It was around 4 a.m. on April 24, 2017, when James Eugene Wippel was arrested in central Oregon.
Police saw him smoking meth in the driver's seat of a car parked outside the Indian Head Casino in Warm Springs.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” the police officer said. “Get out of the car.”
Footage from the officer’s body camera shows police searching and cuffing Wippel.
“We’ll read you Miranda and go from there,” the officer said, before loading him into the back of a Warms Springs police SUV.
Wippel was charged with two counts of possession and one count of distribution. They were similar to the drug charges that he had faced before. But this time would be different.
Two days after he was arrested, he died at the Jefferson County Jail.
In the decade between 2008 and 2018, at least 306 people have died in county jails in Oregon and Washington, according to an investigation by OPB, KUOW and the Northwest News Network, and those deaths continue to happen.
James Wippel’s case is about more than his death, because it is a rare instance of when the criminal justice system tried to hold three of their own accountable. And it illustrates how hard that accountability is to find.
‘A Nice Kid That Got In With The Wrong Crowd’
Wippel grew up in Lake Oswego.
“The place was just adorable,” said Roberta Gorg, a cousin who is among the last of his family. “In fact, they lived right on the lake.”
She said Wippel was born in Salem. He was an only child. His mother died from cancer when he was young.
"Apparently, when Jim was a teenager he got into drugs and he started stealing first from the neighbors,” Gorg said.
“If you didn’t know him, you would think, ‘Wow this is a pretty nice guy,’” said Carroll Gorg, Roberta’s husband.
“He was a nice kid that got in with the wrong crowd,” Roberta chimed in.
Wippel’s arrest record is extensive, primarily drug charges and crimes like theft and burglary. The Gorgs said those crimes were to support his drug addictions.
Wippel’s relatives admit they didn’t know him well because drug use took over his life. But they were close to Wippel’s father, Robert Wippel.
In July 1994, Wippel wrote a letter to his father to apologize for his years in the criminal justice system. He was locked up at the Multnomah County Correctional Facility in Troutdale. The note is written in pencil. The letters, a neat cursive.
I wanted to write you a letter to apologize for my recent actions concerning your property. I realize that any explanation would be futile. The act was totally disrespectful. ... Please forgive me. I’m not making excuses, only asking that you understand that I’m emotionally and mentally disturbed.
The letter concludes:
I won’t bother you until I can make amends for my stupidity. It has nothing to do with you. It’s how I treat everyone. Especially myself. Have a Happy 4th of July. I will write you and let you know, which way my life is heading.
All my love. Jim.
A few years after the letter, Wippel’s father died.
To the Gorgs’ disappointment, Wippel didn’t go to his dad’s funeral.
But at times, they would find fresh flowers on the grave. They’re pretty sure they came from Wippel.
Locked Up In Jefferson County
In 2017, hours after Wippel was arrested for using drugs in the parking lot of the Indian Head Casino, he was booked into the Jefferson County Jail in Madras.
His bail was $7,500, according to surveillance video from inside the jail.
The footage from inside the booking area of the jail shows Wippel clearly answering corrections officers’ questions and trying to call people to bring him bail money.
“I’m not going to be able to call you back,” Wippel said into the phone. “Are you going to be able to bail me out or not?”
On the surveillance video, he walks with a slight limp but otherwise appears healthy.
Jail staff told police, Wippel was on a 72-hour detox. And given the amount of drugs in his system, they were expecting it to be pretty rough.
Shawn Winsor, one of the nurses at the Jefferson County Jail, told police that Wippel had stomach cramps, nausea and aches.
“He was very quiet, because I think he felt so bad,” Winsor said. Wippel told her that for the last two years, he had used a gram of heroin a day.
“It was like somebody was pulling him through a knot hole ass first and shoving him back through again,” Winsor told police. “That’s the vibe I got out of him. That everything hurt.”
On Wippel’s second day in jail, she said, he started vomiting.
The evening of April 25, 2017, three Jefferson County Corrections deputies were on duty overnight: Deputy Michael Durkan, Deputy Cory Skidgel and Cpl. Tony Hansen.
Early in their shift, they knew Wippel wasn’t doing well. Another inmate told the jail staff he could see Wippel was struggling, but Hansen – the commanding officer on duty – reported Wippel “seemed fine.”
