Bedford inmate’s family criticizes jail staff

McCracken attempted to commit suicide before being arrested, then killed himself at the facility

When state police apprehended 49-year-old Jeffrey McCracken June 25 for a suicide attempt, authorities set a date for his court hearing about a week later: July 3.

Instead, McCracken’s loved ones spent July 3 at his funeral.

McCracken hanged himself at the Bedford County Correctional Facility sometime in the night between June 26 and 27, barely 48 hours after the near-miss attempt that had sent him there.

He wasn’t under observation, officials said, because a screening had not shown any evidence he had any serious psychological issues.

“I don’t know how, within less than 14 hours of somebody attempting suicide with a gun, that you determine they are not a threat to themselves,” McCracken’s fiancee, Keri Moore of Burnt Cabins, said. “I believe they failed him. The procedures are wrong. He should have been in a psych ward or some kind of medical place where he could be watched. … There should have been something to help him along the way.”

Moore has been in contact with a lawyer and is considering her legal options, she said this week.

Bedford County jail Warden Troy Nelson said a standard psychological screening, carried out by contracted medical staff, revealed little to indicate McCracken was a threat to himself. If it had, Nelson said, jail staff would have kept him in isolation and checked him regularly.

“My investigation into Mr. McCracken’s untimely death revealed that all facility protocol was handled accordingly and was simply an unfortunate occurrence beyond the control of my staff,” Nelson said Friday in an email.

The events that led to McCracken’s death began in the predawn hours of June 25 in a rural home along Great Cove Road in Fulton County.

McCracken and Moore had argued the prior evening, state police wrote in an affidavit. Between midnight and 1 a.m., McCracken called Moore to the kitchen, where he was armed with a long gun — a rifle according to Moore, a shotgun according to state police.

McCracken pointed the gun at his own head. Moore lunged toward him and grabbed the barrel; McCracken pulled the trigger and a shot blasted into the ceiling.

Moore and her sister tried to wrestle the gun away, police wrote, but McCracken kept it and fled outside. The sisters called the police, who staged a manhunt in the woods and fields around the house.

“I’ve never ever felt that my life was in danger. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable going after his weapon,” Moore said last week.

McCracken had shown signs of depression, she said. The outdoorsman who once loved long solo trips in the woods — a member of a national cave-exploration group and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club — had confided in her that he now feared being alone.

“He was kind of hippie-like,” Moore said. “He loved animals, plants. … He was a very passive person. No type of aggression out of him.”

Now he was hiding from armed police. Moore said troopers reached him by cellphone and asked him to reveal himself: “Come out; we just want to get you help.”

Hours later, after sunrise, troopers found McCracken inside the house, Moore said. He was charged with three crimes: discharging a firearm into an occupied building (a felony) and simple assault and recklessly endangering another person, both misdemeanors.

Fulton County doesn’t have a full-size jail, and officials in neighboring Franklin County threatened this year to eject their 20 Fulton County inmates as overcrowding worsens there. Instead, McCracken was sent directly to the Bedford County jail.

At Bedford, McCracken underwent a face-to-face psychiatric discussion with a contracted medical professional, Nelson said. A 2014 state inspection confirmed all inmates receive an “initial health risk assessment” within 24 hours of booking.

“When Mr. McCracken arrived at the facility an Intake Screening was conducted per policy, whereby no signs of anger, depression or other related emotional abnormalities appeared to exist,” Nelson said in an email. “This particular screening includes a number of questions relating specifically to the inmate’s psychological state.”

Inmates found to have emotional or psychological problems are held in an isolation cell, watched by guards and personally checked every 15 to 30 minutes, Nelson said.

Instead, McCracken was sent to a gymnasium with an attached restroom — an area used as overflow when other blocks are full or undergoing maintenance, Nelson said. He could get out if his loved ones could secure $125,000 bond, court documents show.

After his booking, McCracken spoke with Moore twice by phone. He only vaguely recalled the night of the suicide attempt, she said.

“He paused for a little while and said, ‘I’m sorry,'” Moore said. “I don’t know how to put it. He didn’t sound like himself.”

He asked Moore to visit him the next day. She said she would.

Moore’s understanding of the events that followed stem largely from police who visited her afterward. Multiple attempts by the Mirror to reach Bedford County Coroner Rusty Styer were unsuccessful.

Sometime in the night of June 26 or the morning of June 27, McCracken walked to the attached bathroom, closed the door and hanged himself with a bedsheet, Moore said. It is unclear precisely how long it took for staff to find him, but Moore claims it took an hour.

County 911 dispatchers later said Styer was called to the scene at 6:07 a.m.

Officials then called Moore’s sister and told her police were on the way to explain what happened. Moore said she demanded answers: How could they have determined he wasn’t a threat to himself? Why didn’t he get treatment before he was sent to jail?

Since that day — amid funeral planning and legal responsibilities — Moore and others have sought legal help as they investigate what happened. Nick Hoffman, a Moore family friend with experience in law enforcement, said he has looked at case law on similar situations.

“I think, if the guy would have got some proper treatment, he still would’ve been here today,” Hoffman said.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in local and county jails, accounting for 35 percent of all deaths in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Rates keep rising, with suicides jumping 13 percent from 2013-14, the latest year for which the department has released data.

Some jail deaths are unavoidable, and others have spurred policy changes. In 2014, after a Bedford County jail inmate died of a health condition, the county commissioners voted to pay for an additional medical shift, although they did not explicitly attribute the change to the death.

Hoffman remains confident, however, that McCracken’s suicide could have been prevented.

“They should have known better,” Hoffman said. “The main thing here is to set an example. You don’t do this stuff.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.