in Multnomah; the figure roughly doubled in 2019 as compared to 2017 and 2018, records show.
The Forrest death investigation remains an ongoing one, said Brent Weisberg, communications director for Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill.
"The existence of contraband, particularly drugs, inside a jail is very concerning," he said. "Not only can it create a dangerous hierarchy and safety concerns within the jail population, but the presence of controlled substances inside a jail can expose individuals to significant health issues, especially for those in custody with an addiction. ... We remain committed to ensuring our jails are safe and that the wellbeing of the individuals in custody is protected."
Lawyers for Forrest's family, John Devlin and Drake Aehegma, called for outside agency to investigate his death last year. "We still believe that there should be an independent investigation," Devlin said.
Work crews have long been a primary entry point for drugs into the jails, along with booking and the U.S. mail, jail officials concede.
Alexander declined to say what, if anything, the jails are doing differently as a result of Forrest's death. "We've made specific changes to the way we do business as a whole with work crews," he said, adding that adaptation "is an ongoing thing. … It's a constant battle."
Now, with body scanners, they'll have a new tool.
Body scanners, finally
Following the wave of jail fentanyl overdoses of 2015, investigators recommended that Sheriff Reese invest in body scanners to address the situation, according to one informed source.
The corrections deputies union, meanwhile, has been urging the same thing for at least that long, said Mark Bunnell, the union president.
"It's been years," he said. "'They're expensive:' That was always their response. They finally, last year, decided to foot the bill."
Chief Deputy Sheriff Chad Gaidos said he was part of a group that studied the machines in 2013 and 2014, rejecting them as too large and saying the quality was not up to snuff.
However, Chief Deputy Sheriff Steve Alexander was part of a group in July 2018 that recommended the sheriff purchase them after watching one at work in the Yamhill County jail. Last June, after months of procurement paperwork, Sheriff Reese signed off on purchasing two machines, Alexander said, thus following in the footsteps of his counterparts in Clackamas, Crook, Josephine, Lane, Polk, Wallowa, Washington and Yamhill counties.
Combined, the scanners cost $330,000; one will be placed at the downtown Multnomah County Justice Center, the other at Inverness for use with work crews.
Why did it take so long? "Simply put, these purchases take a while," said Chris Liedle, Reese's communications director. "We needed to carefully select the process of purchase and secure funding."
In a statement, Reese said, "We care deeply for the adults in our custody and want to create a safe environment for them, as well as our deputies and staff. Preventing contraband in our jails is an ongoing challenge, and we use whatever technologies and system processes we can to achieve that."
Jails to break the cycle?
Last week, Multnomah County Health Officer Paul Lewis sat in his office, gearing up for his official retirement ceremony after six years at the county. He said the one thing he'll most miss is a new project with Reese to use a recently obtained $1.2 million federal grant to turn the county's jails into a tool to better provide care, treatment counseling and housing to the people with substance-use disorders who cycle through the jails, to break their addiction.
"The sheriff and I really believe that there's a huge opportunity there," Lewis said, "That's an opportunity for the county to contribute in improving the quality of lives for those individuals and for the rest of the community."
Lewis pointed to a diagram on his screen depicting the relationship of addiction, release from jail, relapse and crime, and how targeted services in the jail could help reduce that in Portland.
"We want to crack that cycle," he said, adding "Access to illegal drugs in jail would not be a good part of this system."
This article has been amended to clarify that one of the 12 indictments issued in this case has not been publicly filed.
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