This story discusses and describes suicide. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
Three inmates died at the Albany County Detention Center in the seven months between September 2021 and April 2022, but those deaths were not made public until they became a focal point in the Albany County sheriff’s race.
Sheriff Aaron Appelhans, a Democrat, first spoke publicly about the deaths during a League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 13. His Republican opponent, Joel Senior, raised the deaths to challenge Appelhans’ assertion that he’d been working to improve mental health care at the detention center. Appelhans responded, aknowledging there had been two suicides and a fatal overdose, and said he’s made changes as a result.
At a second debate hosted by the University of Wyoming Political Science Club on Oct. 20, Appelhans further defended his response, pointing to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s review of the deaths.
“We’ve changed some policies and procedures, but we haven’t disciplined any employees,” Appelhans said during the debate. “No fault was shown through those DCI investigations or that we did anything wrong.”
DCI concluded its investigations into the two suicides, but the fatal overdose is still under investigation.
As to why Appelhans had not spoken publicly about the deaths and the resulting policy changes previously, he said he was taking a “families first” approach.
“We consult with the family,” Appelhans told WyoFile following the Oct. 20 debate. “We do this for all of our traffic fatalities as well. We don’t necessarily advertise all of our traffic fatalities. A lot of times, especially in suicides and with traffic fatalities, the family doesn’t want that information out there. We talked to both families.”
Tammy Mora said that’s not true. She said she learned of her son Micheal Mora’s suicide, when a doctor at a hospital in Colorado called to tell her he was on life support. Mora said neither the sheriff nor his office ever reached out to her following the death of her son in their custody.
She was distraught by the office’s lack of communication with the public about her son’s death and the deaths that preceded his.
“Nothing’s going to bring him back,” she said. “But I just want the jail to be known for how they are.”
Nationally, inmate suicides are rising, due in part, experts believe, to the pandemic’s impact on mental health. In Wyoming, over the last two years, there’ve been suicides reported in at least four county jails, according to a WyoFile request for in-custody death records from all 23 counties. That number could increase as Park and Laramie counties have yet to respond to the request.
Psychologists say these deaths are preventable with more effective mental health services for the incarcerated. Julio Brionez, a licensed psychologist and the assistant director of the University of Wyoming Counseling Center, speaking generally about mental health, said 90% of those who die by suicide demonstrate warning signs beforehand.
“The most common warning sign is talking about wanting to kill themselves, talking about wanting to die,” he said. “That’s usually the most significant warning sign that one can notice.”
Tammy Mora said her son Michael Mora had a history of mental illness and self-harm and that history was known to the deputies manning the jail.
Deran Vasquez, the other man who died by suicide, had been talking about killing himself to other inmates, according to the DCI investigation report.
Appelhans hasn’t shied away from recognizing that more training would benefit his department. “That’s why you hear me talk a lot about mental health crisis response,” Appelhans said at the Oct. 13 forum. Then at the Oct. 20 debate, he cited DCI’s investigations as a part of his efforts to improve conditions at the detention center. It’s important to “make sure that you have an outside agency come and investigate that fully so that there’s no conflicts of interest,” he said. “That’s what we did with our three critical incidents that we had within the detention center.”
In talking about the DCI investigations he went as far to say “when you have a critical incident that happens, it’s important to have that transparency with the public.”
While redacted versions of those DCI investigations are available via a public records request, Tammy Mora said the community should have been notified as well, especially because this was the third death in less than a year.
“I’m thinking the reason they don’t put it in the paper or whatever is they know they messed up or somebody dropped the ball somewhere,” she said.
WyoFile obtained DCI’s reports. Widely accepted journalistic guidelines recommend not giving the location or details of a death by suicide, but some elements of both are critical to understanding the Albany County Detention Center’s response to these incidents.
In August 2020, Deran Vasquez pleaded guilty to numerous charges, including property destruction, criminal trespass and battery.
The court handed him a suspended sentence: three years of supervised probation to avoid actual time behind bars. But he was confined to jail until he could gain admittance to an inpatient treatment program.
That admittance required a medical appointment outside the jail, court documents show. When Vasquez went to that appointment, he removed his GPS tracker and fled. That got him kicked out of the Albany County Court Supervised Treatment Program and put him in violation of his probation terms, landing him back at the Albany County Detention Center in August 2021.
He died a month later, in September 2021, after hanging himself in D pod. He was 37 years old.
