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Your Local Jail May Be A House of Horrors

But you probably wouldn’t know it, because sheriffs rule them with little accountability. After one man's death in a notorious lockup, residents of a Missouri town fought back.

I. The Parents

As Bill Ames smoked a cigarette in the predawn dark, he heard his dogs barking and looked outside to see two sheriff’s deputies approaching. It was November 2018, and his 36-year-old son Billy was locked up in the St. Francois County Jail. “What’d he do, break out?” Ames asked the men, inviting them in from the cold. The deputies told him Billy had died. They didn’t know any more than that.

This article was published in partnership with Riverfront Times.

Caption for photo at top: Natalie DePriest, who said she was attacked by a St. Francois County jailer, had pictures of her bruises taken several days later.

Courtesy of Natalie DePriest

With the sun still behind the Missouri Ozarks, Bill and his wife Joyce called Billy’s stepdad, Joe Braun, who woke up Billy’s mom Laurie with “the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to tell anybody in my life.” A few days earlier, Billy’s four parents had actually been relieved to hear of his arrest. They’d spent months worrying about his methamphetamine use, which had begun after a friend was released from prison and crashed at his house (taking advantage, his parents felt, of a brain injury from his early 20s that impaired his cognition.) Billy grew erratic, delusional, running barefoot through the trees on the mountain next to his father’s house, talking about drones and dead bodies. He scared his stepmother Joyce so badly that she took out a restraining order, which led to this arrest—and, his parents had hoped, rehab.

Billy Ames in family photos. As a child, he raced stock cars with his father. When he was 22, he suffered a brain injury from an assault.

Billy Ames in family photos. As a child, he raced stock cars with his father. When he was 22, he suffered a brain injury from an assault.

Joe Braun called the St. Francois County jail administrator, Dennis Smith, who told him the post-death investigation would be handled internally. (Smith declined an interview for this story.) Braun was suspicious; he had previously worked as a police officer in Texas, where jail deaths are often investigated by an outside agency. The next day, he started making calls to state government offices to push for an independent inquiry, and St. Francois County Sheriff Daniel Bullock formally requested an investigation by the state highway patrol.

In the meantime, Billy’s father Bill received a call. “Is this the family of the man who died in the St. Francois County Jail?” a woman asked. She’d been in a cell near Billy’s, she said, and believed he’d been strapped into a restraint chair; she’d heard him shouting for hours, begging to be let out. Ames’s autopsy listed meth as the cause of death, and in security footage from his booking, he appeared to conceal something in a pocket. The jailers told the investigator they fastened Ames to the chair after he threatened to attack his cellmate, but they had not been trained to use the device safely. (Experts say these chairs, which have led to more than 50 deaths nationwide since the 1990s, can render it more difficult to tell when someone is having a medical crisis like an overdose, and some prisons have banned their use entirely.) An inmate said she told a jailer, “This guy is dying next to me.”

Waking up Billy Ames’s mother Laurie, left, to tell her that her son died in the St. Francois County Jail was “the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to tell anybody in my life,” said Joe Braun, Billy’s stepdad.

Waking up Billy Ames’s mother Laurie, left, to tell her that her son died in the St. Francois County Jail was “the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to tell anybody in my life,” said Joe Braun, Billy’s stepdad.

She said the jailer responded, “I don’t give a shit about that drug addict.”

The booking area was filled with the sound of banging, as Ames’s fellow detainees tried to get the jailers to let him out of the chair. They also heard the chair rattle against the floor—which suggested to the family he was having a seizure, meaning the jailers had failed to give him his anti-seizure medication. “He will not STOP screaming and freaking out,” a jailer wrote in an email to the rest of the staff. Three others held near Ames recalled a jailer referring to him as a “piece of shit.”

