Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of suicide and self-harm. If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, support is available 24 hours a day at the national suicide crisis lifeline. Just call 988 to talk to a trained listener or text HELLO to 741741.
Melissa Howtopat picked up a call from her son in the Klickitat County Jail in May. He expected to spend the next 15 days in jail, and he wanted his parents to meet him when he got out.
“He was like ‘Can you pick me up? Or can dad pick me up? Because that way I won’t go to the drug house,’” Melissa Howtopat recalled her son saying from the jail phone, worried he would return to fentanyl.
Days later, Ivan Howtopat died in jail by suicide. Melissa and her husband Donovan have since been grappling with how their 24-year-old son ended up dead and questioning whether the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office properly cares for inmates feeling the pangs of drug withdrawal.
They argue Ivan Howtopat should have been taken to the hospital, where he could be supervised while his body fought the effects of the powerful opioid.
“When he was arrested, my dad told the arresting officers that he needed help because he was severely addicted,” Melissa Howtopat said. “You can’t just throw him in there and forget about him.”
Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer, who oversees the jail, did not respond to requests for comment.
The family has hired a law firm but has not filed any official complaints in court. However, the attorneys said that jail staff did nothing to help Ivan Howtopat detox even though they were aware he was a fentanyl user.
“Ivan’s death is tragic, but especially so because it was preventable,” wrote Corinne Sebren in a statement.
Klickitat Sheriff’s deputies arrested Ivan Howtopat on May 15 in the town of Goldendale. He had fentanyl in his system, records show, when the deputies attempted to stop him while he was riding a bicycle.
Arresting deputies actually mistook Howtopat for a different man with a felony warrant. They didn’t learn who he was – or that he, too, had a felony warrant — until after they arrested him. Howtopat had fled on his bike, crashed it, and ran into a backyard where he was arrested.
The deputies cited him for his warrant and for resisting arrest, records show.
According to records, jail staff couldn’t book Howtopat into the jail right away because he was “hard to wake” and “not cooperative.” A screening noted he had a dependency on fentanyl.
Fellow inmates later told investigators that Howtopat was reeling from withdrawal and expressing intense discomfort. At one point, Howtopat asked a fellow inmate to break his arm so he could go to a hospital.
“I’m looking at him like, dude, they’re not going to let you out of here. They’re going to bring you right back,” John Raczykowski told investigators. “He’s like, ‘I just can’t take it in here.’ And I said, ‘Dude, just calm down, your worst enemy is your mind.’”
Raczykowski also recalled Howtopat crying during a card game and asking about methods of suicide.
“I asked him, like, ‘You’re not going to do anything?’ And he said, ‘I’m tired,’” Raczykowski said.
Howtopat spent five days in jail by the time corrections deputies found him dead in his cell on May 20. Video footage shows about an hour elapsed between checks by deputies. A medical examiner said his injuries were consistent with someone hanging for nearly that long.
A 2019 investigation into Northwest jail deaths by OPB and the Northwest News Network found that around 40% of the deaths happen within the first week someone is incarcerated. The analysis of a decade of data also found nearly half of all jail deaths were the result of suicide.
To family members, jail staff should have flagged Howtopat immediately and ensured he received medical treatment. They question whether jail staff followed best practices.
“They weren’t qualified, I guess. I feel like they weren’t qualified at all to even take him into their jail,” Melissa Howtopat said.
County jails often look to outside organizations to help implement care for inmates with substance abuse disorders. It was not immediately clear what policies Klickitat County has in place at its jail.
Sebren, the family’s attorney, raised a number of concerns with Howtopat’s time at the jail. She said the family had to fight to get a copy of his medical assessment in jail.
Sebren argued the medical assessment has multiple discrepancies. It wasn’t conducted by a medical professional, but rather the same corrections deputy who said Howtopat couldn’t be woken up at his arrival.
Another discrepancy: The medical assessment said Howtopat never “attempted or seriously considered suicide.” Records provided by the jail show he had many run-ins with the law over the years, including multiple instances described as a “suicide attempt.”
Sebren contended jail staff should have looked at Howtopat more closely on intake.
“These are all red flags where people should have said, ‘Hey, do we need to check him out? Do we need to ask other questions?’” Sebren said.
The sheriff’s office did allow Donovan Howtopat to perform a cleansing ceremony within the jail cell. And Melissa Howtopat said the family is now trying to raise money for a headstone.