Medical episode leaves woman brain-damaged after failed jail suicide

Tonja Dawnette Thomas

BISBEE — A Willcox woman suffered brain damage and requires assistance to breathe after she experienced an unspecified medical episode in the county jail July 14, three days after she tried to hang herself in a cell.

Tonja Dawnette Thomas was taken to Copper Queen Hospital in the early morning of July 14 after a detention officer found her in medical distress. She had been on 15-minute security checks since her return to the jail after an earlier hospitalization for the failed July 11 suicide attempt.

Two hours later, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), which operates the jail, obtained a judicial order that released Thomas, 35, from custody so her medical care could be addressed without the county’s involvement.

Thomas was then airlifted to Tucson Medical Center, where she was in a coma for several days, according to her stepfather, Sean Horton. She remains at TMC for treatment.

“She’s a little bit responsive at times, but she won’t ever be right,” Horton told the Herald/Review on Saturday. “And they put in a trach tube so she can breathe.”

Jail records show Thomas was booked into jail July 9 on a warrant issued in May out of the Benson Justice Court for a 2015 misdemeanor drug case. She was found at 6:22 p.m. on July 11, in the process of hanging herself with clothing she crafted as a noose.

A detention officer removed the ligature and provided emergency medical treatment until Thomas was transported to Copper Queen. Jail staff remained at the hospital while she received care, CCSO spokeswoman Carol Capas said. Thomas underwent a crisis assessment after hospital medical staff cleared her to return to the jail, Capas said, and jail records show Thomas was back in her cell July 12.

Detention officers monitored her via the 15-minute checks with no reported issues until 3:45 a.m. on July 14, Capas said.

Citing privacy considerations, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels declined to release details of Thomas’ July 14 medical episode, but confirmed for the Herald/Review that it didn’t involve a second suicide attempt.

“My thoughts and prayers are with Ms. Thomas and her family during this difficult time,” the sheriff said.

Dannels noted his detention staff train for a variety of crises, including medical emergencies, but some situations are beyond staff control.

“We take all precautions to protect those in custody, within reason, to include addressing medical care,” Dannels said. “Unfortunately, whether in my custody or someone else’s, the unforeseen does happen, to include medical complications.”

The day Thomas was booked into jail on the warrant is the same day she was set to be sentenced in Cochise County Superior Court under terms of a plea deal in three felony theft and drug cases.

Presiding Judge James Conlogue will hold a review hearing next month to determine how to proceed with those cases.

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