Vasquez was not the first inmate to attempt suicide in 2021. According to interviews from the DCI investigation following Vasquez’s death, inmates described witnessing others make attempts on their own lives.
According to the DCI investigation report, one inmate “heard two other inmates attempt to hang themselves, one event that occurred approximately one and a half months prior, and a second attempt two to three months prior to Vasquez attempt.”
Vasquez himself had demonstrated warning signs for suicide, according to the investigation.
“Vasquez was telling all jail staff about his intentions to commit suicide, during the few days leading up to the attempt,” one inmate told DCI. “Vasquez was ‘telling everyone he was suicidal.’”
Jailhouse staff admitted the same to DCI.
“Deputy [Adam] Dean described Vasquez as having a ‘long history of impulsive behavior,’ which often manifested as self harm,” the DCI investigation report states. “Deputy Dean explained that in the years that he worked as a Albany County Deputy, he had numerous interactions with Vasquez including times when Vasquez was on suicide watch, or placed in a restraint chair.”
On the night of Sept. 13, 2021, “Vasquez made the attempt after the 10 p.m. lock down, where all inmates were returned to their cells, and no direct supervision was conducted, with the exception of watch tours which occurred from time to time,” according to the DCI investigation report.
Vasquez had no cellmate, but inmates in nearby cells soon became aware of what was happening.
One inmate “woke up to the sound of gurgling,” according to later DCI interviews. Another “said that he had fallen asleep around 7 p.m. on that evening and that after lock down he awoke to the sound of choking.”
A desperate attempt by the inmates in surrounding cells to alert deputies followed.
“[The inmate] attempted to get detention deputies’ attention, and other inmates were calling for them for ten to fifteen minutes, in an attempt to be heard over the pod intercom in the control room,” recounts the DCI investigation report.
An inmate named David Bolton explained that when the commotion in the pod woke him up, he helped get deputies attention by grabbing toilet paper and “waving it out of the slot in his cell door,” the investigation report states. “According to Bolton, the guards arrived pretty quickly after he began waving the toilet paper out of his cell.”
When questioned by WyoFile following the debate, Appelhans called the 10-15 minute window a “pretty short time frame.
“But we’ve really tried to shorten the window,” since the incident, he said. “We’ve always done that as a courtesy to give them the 15 minutes to go to sleep. That’s the time where they know we’re kind of going to leave them alone. So, we’ve shortened that window now to where we have lights out and we go through, for the most part, every five to seven minutes for that first 15, first half-hour or so. Multiple deputies going through.”
On the night of Vasquez’s suicide, as other inmates began their efforts to alert the deputies, “all of the jail staff were in the master control,” according to a DCI interview with Deputy Dean.
Sergeant Eric Vigil provided DCI with a similar account.
“Sgt Vigil indicated that the jail system rotates through the pods and monitors them at a set interval and it was not selected to D pod prior to the visual signal being observed,” the investigation report states.
When deputies arrived at the cell, they began performing life-saving measures. They disagreed about whether they could detect a pulse. EMS personnel arrived less than 10 minutes later and eventually transported Vasquez to Ivinson Memorial Hospital. Vasquez was ultimately transferred to Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado, and placed on life support. He died several days later.
The DCI investigation found that Vasquez attempted to give advanced warning of his suicide attempt, but did so through improper channels.
“Lt. [Nicole] Trampe indicated that information she had received regarding the suicide attempt was the result of Vasquez’ claim of his attempt through a medical request that he had submitted,” the investigation report states.
“Lt. Trampe said that Vasquez’ medical request was made through the jail pod tablet system, which was not the normal protocol for submitting medical requests.”
According to the DCI investigation report, Vaquez made two medical requests the day of his suicide attempt, at around 11 a.m. and at around 2:45 p.m. The DCI investigation found another warning sign, as well.
“Lt. Trampe said that she had received information that Vasquez had possibly attempted suicide in Oceans Behavior Hospital Midland, TX, several months prior,” the investigation read.
DCI ultimately sent its findings to Albany County and Prosecuting Attorney Kurt Britzius.
“It honestly doesn’t matter if we think that there’s any criminal activity or not,” DCI Operations Commander Ronnie Jones said. “We turn the case file over to the county attorney’s office of jurisdiction for them to review and they really make the decisions on whether they feel like there was anything criminal or not. And if they feel like there was, ultimately it’s their decision on whether they pursue charges or not.”
