The family of a 54-year-old homeless woman who struggled with alcoholism and hanged herself with the chords of a television set in the Jefferson County Jail in 2017 has filed a wrongful-death federal lawsuit against the sheriff, two deputies and the county commissioners.
The woman, Susanne Burgaz, three times tried to fashion a noose from the chords that hung from the back of the television mounted on the wall of a prisoner dayroom that deputies were supposed to monitor. Burgaz was found hanging from the chords in a seated position on Aug. 31, 2017, at about 10 p.m., a half hour after video cameras showed she succeeded in tying the noose.
Earlier in the day, she had appeared in court on a pair of misdemeanor charges and was to be released. Jefferson County sheriff’s jail deputies, however, later told her there appeared to be other offenses in a different jurisdiction that would keep her in jail. Burgaz had a history of minor offenses for which she did not appear in court, resulting in warrants for her arrest.
She died two days after deputies found her hanging at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood after doctors removed her from life support. She had suffered anoxic brain injury from the hanging. At the time she was jailed, she listed her home as St. Francis Center in Denver, a homeless shelter.
A review of the incident by Jefferson County District Attorney Peter Weir found the guards were not criminally negligent.
The lawsuit was filed by Burgaz’s daughter Erika Zommer of Pennsylvania, Burgaz’s son, Kristian Arnold, and her daughter Amelia Eudailey, both of Colorado.
Spokespersons for the sheriff’s office and county commissioners did not immediately respond to efforts to reach them.
“When society criminalizes poverty, mental illness, and other public health issues, this is the end result,” the family’s attorney, Zachary Warren, said in an emailed statement. “In this case, a 54-year-old woman was being held in custody solely because she was poor, and officers failed to protect her during her time of need.”
Video footage showed Deputy Joseph Scalise had walked by the dayroom without looking into the room to see Burgaz hanging herself, the lawsuit stated.
The suit says Burgaz was listed among inmates known to be suicidal, the result of a prior Jefferson County arrest, and should have been monitored closely. Deputy Petrina Pesapane gave Burgaz the news of her continued incarceration and put her in the dayroom, according to the lawsuit.
The suit says Scalise filed an incident report noting he had looked into all the rooms on his rounds and nothing seemed abnormal.
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