A Woody Creek woman who had been awaiting in-patient restoration services after being found mentally incompetent to stand trial in August died by apparent suicide Sunday evening in the Pitkin County Jail.
Jillian White, 64, was arrested in August on a $200,000 cash-only bond after failing to turn herself in to Pitkin County authorities. Her attorney, Denver-based Jennifer Longtin, had requested an extension of an Aug. 9 deadline to find her client private in-patient mental health services instead of the state-run Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, or CMHIP. District Judge Chris Seldin denied that request.
On Friday, Longtin filed a motion with the court in which she announced that she had found a private facility that had accepted White and requested the court release her client to that facility, the District Attorney’s Office confirmed. Because the motion has been suppressed, however, details are unavailable to the public. White had been scheduled for a court appearance Monday, during which time that motion presumably would have been heard and decided.
White wasn’t the only inmate awaiting services from CMHIP, which has been the subject of two lawsuits because of months-long waiting periods that in turn lengthened inmates’ time in jail, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said.
“She is one of four people that fit into the extremely mentally ill category that we have in our jail, and it’s not the right place for them,” he said. “We’ve lost somebody, and she lived in our community. I’m not sure it’s all her fault. I’ve got three other people in jail that are as [mentally ill]. I’m not cut out for that.”
DiSalvo said as much to the Pitkin County commissioners in a budget presentation he made in October.
“The mental health aspect of it is overwhelming,” he said during that meeting, in which he requested eight additional deputies but only three were approved. “We had one lady who was with us for three or four years, was very high maintenance. We’re not mental health professionals. We’re far from it, but we’re dealing with mental health things.”
County Manager Jon Peacock acknowledged that the facility, built in 1984, is in need of security updates to better serve a more demanding inmate population.
“The real challenge — and we’re not the only community; this is a nationwide challenge — is that the demand for mental health services throughout communities and the criminal justice system has increased, and I think that’s true in our community,” he said. “We’ve invested in making sure that we have better continuum of mental health services in the community. Do we need to do more? Yes. Does that include the jail? I think so. There’s all kinds of challenges with licensing and who can provide that service and what level of service. In cases where folks are deemed incompetent to stand trial, right now, there are very few options.
“Like the hospital in Pueblo, you’re relying on behavioral health organizations. We do have jail-based case work and such, [but] that’s not the intensity and level of care [at CMHIP]. And there is, frankly, a gap that the state needs to figure out how to fill to reduce these waiting times,” he continued.
When jail director Kim Vallario was hired last year, Peacock said the county identified several areas for improvement in the building — including bolting beds to floors, so that inmates cannot move them for potential self harm.
“We’ve been working through those issues at the jail, including the bolting down of the beds. I think, unfortunately, there were a few that still needed to be bolted down,” he said when asked about the logistics of White’s apparently hanging herself with an extension cord. “Has it been all at once? No.”
DiSalvo estimated her time of death at about 6:18 p.m. Sunday. Deputies and Aspen fire and rescue personnel performed CPR and used an automated external defibrillator without success. She was transported to Aspen Valley Hospital by Aspen Ambulance, where she was pronounced deceased, according to a press release.
Per the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office policy, the involved deputies have been placed on administrative leave with pay, pending the investigation. Vallario said she could not comment on an open investigation but was clear in her remorse surrounding the circumstances.
“We’re still doing a lot of investigation. The things that keep you up at night is losing a deputy ... and losing an inmate. They’re in my care,” DiSalvo said. “This is very difficult because of the incredible responsibility that we feel for the safety of the inmates.”
County Commissioner Chair Greg Poschman offered condolences to all involved, noting that local mental health advocacy organizations are actively working to ensure affected community members have access to support. In addition to its relationship with MindSprings via the Pitkin Area Co-Responder Teams, or PACT, program, the county also contracts with the Aspen Hope Center to respond specifically to fatalities.
“I do know that our mental health services are working on reaching out to the people who were there and providing help however they can. Everyone is being very responsive,” he said. “Clearly, what Joey has told us, something like 70 percent of inmates in the jail have, how he described it, as severe mental health patients. You have to ask, is this the best place to put somebody with a mental health issue?”
With suicide rates spiking in recent months, Poschman, DiSalvo and Peacock all commented that mental health needs are communitywide.
“In [White’s] case, I think she had a severe problem, but as this sort of news comes out, we need to encourage our community to reach out to each other and hold on tight,” Poschman said.
While Pitkin County’s suicide rate is typically reflective of Colorado’s average — which ranks seventh in the country for highest per-capita suicides — Pitkin County Coroner Steve Ayers has been particularly busy since Oct. 10, he said.
“It’s been less than a month, we’ve had all those cases. Four confirmed suicides, one pending investigation and three other deaths,” he said, adding that White’s case likely won’t be resolved for another six to eight weeks, pending toxicology reports. “[It’s death] case 38 for the year, so we’re quite a bit above our average.”
In the last 10 years, 2014 and 2017 saw the highest number of suicides in Pitkin County at seven, according to the Colorado Violent Death Reporting System.
“There’s not a family or individual that I met in my life that has not been affected by mental health issues, and some very severely,” Poschman said. “We all try to do what we can, and we’re all looking for solutions and still, these things happen. I guess the best thing we can do is speak to your loved ones and your friends and don’t hesitate to ask them how they’re doing. Mental health first aid trains someone to flat-out ask, ‘Hey, are you thinking of harming yourself?’”
If you are struggling with a mental health issue and need help, please contact
Aspen Hope Center (970) 925-5858
Mind Springs Health 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255