America’s 3,000-plus county jails, which are usually run by elected sheriffs, hold people awaiting their day in court or serving short sentences. They receive far less scrutiny than state and federal prisons, even as they have become catalysts for the spread of COVID-19. Twenty-four states have a government body that regulates jails, according to University of Texas researcher Michele Deitch, but Missouri is not among them. The federal Department of Justice can also investigate abuses, but this is rare. Occasionally citizens emerge to fill the gap, and Ames’s death has sparked a local reckoning over how the 188-bed jail that Sheriff Bullock has run for more than a generation became mired in violence and neglect.

Over the last six months, 50 former detainees and four former employees told their stories to The Marshall Project. Those now in Missouri state prisons said their hometown jail is known as a “breeding ground for tough-ass white boys,” and the second worst jail in the state (behind the “St. Louis Workhouse,” which city leaders voted to close this month.) “I was once a kid with a drug problem,” said one former inmate who declined to be named. “Now I am a violent gang member [and] career crook taking up bedspace in an overcrowded prison system … If it was not for my time in the [St. Francois County Jail], I would not be the esteemed member of prison society I am today.”

Laurie and Joe Braun placed memorial decorations outside their home in Farmington, Mo., after their son Billy died in the St. Francois County Jail.

Laurie and Joe Braun placed memorial decorations outside their home in Farmington, Mo., after their son Billy died in the St. Francois County Jail.

In the wake of his stepson’s death, Joe Braun met with residents who had been fighting corruption among local officials, often sharing their efforts in a Facebook group about county politics. The most prominent was an elder-law attorney named Vonne Karraker. Billy’s mother Laurie was a fan of Karraker’s Facebook posts, which veered from humor to outrage, from persnickety questions about county funds to venting about a local judge who touched Karraker’s hair because she is Black. The parents felt Karraker was the only lawyer in town who could stomach a public battle with Sheriff Bullock.

Soon after, the families met a man who pledged to run against the sheriff in the 2020 election, and on August 4th, in a Republican primary, Bullock will face his greatest electoral challenge in almost three decades. Braun told me that before Billy’s death, he and Laurie felt that Donald Trump had been called to save America, and they came to feel like people in their own community were similarly called, to help ensure that no other parent loses a child in the local jail.

II. The Lawyer

Vonne Karraker had not planned to become the leader of the local resistance. In 2003, after law school and some work in the insurance industry, she followed her husband to Farmington, the seat of St. Francois County. The marriage didn’t last, but she fell in love with the town of 14,000 in the former lead mining region south of St. Louis. A municipal official who threatened to prosecute her, for not returning a library book, became her second husband, and they started a small law firm that catered to elderly clients, listing their dog and two sugar gliders (tiny marsupials) as members of the staff.

St. Francois County was 96 percent White and Karraker—who grew up in Missouri’s southeast “Bootheel”—was almost always the only Black person in the room. This wasn’t new for her. As a child, she had been bullied at a mostly-White school, only to go home and have her siblings accuse her of trying to act White. As an adult, she found being an outsider gave her a knack for seeing beyond appearances, into the casual ways people exercise power. “I can hear David Attenborough narrating ... the way people behave around me,” she told me. She liked letting the liberals think she was conservative and vice versa. “I describe my politics as the golden rule.”

Vonne Karraker, a lawyer in Farmington, Mo., has become the face of the local resistance against the St. Francois County Jail, pictured behind her.

Vonne Karraker, a lawyer in Farmington, Mo., has become the face of the local resistance against the St. Francois County Jail, pictured behind her.

Every community has drama, but St. Francois County seems to have more than its share. Not long ago, a local KKK leader was murdered by his cat-hoarding wife, and a city councilman was accused of punching a woman in the face at a bar. In 2016, the local grapevine was dominated by the saga of Kristy Cunningham. She claimed in a lawsuit that her husband had an affair with a woman, who went on to conspire with local leaders to throw Cunningham in jail on stalking charges. Her small daycare business crumpled and she was separated from three young children. After three months, she pled guilty just to go home.

