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Youth Jail Hangings Questioned

Families of two teenage offenders found dead in a shared cell say officials did not keep adequate watch over the Ione facility's wards.

January 24, 2004|Monte Morin and Allison Hoffman | Times Staff Writers

Families of two juvenile offenders found hanged in their shared cell at a youth correctional facility in Ione, Calif., faulted caretakers Friday for failing to keep adequate watch over the wards.

The bodies of Deon Whitfield, 17, of Los Angeles and Durrell Tadon Feaster, 18, of Stockton were discovered Monday afternoon in a routine check of their cell at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility.

Preliminary autopsy results released Wednesday by the Amador County Sheriff's Office cited asphyxiation as the cause of death.

The pair used bedsheets tied to a bed support to hang themselves, officials said.

Initially, relatives of the two youths suspected that they died at the hands of white supremacist gang members at the 640-bed facility, pointing out that the youths were black and that they died on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Though authorities said the youths lacked marks indicating a struggle, and that the incident appeared to be a "straight suicide," the mother of one youth said she refused to believe that he would take his own life.

"I'm not buying that," Feaster's mother, Gloria Feaster, told KCRA-TV in Sacramento. "I don't care what the state or anybody has to say about it.... I oppose that thought."

But on Friday, a lawyer for Whitfield's relatives said that the youth should have been under special mental health supervision.

"I've never heard of a case where two young kids who were probably both suicidal were placed in a cell together," said lawyer Sonia Mercado. "The question is, why were these young men bunked together? Why weren't they under more care? The facility should have been looking out for them. That's their job."

Officials at the California Youth Authority say they are reviewing the incident, even as the Ione Police Department and the Amador County Sheriff's Office continue their investigation.

The pair were found about 1:30 p.m. Monday during a regular half-hourly check of their cell. Under normal circumstances, the pair would have been attending high school classes at the prison, but because of the holiday, they did not have school and were locked in their narrow cell.

"The staff looked into the room and saw two wards that appeared to be making a suicide gesture," said California Youth Authority spokesman George Kostyrko. "She quickly opened the door, and staff rushed in and cut them free.

They attempted CPR and paramedics who arrived a few minutes later attempted CPR. Basically, they succeeded in their suicide attempt."

Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Lawrence said the youths left two letters, "one to family members and another note passed around to other members inside." Authorities would not say what the pair had written in the notes.

Lawrence said a staff member had checked the cell at 1 p.m. and found no problems. When she returned at 1:23 p.m., she found the pair hanging from a pipe that supports the cell's narrow upper bunk.

The final autopsy report will be written when toxicology results are returned in a few weeks, Lawrence said.

Whitfield was committed to the CYA in August for possession of hard narcotics and attempted burglary.

Feaster was committed in October 2001 for grand theft, fraud, auto theft and receiving stolen property.

Kostyrko said there appeared to be no reason to place the youths under stricter supervision than periodic half-hour checks.

Some wards have on five-minute checks or are kept under video surveillance if matters warrant, he said.

Kostyrko said there have been 56 attempted suicides in CYA facilities statewide since June 2000. The last suicides at Preston were in 1996, Kostyrko said.

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