Just after midnight, Deputy Skidgel was doing rounds. She came to Wippel’s cell and looked in.
“Mister Wippel, he was housed in [cell] 105,” she would later tell police. “He was laying on his side on his bunk rocking back and forth complaining of stomach pain. I did notice there was blood in the toilet.”
Wippel complained about his stomach and asked for an antacid that night. Skidgel said she expressed her concerns.
“I talked to my Corporal and I said 105 is pretty rough right now; he’s hating life,” she said in an interview. “There’s no nurse on duty in the middle of the night. And so there really isn’t anything we could do other than to observe him.”
“Any discussion about calling medics or anything like that?” Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office Det. Ron Brown asked Skidgel.
“Not to my knowledge,” she said.
During her next round, sometime after 1 a.m., Skidgel said she saw more blood on the floor of Wippel’s cell. It would still be hours before the deputies took any action.
Surveillance video shows around 5:15 a.m., Hansen was in the booking area of the jail talking to one of the same police officers who days earlier arrested Wippel outside the casino.
“What’s he doing?” the officer asked.
“Coding out right now,” Hansen said, seeming to make a sarcastic remark about Wippel’s heart stopping.
“Coding out?” the police officer asked.
“Well, not coding out, but faking a fucking medical emergency,” Hansen said.
Minutes later, Hansen went with Deputy Durkan to Wippel’s cell.
Wippel had soiled himself.
The deputies gave him a clean, bright orange jumpsuit. And took him from cell 105 to another cell in the booking area of the jail. Hansen said it was so they could keep a closer eye on him.
“He got up and walked fine,” Hansen said. “He doesn’t walk as freely as you or I.”
Surveillance video from inside the jail shows Wippel bent over and limping to the new cell. His breathing is loud and labored.
After Wippel’s death, Det. Brown asked Hansen about Wippel’s condition when they transferred him.
“(On the video) I could hear him long before he ever got into booking,” Brown said.
“He did groan a little bit,” Hansen replied.
Deputies gave Wippel a Gatorade, then breakfast. They said Wippel told them he was feeling a little better.
Until he wasn’t.
Hansen said he last checked on Wippel around 7:40 a.m. before going home.
Photos later showed the inside of cell 105. Pools of blood stain the concrete floor next to Wippel's bed. There’s also blood spattered and running down the wall, near where Wippel’s head lay on the lower bunk. Droplets stretch to the toilet on the other side of the room.
Brown asked Hansen about the scene.
“When I looked at the pictures of the cell, 105 – the puddle was pretty big when I saw it,” Brown said.
“Yeah, I don't remember it being that big,” Hansen replied.
“Because there was a spray on the wall about about the size of a basketball on the wall – and running down and then a puddle underneath the bed,” Brown said. “Almost looked like somebody was coughing, throwing up, coughing and throwing up blood at the same time towards the toilet.”
“Okay, I, I don't remember,” Hansen said.
Cpl. Hansen told investigators he only saw blood on the floor. He also told police that there was no discussion of calling paramedics or the jail’s nurse that night.
Hansen and Skidgel told investigators they received little medical training. They said their lack of medical training was a reason they didn’t identify Wippel was having a medical emergency.
“The only thing I was told is that he was detoxing off heroin, really bad,” Skidgel said. “And I’m not familiar with heroin, or how people detox, other than what I’d seen in the movies.”
Medical experts say vomiting blood is not a normal part of heroin withdrawal.
“Generally, when someone is vomiting blood, we send them to the ER and have an expert figure that out,” said Dr. Amanda Risser, the senior medical director for substance use disorder services at Central City Concern, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides services for people experiencing homelessness and struggling with addiction.
She said aches, pains, shakes, vomiting and feeling ill are all a normal part of withdrawing from opiates. Very small flecks of blood can show up in someone who is vomiting profusely and has small vessels in the esophagus burst. But large amounts of blood are not normal.
“I would not expect vomiting blood,” Risser said. “That would not be something that I expect. That would be very far outside normal for opiate withdrawal."
Det. Brown told the Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies, he couldn’t understand why no one there that night called paramedics.