The defendants denied her allegations and the lawsuit was dismissed, but Karraker found this tale of power abused believable. A few years before, she’d been asked to meet with a woman who claimed to have witnessed the elected top prosecutor, Jerrod Mahurin, hand out illegal raises to favored employees. At the time, she’d declined to get involved, but now, seeing what happened to Cunningham, she felt guilty for not doing more. So when another woman came to her with sexual harassment claims against Mahurin, Karraker became her confidante. They once met secretly in a cemetery. “She’d shake, smoke cigarettes,” Karraker recalled. The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered the allegations against Mahurin—which he denied—and while Karraker’s name was seldom in these stories, many in town knew she was behind the scenes. During a radio interview, Mahurin named Karraker and said, “I will certainly have my day to go after these people.” (Her husband Kevan Karraker wrote an open letter in response: “Why wait?”) Mahurin, who was not charged with any crimes but faces ongoing lawsuits, was voted out in November 2018.

“Vonne is like many people in these situations, who sound like a conspiracy theorist at first, and maybe she is a little bit, but the stories are just that bad,” said St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that included a piece on the St. Francois County justice system. “She has the whole weight of the town on her at times.” Karraker kept paper and pen in hand, in case someone buttonholed her with some local government woe. “People would come in, tell me outrageous shit, and I would either prove or disprove,” she said. “If I could prove it, I’d write about it on Facebook.” At one public meeting, as she demanded public records and questioned conflicts of interest, a commissioner threatened to have her escorted out and summoned two deputies.

By the time Joe Braun approached her about his stepson’s death, she was exhausted and ready to step back, but she’d been hearing for years about the jail. She’d met Natalie DePriest, a local activist who had gained national attention after she and her brother were sentenced to 15 years in prison for growing marijuana plants in their home. DePriest told Karraker that when they first went to the jail, in 2011, she demanded a lawyer and said to a jailer, “I have constitutional rights, you’re not my king,” and then he wrapped his arm around her neck and struck her as he dragged her toward a cell, where a second officer pepper-sprayed her. Her brother, David DePriest, saw all of this while waiting in the booking area. “For hours, I had to sit and listen to my sister scream, asking for a nurse, for clothes, since hers were soaked in mace,” he told me. In a use of force report, officers wrote that DePriest “stepped in an aggressive manner” and moved her hands towards one of their faces, but was “contained with no injury to staff or inmate.” DePriest had photos of bruises, taken several days later.

Karraker interviewed inmates who had heard Billy Ames’s screams and filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February 2019. Once the lawsuit got media coverage, posts to the local Facebook groups swelled with stories about the jail. A resident showed me a meme calling the jail “Missouri’s New Death Row.” Karraker was contacted by family members and friends of two people who had died by suicide in the jail within a few months of Ames’s death. One was Michael Bennett, who repeatedly told officers that he was suicidal and yet was placed in a cell with few precautions.

Sheriff Bullock had requested state investigations after the deaths of Ames and Bennett, as well as, years earlier, after deputies were accused of sexually assaulting detainees. (One deputy committed suicide in 2013 while facing indictment for a sexual assault.) But the sheriff didn’t always ask for them. Karraker also met Jeffrey Tupper, a former state employee whose wife Tabitha had died inside the jail in October 2017, after being arrested for violating her probation, which stemmed from her opioid addiction. During visits, Tupper had noticed she was losing weight and looked unwashed. “I took our kids to visit her and she was in a torn-up gown,” he said. “She had to hold it together.” She complained of headaches, and her autopsy cited a brain abscess, but because her husband never received word of an investigation, her death remained shrouded in mystery, and Karraker would have to start from scratch.

Karraker was contacted by at least four current and former sheriff’s deputies. One told her that Dennis Smith “overrules and covers up everything” and “is pretty vindictive.” (Another told me Smith, a liberal Democrat, had tried to improve the jail when he was hired in 2003, but “gave in to peer pressure” after deputies called him “hug-a-thug.”) Karraker had once been friends with Smith, attending parties at his house and even taking a tour of the jail with him years earlier. “Just because someone is nice to you, doesn’t mean they are a good person,” she said.

