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Ward sheriff charged in death of inmate: Retired captain also accused of failing to provide medical care

MINOT, N.D. - The death of an inmate whose health deteriorated at the Ward County Jail has prompted criminal charges against the sheriff who said the inmate wasn't taken for medical care due to "dollars and cents," court records say.

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Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski looks over plans for a jail expansion on Friday, March 14, 2014, in his office in Minot, N.D. (Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service)

MINOT, N.D. – The death of an inmate whose health deteriorated at the Ward County Jail has prompted criminal charges against the sheriff who said the inmate wasn’t taken for medical care due to “dollars and cents,” court records say.

Ward County Sheriff Steven Kukowski and retired captain Michael Nason are each charged with Class A misdemeanor reckless endangerment.

Court complaints accuse them of failing to seek medical care for 25-year-old inmate Dustin Irwin of Mandaree, who became so ill in three days at the jail that he could not speak or walk and vomited every few minutes.

Kukowski is charged with an additional count of reckless endangerment for maintaining an inmate population 150 percent over the suggested population of the jail when the incident occurred in October 2014.

Kukowski also is charged with public servant refusing to perform duty, a Class A misdemeanor. The complaint filed in North Central Judicial District Court alleges that Kukowski knowingly employed jail staff without adequate training and did not ensure that inmates had adequate medical care.

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Irwin, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, died of heart complications while being airlifted from Bismarck to Fargo, according to his obituary.

A Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation review found that the supervision and medical treatment provided to Irwin was “grossly inadequate,” leading the department to issue an order of noncompliance for the county in December 2014.

Criminal charges were filed this week after a special prosecutor from Divide County reviewed the matter.

Kukowski’s attorney Bruce Quick of Fargo said he doesn't think it’s fair to charge the sheriff with a crime for jail overcrowding.

“There’s no doubt that those are issues that should be addressed, but I don’t think it should be addressed by charging the sheriff with a crime,” said Quick, adding that they will “vigorously defend” the allegations.

Nason’s attorney Tom Dickson also called the prosecution unfair and said it comes in an era of political correctness when people want to blame law enforcement for everything that goes wrong.

“He’s innocent. We intend to successfully defend it,” said Dickson, adding that both Nason and Kukowski have had distinguished careers in law enforcement.

According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation report:

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Irwin was booked into the Ward County Jail in the early morning of Oct. 3, 2014, for driving while his license was suspended or revoked and two warrants out of Grand Forks and Burleigh counties.

Irwin appeared sober when arrested and told a corrections officer he took a prescribed pain medication for back pain.

About noon Oct. 3, Irwin submitted a written request to go to the hospital that included the statements “There are a lot of things wrong with my back” and “Please I’m really sick and need to see someone at the hospital.”

Over the next three days, Irwin’s health got progressively worse, to the point that he was incoherent, urinating on himself and unable to walk or stand. At one point, Irwin was observed to be vomiting every three to five minutes. Another night, his cellmate pushed an emergency button after Irwin was unresponsive.

Shortly before noon Oct 6, corrections officers picked Irwin up to prepare him for transport to Coleharbor, where he was to be exchanged for another prisoner held by Burleigh County.

While in an observation cell, Irwin appeared to be hallucinating, making erratic body motions and urinated on the mattresses. Several staff observed the erratic behavior but did not request medical attention, the DOCR review states.

Kukowski assisted Nason with the transport due to a shortage of deputies.

The Burleigh County deputy who picked Irwin up told the DOCR investigators she immediately recognized that Irwin needed medical care and she drove with her emergency lights to the Sanford Health emergency room in Bismarck.

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There was no room for Irwin in intensive care units of either Sanford or St. Alexius in Bismarck, so Irwin was airlifted to Fargo. About 10 to 15 minutes into the flight, Irwin went into ventricular fibrillation and was pronounced dead later that day, the DOCR report states.

The DOCR report said there was evidence that Kukowski had previous knowledge of Irwin’s condition.

Kukowski was heard on a recording telling the Burleigh County inmate “that’s what happens when you mix alcohol and meth” and “he (Irwin) has been that way for three days.” Kukowski told the DOCR he didn’t recall that conversation.

An affidavit of probable cause filed in the court case states that Kukowski said Irwin was not taken for medical care because of “dollars and cents.”

“The Ward County Jail was afraid to spend money, according to Kukowski, who was responsible for the jail’s budget,” a Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent states in the affidavit.

An affidavit states that jail employees had told Nason, a supervisor, about Irwin’s health but Nason did not attempt to get him medical care.

Nine correctional officers had worked for the jail for more than a year but had not attended a correctional officer’s training course, court records say.

A corrections officer interviewed by the DOCR said two-person cells were often occupied by three or four inmates at the time.

Kukowski was elected sheriff in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Nason, who was hired Jan. 1, 2011, retired this past Jan. 2, according to the Ward County human resources office.

Ward County Commission Chairman John Fjeldahl said Kukowski will remain as sheriff for now, noting the county isn’t involved in his prosecution. Divide County State’s Attorney Seymour Jordan is handling the case. Judges for the North Central Judicial District requested that the matter be assigned to a judge outside the district.

“We’ll probably see how the initial part of it goes and act upon the advice of our state’s attorney, and it’ll probably be discussed at our next commission meeting (March 8) what, if anything, we intend to do,” Fjeldahl said.

Should they decide to seek Kukowski’s removal, commissioners would have to file a petition asking the attorney general’s office to begin the process. The governor has the authority to remove a sheriff found guilty of misconduct, malfeasance, crime in office, neglect of duty in office, habitual substance abuse or gross incompetence.

Kukowski and Nason are summoned to appear in court March 21.

Kukowski’s voicemail on Friday indicated he is out of the office until Feb. 29. Quick said Kukowski had previously planned to be on vacation.

Work began last fall on a $37 million expansion of the Ward County Jail that will more than double its capacity.

Fjeldahl said the jail has since contracted with other facilities and is no longer overcrowded.

“The Department of Corrections has been monitoring the jail to making sure we’re compliant and addressing the issues they identified,” he said.

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