“I'm tryin' to get how we didn't go farther with this,” Brown said. “What's keeping us from doing, like, a 10-second investigation? ‘Holy shit, that's a lot of blood; maybe we should call 911 or, or at least call the nurse.’”
At another point, Brown pushed harder on Hansen.
“Was there ever a point when you thought this guy is really having a real medical emergency ... that this is more than just a detox?” Brown asked.
“I didn't,” Hansen said. “Well, I thought it was rough detox, is what I thought it was."
There’s no overnight medical staff at the Jefferson County Jail. In the morning when a nurse arrived, it had been more than 8 hours since Deputy Skidgel first said she saw blood. The nurse ordered staff to call 911.
EMTs tried to stabilize Wippel in their ambulance before transporting him to an emergency room. But he never stabilized. Instead, he died in the back of an ambulance inside the jail’s sallyport.
An autopsy found Wippel died of a burst ulcer.
A gastroenterologist who reviewed Wippel’s symptoms and the actions taken by deputies found he would’ve “likely survived with timely medical care.” And that “he had signs of serious illness” that a reasonable person without medical training would recognize.
“When he enters that jail, he’s a human being and if he needs medical care, give it to him,“ said Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, whose office would play a critical role in what happened next. “He’s not less of a human being because of the story he carries. That’s true of everybody.”
Investigation, Indictment, and Trial
The investigation into Wippel’s death landed on the desk of Jefferson County District Attorney Steven Leriche.
“Steve called me in July about two and a half months after the death,” Foote said, who relied on his memory and newspaper clippings about the case for the interview.
Leriche told Foote about Wippel’s death and said he was declaring a professional conflict.
“He wanted someone he trusted from the outside to come in and look at what happened,” Foote said.
Foote put two of his best prosecutors on it.
They took the detectives’ findings before a Jefferson County grand jury. The grand jury made a very rare decision to charge the three corrections deputies with criminally negligent homicide.
After the deputies were indicted, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins put out a statement calling Wippel’s death tragic. He said he had faith in the grand jury that reviewed the case and was “heartbroken over the indictments” because the deputies care about their jobs “and the people they’re charged with overseeing.”
The deputies remained on paid leave for nearly a year, and then the trial started in November 2018. It lasted for two weeks.
Foote points to the defense’s cross examination of a doctor during the trial as a turning point in the case.
“He was asked, ‘Can you say with 100% certainty that he would’ve lived?” Foote said. “In essence, he said, ‘No, you can’t say that. That’s not how medicine works.’”
During the trial, the same doctor who testified before the grand jury, told the judge he was less certain the deputies could’ve done something to save Wippel.
Attorney Robert Bletko represented Deputy Durkan. At the end of the trial, he delivered a closing argument and argued the deputies should be acquitted.
“They did not know it was an ulcer, they did not know there was a high, or even a probability, or even a possibility it would perforate, because they didn’t know it existed,” Bletko said.
Clackamas County Deputy District Attorney John Wentworth, one of the prosecutors on the case, said during closing arguments that the deputies failure to act caused Wippel’s death.
“What they did is guarantee he died, by doing nothing, and that’s why this is criminally negligent homicide,” Wentworth said.
Crook County Judge Daina Vitolins found the deputies were negligent in the case, but added it wasn’t clear that Wippel’s death was their fault.
“No one was able to testify to that crucial piece of evidence: When was it too late for medical treatment to save Mr. Wippel? And did that happen while Mr. Wippel was in the care of Ms. Skidgel, Mr. Durkan and Mr. Hansen? So, I find you not guilty.”
The courtroom burst into applause and cheers when the verdict came down.
“When we heard they had a big celebration afterwards, that really hurt,” said Roberta Gorg, Wippel’s cousin. “Even though they were acquitted they should have some remorse ... It’s a crime. I think it’s a crime. And three people? You’d think that between them someone would figure out that maybe this is serious.”
After Hansen, Skidgel and Durkan were acquitted, the court agreed to expunge their case entirely. The transcript and court documents aren’t publicly available. Even the judge’s order granting the expungements is sealed. In terms of the official record of the case, it’s like the indictment and subsequent trial never happened.
But in July, the case was reignited. Durken and Hansen decided to file a civil lawsuit claiming malicious prosecution and discovery violations.