In her email inbox, Karraker received pictures of a young man’s stomach and hip, covered in a massive infection. He had told his family it came from a spider bite in the jail. At one point, hearing a vivid description of a sexual assault inside the jail, Karraker said she vomited. “If I slow down to think of the sheer magnitude of the evil that resides here I cower at home under the covers, exhausted and weepy and thoroughly overwhelmed,” she wrote to me in an email. “That's happened a few times, and [my husband] has dragged me back into the light.”

Many of the stories were likely unprovable but gained credibility through sheer repetition. For instance, Karraker kept hearing three words over and over again: “Friday Night Fights.”

III. The Detainees

In a small town, the jailers and the jailed often have history. John Rastorfer, who has been in and out on various charges, said he heard jailers say to incoming detainees, “Hey, remember me? You used to pick on me,” and “You fucked over my sister,” and then the jailer would “treat them like shit.” Several men who spent time inside described a dynamic in which jailers who had been bullied in high school took revenge.

Many told stories of seeing people ignored by jailers while detoxing. St. Francois County sits at the center of two American drug epidemics, having had among the highest rates of opioid prescriptions and methamphetamine lab busts in a state known for both. Farmington is relatively affluent, but in other parts of the county, more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. A coronavirus outbreak can literally spread from a jail to the community around it, but former detainees described how this jail has long exported less traceable problems, like addiction, violence, and trauma. “It’s putting the youth of this county through a grinder,” said former detainee Joel Burgess, “and it’s for nothing.”

Residents of St. Francois County have posted about conditions and abuse in their jail in a local Facebook group.

Residents of St. Francois County have posted about conditions and abuse in their jail in a local Facebook group.

They told stories of seeing jailers beat and mace detainees, and of being beaten and maced themselves. They described staph infections and scalding shower water that they let cool in a trashcan before bathing. A former deputy who declined to be named said it was well known that the phrase “take him to the shower” was code for assault, as the shower did not have cameras, and complaints to superiors would fall “on deaf ears.” Ten women, and one former employee, said jailers would withhold sanitary products and then throw them into living areas, to spark a violent scramble. “We had bitches back there bleeding in oranges,” said Stefani Rudigier, referring to jail uniforms.

At times, the sheriff made light of the grim conditions. During a period of overcrowding in 2013, he followed the example of Joe Arpaio, the famously punitive Arizona sheriff, and housed people in tents. “We jokingly say around the county, ‘That is the Daniel Bullock’s Bed and Breakfast,’” the sheriff told a reporter. (He told me he did not consider Arpaio’s policies a model.) The county held a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to house federal detainees, but this stopped in 2017, after an inspection found inadequate nutrition, water leaks, ants, and a lack of natural light because cell windows had been covered in black paint. (The inspection was obtained by reporter Seth Freed Wessler, who wrote about such contracts for Mother Jones and Type Investigations last year after suing the Marshals for access.) Bullock told the local newspaper, “I’m not running a Hilton Hotel here.”

Even county residents who had never been to the jail traded stories about “Friday Night Fights,” which according to more than a dozen former inmates involved ritualized, two-man duels, often to prepare men for state prison. “On many occasions I could see the outlines of officers standing outside the tinted glass, looking into the pod,” recalled Maxwell Lee, who was in the jail in 2014 and 2015, facing charges of killing two people during a robbery.

The jail has developed its own lingo, with particular areas dubbed the “Thunderdome,” and a group of especially violent men called the “wolf pack.” Five people said jailers would announce which inmates had been charged with sexual crimes against children or were informants to police, knowing they’d be victimized. “The predatory clique ran the pod,” wrote James Gannaway from prison, where he is serving time for a domestic violence conviction. “Every three days or so a batch of hooch would come in and the clique would go insane.”

Among former St. Francois inmates who have moved on to state prison, mention of the jail evokes knowing looks and war stories. Missouri prisoner Bobby Bartlett said his cellmate appeared ravaged by post-traumatic stress after time in the jail, and when Bartlett, who is not from the county, asked others to speak with me, many refused. “My family goes in and out of that jail all the time,” one told him. “They will kill them just to get back at me for talking.”