Britzius’ office declined to prosecute. The county attorney has the ability to call in a special prosecutor to examine the facts and make a determination, but Britzius opted not to.
“Most of the time, they review it and they make the call,” Jones said.
The county attorney did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Vasquez was the first in-custody death of Appelhans’ tenure as sheriff. Two more inmates died in the following seven months — one from suicide and one from an opioid overdose.
The opioid overdose, which occurred in March 2022, is still under investigation by DCI, so the name of the deceased, details surrounding the death and other findings have not been released. The sheriff’s office has issued no press release about the incident.
Appelhans has spoken publicly about the overdose death, when questioned about the topic on the campaign trail.
During the Oct. 20 debate, he said opioids are now finding their way into the jail in pill form; whereas before, they were more likely to come in a loose powder, which is easier to detect and confiscate.
The inmate who died of an overdose was able to smuggle in the drugs because they were in pill form, Appelhans said. The detention center has since purchased a body scanner, he added.
“We saw a problem and created a solution by purchasing that body scanner,” Appelhans said. “We can now screen everybody that comes through.”
Just one month after the opioid overdose, another inmate died in the Albany County Detention Center.
Micheal Mora, 41, was found guilty of possessing a controlled substance and of violating a protection order. Like Vasquez, he had originally been handed a suspended sentence only to have that arrangement revoked when he violated his probation terms.
He was sent to jail in Jan. 2022 with a release date in July. But Mora died by suicide in mid-April.
Mora was well-liked by his fellow inmates. In interviews with DCI, inmates said Mora was “wonderful,” a “cool guy” who “seemed in good spirits and is always joking around,” and “was always getting along with other inmates well.”
Like Vasquez, Mora’s suicide attempt came sometime after the 10 p.m. lockdown. He was not found until nearly 11 p.m. Other inmates were not aware of what was going on in Mora’s cell, so there was no equivalent effort to gain the attention of the deputies on duty.
Laramie Fire Department EMS staff responded immediately to the jail, but found Mora without a pulse, according to later DCI interviews.
Mora was transported to the emergency room at Ivinson Memorial Hospital where he regained a pulse. Like Vasquez, he was transported to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland and put on life support.
It wasn’t until the following morning, early on Easter Sunday, that Tammy Mora says she learned of her son’s condition.
“The [sheriff’s office] never did call me to tell me about it,” Tammy Mora said. “The hospital here didn’t either. I didn’t hear about it until he was already in Colorado on life support. The doctor from Colorado is the one who got a hold of me.”
Tammy Mora was not the only one left in the dark about the her son’s suicide. There was no press release or other public notification of Mora’s death, just as there was no press release about Vasquez’s.
Appelhans said this was done out of respect for the family’s wishes.
“We … take care of the family that had to go through that situation as well,” he said during the Oct. 20 debate. “We’re pretty proud of the way that we’ve handled that situation, especially with the families that were involved.”
But Tammy Mora said Sheriff Appelhans never reached out — either to her or to Michael’s sister.
“That’s crazy that he’s pushing the blame on somebody else — I never talked to none of them sheriffs about anything,” Mora said. “Why was it so hush-hush? Why haven’t we heard about anything? When that happened, they should have let me know that my son was being taken to the hospital. They all have my phone number, so I don’t know why nobody told me.”
Mora frequently video-chatted with her son on the jailhouse tablets. She last spoke with him the day before his suicide.
“He was growing a beard and it was all gray and stuff and I told him, ‘You’re getting grayer,’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘You’re still handsome,’ and he laughed and looked around to see if anyone was listening. He was in good spirits. I don’t understand it.”
Tammy had also been in contact with the jail on previous occasions, because of Michael’s history of self-harm and treatment for schizophrenia, she said. In the months before his suicide, Tammy said she was especially concerned for her son because of the recent death of his father.
“I called in and said, ‘Please keep an eye on Michael because I’m scared because his dad passed away and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself or do something,’” she said. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re watching him, we’re watching him.’”
Michael’s autopsy is redacted in the DCI investigation report, and Tammy said she’s not ready to look at the photos within. But she said his body had freshly scabbed self-harm wounds.
“He should have been being watched,” she said.
In the months since her son’s death, Tammy has found it frustratingly difficult to learn more.
“I called back a month or so after to ask what became of the investigation,” she said. “They said for me to give them my name and number and somebody would call me back. They never did. I don’t know what they came up with or what they were even investigating.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
Reporting contributed by Tennessee Watson.