“My clients’ decisions that morning did not cause Mr. Wippel’s death,” said Dan Thenell, their attorney. Thenell is also the general counsel for the Oregon State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
The civil suit names several law enforcement officials who investigated and prosecuted the deputies, including Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, Jefferson County District Attorney Steven Leriche, Redmond Police Det. Jonny Dickson, Clackamas County Deputy District Attorney John Wentworth and the city of Redmond. A doctor named in the original lawsuit has since been dismissed from the case.
In total, the deputies argue they should be paid $10 million for being charged and tried in Wippel’s death.
“These are good people who didn’t do anything wrong,” Thenell said. “I’m ashamed that they were even charged with a crime.”
Skidgel, Durkan and Hansen declined an interview for this story, but did send statements through Thenell.
“We have all been through a tremendous amount of traumatic stress,” Skidgel said in a statement. “We have had to learn to work through this with the event on our shoulders every day.”
Durkan added that his sleep is interrupted and he has nightmares about going to prison.
“The criminal justice system wronged me,” Durkan said in a statement. “If I could afford to leave law enforcement I would."
Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins told OPB the deputies are still employed and work shifts at the jail. He said none of them were disciplined. Since Wippel’s death, Adkins said the jail has added cameras to cells and increased its training for deputies, though he did not elaborate on what type of training they’ve received.
“I don’t think that you can blame my deputies for his death, because, yes he puked blood, yes he said that was normal for him, not to worry about it,” Adkins said. “So, listen to their side of it as well.”
Thenell said he agrees Wippel’s death is tragic and that there should be more resources for jails. But he said charging the deputies with negligent homicide isn’t the way to do that.
“Sure. He did die,” Thenell said. “But he didn’t die because of anything my three clients did. He didn’t die because of my clients’ actions or inactions. He died because he had an unknown medical condition that was masked by 40 years of heroin use.”
District Attorney Foote wouldn’t say whether the counter suit could have a chilling effect on other prosecutors going after jail staff when someone dies in custody. But he said he stands by his office’s work.
“We did the right thing and we shouldn’t be getting sued for it,” Foote said. “And they should’ve been convicted ... because the evidence was clear they committed criminally negligent homicide.”
Jails have a singular job: Keep inmates safe. And in Wippel’s case, they failed.
After Wippel’s years of drug addiction, after his bloody death in a concrete cell, after an unlikely turn that led to three jail deputies facing the possibility of prison time themselves, the answer to who is responsible for the death is no one – and everyone.
Wippel’s case makes clear that problems within jails are so widespread and systematic that everyone involved has someone else to blame.
On a sunny day just before Christmas, Carroll and Roberta Gorg visited River View Cemetery on Portland’s westside.
Old trees line the moss covered asphalt roads that snake through the cemetery.
Off in the distance is Mount Hood, snow-covered and lit by the dim winter sun.
It’s peaceful, quiet and nearly every shade of green.
“When we got the information that he had been buried here, we were happy he was here next to his parents,” Roberta Gorg said.
The Gorgs learned of Wippel’s death about a year after it happened. They read about it in the newspaper, after the deputies were indicted. The Gorgs contacted Adkins because they wanted Wippel’s remains. To their amazement the sheriff told them he had already buried him next to his parents.
“We saw the indentation here of a recent burial,” Roberta Gorg said.
Toward the top of a hill in the cemetery, there’s a stone marker in the ground with the name Wippel. His father’s name is on the left and his mother’s name is on the right. But that’s all.
“You could see the indentation right here,” Carroll Gorg said, gesturing toward the wet grass.
But something is missing.
“There’s no marker,” Roberta Gorg said. “There has to be some kind of marker, so he’s not completely forgotten.”
James Wippel is buried in an unmarked grave, next to his mother.
The Gorgs never filed a civil lawsuit over Wippel’s death. They said they didn’t feel it was their place because they did not know him well. But Roberta Gorg said if they had, that’s what they would’ve sued for: a marker with James Wippel’s name on it.
Correction (Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2:08 p.m.): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name Wippel. The names of Shawn Winsor and Redmond Police Det. Jonny Dickson have also been updated to reflect their correct spellings.