Still, as word of Vonne Karraker’s work spread, more and more people who had been inside posted stories on Facebook. She entered the jail herself to visit Clinton Wheeler, who complained he’d been denied medications and doctor visits. (At least six other people have alleged medical neglect in lawsuits since 2004.) Karraker shot a video of what she thought was dried blood on the floor. Wheeler, who was facing murder charges for shooting his son-in-law, was nearly skeletal, with black spots on his teeth and gums.

Vonne Karraker represents Clinton Wheeler, who claims he was denied medical care while in the jail facing murder charges.

Vonne Karraker represents Clinton Wheeler, who claims he was denied medical care while in the jail facing murder charges.

As they spoke, she heard a “massive, 3-D cough.” Convinced someone was listening, she abruptly ended the conversation. She later learned that a local lawyer was contacted by jail administrator Dennis Smith, in an attempt to stop her from meeting with the lawyer’s client.

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Karraker lives far from a major road, and she and her husband Kevan both began noticing mysterious cars at the end of her driveway. “As I walk towards them, they leave,” she said. “All I can say is: White dude with dark mustache.” (Billy Ames’s stepdad Joe Braun also claims Sheriff Bullock followed him around in his car. The sheriff denies this.) Karraker started to feel afraid when she stayed late at the office. Whenever she prepared to enter the jail, she’d text numerous friends, telling them if they didn’t hear from her in a specified number of hours to “raise hell.”

I witnessed Karraker do this before we went to meet one of her clients inside. When we left safely, she forgot to tell her friends, and they began to panic; her husband was not pleased.

IV. The Sheriff

In March, Sheriff Daniel Bullock granted me an interview, and we met in his office, which is full of Western tchotchkes, including a taxidermied snake, a small statue of a confederate soldier, mounted guns and swords, and pictures of frontier lawmen like “Wild Bill” Hickock and Wyatt Earp. He comes from a family of law enforcement officers, and once told a reporter they believed they had a connection to Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, depicted on HBO by Timothy Olyphant. “I’ll work with you until you burn me, and when you burn me, we’re done,” he told me. “If I read something [in your article] that’s not particularly true, I wouldn’t advise you to come back.”

A portrait of Sheriff Daniel Bullock, who has held office since 1992, hangs in the lobby of the St. Francois County Jail.

A portrait of Sheriff Daniel Bullock, who has held office since 1992, hangs in the lobby of the St. Francois County Jail.

Bullock declined to discuss the death of Billy Ames in detail, but pointed to the cause of death—an overdose—as evidence that the family’s lawsuit was frivolous. “I’ll tell you a little secret about Vonne,” he said. “She’s an ambulance chaser.” He was angry that she had taken me in earlier in the week to visit one of her clients, but he agreed to let me tour the jail.

Last December, as Karraker’s lawsuits gained attention, administrator Dennis Smith announced his retirement. (Karraker had previously sent a letter to the county commission demanding he be placed on leave.) His departure allowed the sheriff to appoint a new jail administrator who could signal a new era.

It was this new administrator, Jamie Crump, who I followed into the jail. A restraint chair still sat in a cell near the booking desk, although Crump said it was not used often. Crump spoke about the importance of understanding trauma and addiction, and said he didn’t believe in using solitary confinement. He wanted to make it easier for family members to visit. Still, he said, “There's not really been anything that I'm looking at and going, 'holy crap.’”

The kitchen was clean and the day’s chili was tasty (I tried it), but other glimpses were less encouraging: Many surfaces were filthy, and some of the walls were covered in what looked like black mold. The hallways were dark and a few ceiling panels were missing due to a leak in the roof. The central enclosure, from which guards would be able to watch many of the living areas, was abandoned. In another room, amid numerous screens of security camera footage, a television was tuned to cartoons.

