Christmas Eve 2016: A man in a jail near Fort Worth was pepper sprayed, and guards piled on top of him to pin him down, making it hard for the inmate to breathe. Before Christmas morning 38-year-old Andy Debusk was dead.
According to a Dallas Morning News investigation, Debusk was coming down from meth when he was put in the Parker County Jail. An autopsy said the actions taken by the jail’s guards contributed to his death. The investigation found that some of the guards had not gone through a state-mandated program to become a trained guard, something that’s not uncommon in Texas jails.
Dave Boucher is an investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News, and has been working on this story along with DMN reporter Cary Aspinwall. Boucher says the events that led the the death of Debusk began when officers at the jail decided he was becoming combative in his cell. Boucher says these officers allege that Debusk instigated the incident by taking a swing at officers who entered his cell.
“It’s unclear whether or not he hit the officer,” Boucher says. “Guards rushed in, they pepper sprayed him in the cell and then we obtained video that shows him after he has been handcuffed and after his feet are shackled together. Guards are piling on top of him, he’s screaming ‘I can’t breathe’ and they are continuing to restrain him.”
These actions, Boucher says, were carried out by untrained guards who had a temporary license to work as prison guards. In the state of Texas, untrained guards are allowed to work in this way for up to a year in a jail, to fill jobs in rural jails. Untrained guards on temporary licenses have to meet all of the same parameters as their fully licensed counterparts, but they do not have to complete the 96-hour state mandated training.
Boucher says anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 temporary licenses are issued every year.
“We talked to a jail director who said it’s a huge liability for jails to employ someone past that year deadline and it’s also illegal,” Boucher says. “These jails can face a 1000-dollar per day fine if they employ somebody past this temporary license, although big fines rarely happen.”
Boucher says the death of Andy Debusk was brought to a grand jury by the local district attorney and Texas Rangers. The DA chose not to prosecute. Many of the officers no longer work at Parker County Jail. The Debusk family has filed a lawsuit against the jail manager, Lasalle Corrections, alleging negligence in his treatment while in their care.
“The family, they’re heartbroken,” Boucher says. “They had considered bailing Andy out of jail on that night that he died and decided in a moment of tough love to leave him in jail overnight, sober up a little bit. They didn’t want to have him interrupt this Christmas eve tradition that they had at their house and they’re torn up about it now.”