When I asked Bullock about the stories of violence and medical neglect, he said, “Take a trip around the United States, and you’ll find every facility has the same complaints.” He is not wrong: ritualized fights, medical neglect, and abuse by jailers plague jails across the country, and sheriff’s departments frequently face lawsuits. “If they were true, I certainly wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “I couldn’t have been here 40 years if I was letting things like that go on.” When I emailed a detailed list of the allegations in this story to the sheriff, he wrote back: “I am proud of my years of service to the residents of St. Francois County. Based on the timing and content of this article, it is obviously politically motivated. Because of the pending litigation, it is not appropriate for me to comment specifically. I can say unequivocally that these allegations are not true.” I sent a similar list to jail administrator Dennis Smith and he said by phone on Monday, “I believe that the sheriff released a statement, and I’ll go with that.”

V. The Challengers

Sheriff Bullock began his career as a deputy, and in 1992 he won the Democratic primary for sheriff, according to the department’s website, by 22 votes. He has been re-elected every four years since then. Jim Powell, a former deputy who failed to unseat him in 2000 and 2008, said one man refused to put up his campaign sign because his son had been beaten in the jail and remained fearful of retaliation. Bullock “seems to have a cult following,” Powell said. “You can’t penetrate it.” Some former detainees do not blame the sheriff personally for the conditions inside the jail. “It ain’t Bullock’s fault, I don’t think info gets to him,” said Sheila Downs, after telling a story about an officer spraying a fellow inmate with mace.

This summer, nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis focused on police departments, whose leaders are typically appointed by mayors. Sheriffs are directly elected and often stay in power for a decade or more. Hundreds of counties will hold sheriff elections this November, and some incumbents like Bullock are now facing scrutiny from voters over deaths in their jails. In early 2020, a retired police officer named Don Ebner announced he would run against Bullock, campaigning with a life-size cut-out of President Trump while criticizing abuses in the jail, like the Ames death, as examples of government overreach.

But Ebner was also battling cancer. In late March, he died.

From his deathbed, he threw his support to Ryan Miller, a 32-year-old former police officer. Miller told me that even if voters don’t sympathize with those abused in jail, the problems will ultimately cost them as taxpayers as the county loses lawsuits like those Karraker is bringing. Miller has a local reputation for being liberal, but he argues that the sheriff should not be a partisan position. “Your vote is of much greater impact locally than it is in Washington,” he said, noting that “everyone knows George Floyd’s name,” but many in St. Francois County may not know about the death of Billy Ames.

Ebner was not the only one facing a medical crisis. In December, Karraker was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. She had survived it before, and made jokes about how her doctors couldn’t let her die because her photo graced a calendar the hospital sent out for fundraising. But radiation still sapped her strength; when we met, she was clearly in pain. In late March, she began having trouble breathing. A coronavirus test came back negative, but she was briefly forced to stop radiation treatment, and her pain grew worse. She began making plans with a fellow lawyer and her many clients for how to proceed should she not survive.

Even so, she worked with new clients, including Jimmy Dean Cook, who said he was punched by his cellmate and, after picking up his teeth off the floor, was denied medical treatment and then beaten by a jailer. A carpenter named Michael Perry told Karraker that he’d been held in the jail for 24 hours after getting into a fight with his neighbors over noise. He said the jailers ignored his broken fibula and then released him in the dead of night, and he spent four hours dragging his leg two miles to the house of a friend. (Perry filed a lawsuit in June.) “Not one damn thing has changed,” Karraker told me.

As the August 4th election approaches, and Karraker’s lawsuit over the Ames death edges towards a potential trial, stories from the jail continue to dominate the local Facebook groups. ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis non-profit that has sued jails in Missouri, contacted her and is looking for stories from the jail. But Karraker is handing off much of her work to others as her medical condition worsens. She recently noticed her fingernails turning blue, and she learned the cancer has spread to vital organs. She also needed surgery for an unrelated spinal issue; she remained awake during the operation even though she took a sedative. “I was on my feet an hour later and headed home,” she wrote in a text message. In late June, a doctor gave her three to six months to live. She wrote, “The good old boys will probably wish I’d died sooner.”

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.