Former Obion mayor: Man’s death not caused by police officer
Posted: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 9:09 pm
By: John Brannon, Staff Reporter
By JOHN BRANNON
Obion Police Chief Royce Akers’ letter of reprimand to patrolman Jimmy Wilson Monday evening failed to satisfy the town’s police committee.
Instead, the committee declared the letter of reprimand insufficient — “not severe enough” — as punishment for Wilson’s conduct and referred the matter to the city council for action.
Meeting in called session at 6 p.m. Monday at Obion City Hall, the committee heard about 50 minutes of testimony about an Aug. 4 incident at the Obion Police Department and at the 513 Watkins St. home of the late George W. Collins.
Collins, 82, died Aug. 7 at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital after being transported by air ambulance from Obion about 3 p.m. Aug. 4.
Alderman Polk Glover chairs the police committee. Other members are aldermen Ernie Long, Tony Bullion, Barry Elliott and Dana Hutchens. Bullion did not answer roll call at the Monday evening meeting.
Other officials attending the called meeting were Akers, Wilson and Obion city attorney Roger Fisher. Former mayors Glen Parnell and Patsy Barker also attended.
At the outset, Glover told the committee, “We are not here to decide anything, but only to review (the issue) and make a recommendation to the city board which meets Thursday evening.”
He then allowed testimony to begin. Speakers were Renee Webber, Patti Jennings, Akers, Wilson, David Glover and Ms. Webber’s father, Jere Cutler.
Here is a brief account:
• Collins, a long-time resident of Obion, was a recluse. His nearest relatives were a sister in Bartlett and a nephew in Carbondale, Ill.
• About 11:45 a.m. Aug. 4, Obion city recorder Jana Fluty called Wilson, who was on patrol duty that day, requesting him to go to Collins’ home and check on his welfare. Aug. 4 was a brutally hot day with high humidity.
• Wilson said he knew Collins and, in fact, had known him a long time. He said he went to Collins’ house, knocked several times on the front door, but got no answer. He said it was common knowledge that “George” was hard of hearing.
He said he could hear a radio playing in the house. A fishing line was tied to the screen door, keeping it closed. He cut the line and pushed on the door.
“I stuck my head in the door. Mr. Collins was sitting on a couch. He didn’t have a shirt on,” Wilson said. “I looked straight at him. I said, ‘Mr. Collins, are you OK?’ He said, ‘I’m fine.’ I said, OK.’
“It was hot in the house. He doesn’t have an air conditioner, but the ceiling fan was on and a 20-inch box fan was on a stand blowing on him.
“So I pulled the door to. And I shut the screen door and I came on back (to the station). I’m not for sure but I think I called City Hall and told them Mr. Collins was OK.”
• About 12:30 p.m., Ms. Webber and Ms. Jennings went to the Obion police station to try to get some help for Collins. They had just come from his home and were concerned that he was in great distress. Wilson told them that he had just checked on Collins.
“Ms. Webber told me that God had called her about Mr. Collins and that He put him on her heart,” Wilson said.
Ms. Webber testified that Wilson told her, “Well, God didn’t call me.”
Wilson said it was at a time when the police department was in the process of moving from its old headquarters to a new one. There was no radio service at the new building; a tower was up but radio and telephone service had not been provided. In fact, his only means of communication was a hand-held walkie-talkie.
“I told them I had just been out there and Mr. Collins told me that he was fine,” Wilson said. “He wasn’t bleeding anywhere, he wasn’t lying on the floor, he didn’t pass out, he didn’t have nothing turned over on him. He looked me straight in the eye and told me he was fine.
“I don’t know what they expected of me. I did a welfare check on him. He told me he was fine. They asked, ‘Well, can’t we call 911?’ I said, ‘Y’all can, I don’t even have a telephone.’”
Ms. Webber said Wilson asked her who was going to pay the $800 or $900 if an ambulance came and Collins wouldn’t go to a hospital.
“I told them he’s not the only one in town in this situation. We’ve got several that’s in bad shape. I see them because I deliver Meals on Wheels every other Monday. Some of them are living in houses that are unfit to live in. Roaches everywhere. One place, you can’t walk on the floor without crushing bugs. I don’t know how anybody lives in this situation. They don’t complain to anybody. We try to help them when we can.
“Unless they break the law, my hands are tied. We had no formal training about evaluating mental conditions or psychological conditions. Or their health, period. We’re not trained in that. We are trained to enforce the law and the city ordinances of the town.
“I can’t call an ambulance and make Mr. Collins go to a hospital.
“(These ladies) wanted to know what to do. I told them everything I knew to do — go to City Hall, contact the next of kin. Or talk to our chief. He’s got a lot more latitude and he’s known Mr. Collins for years.”
• Mrs. Jennings said she was at Rack & Sack Restaurant in Obion when Ms. Webber came in and shared her concern with her about Collins. She said God had put it on her heart to go check on him. So the two went to his house where they finally gained entrance, thanks to a neighbor, via a side door.
“We were there at 12:45 p.m., which would have been 30 minutes after the police officer said he was there,” she said. “(A neighbor) let us into the house.
“I tell you, he looked like a wild man. He was covered in some sort of rash or insect bites. Each little spot had a red spot, just like a bite mark. His entire upper torso was covered. He didn’t have a shirt on. Had had his britches pulled down a little, the legs rolled up. It was unbelievably hot in the house. I know it was over 100 degrees. He had one fan leaned against a chair facing the couch that he was lying on. The couch had sheets on it that were so soiled; they looked like they’d been dyed, just brown from filth. His white hair was sticking straight up, his eyes were glazed over, he was like hyper-ventilating, just real shallow, fast breaths.
“We knew he was in distress. I said to him, ‘Mr. Collins, I’m Patti. Do you know who I am?’ He said ‘yes.’ But he didn’t know who we were, he was so out of it. We didn’t want to get him all agitated. We knew this man was real hard-headed and he had denied any kind of help, he didn’t want to be a charity case. Only thing I said to him was, ‘Mr. Collins, I promise you this: You’ll not spend another night in this house.’
“There were no ceiling tiles in the living room. There was no window open in the house, so there was no ventilation. The urine stench would burn your nostrils. There was spoiled food, half filled dishes all over the table. The counter top, the sink were full. I used to sell insurance, I’ve been in some filthy places, but I tell you what, I didn’t want to touch anything in there. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
“He hasn’t had an air conditioner in 25 years. He didn’t have hot water at the time we were there. There was no bathing going on.”
It was then that she and Ms. Webber went to the Obion police station to try to get some help for Collins. Unsuccessful there, they found Obion Police Chief Akers and told him of the situation.
• Akers called 911 and succeeded in getting an immediate dispatch of an ambulance to Obion. But it was delayed an hour because it had to work a wreck on Reelfoot Avenue. It was learned that an air ambulance helicopter would be dispatched to help them. He and Wilson went to Collins’ home and got him and put him into a patrol car and took him to the intersection of Seventh Street and Cemetery Road, where the air ambulance would land and pick him up.
Meanwhile, a hospital ambulance crew from Dyer County had learned of the Collins situation via chatter on their radios and came to Obion to assist. Akers said they helped stabilize Collins until the air ambulance arrived and took him to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital.
A hard case
At the Monday meeting, after lengthy discussion, David Glover stood and made a statement to those assembled in the little room at Obion City Hall. The essence of his message was, “Folks, we all bear some responsibility in this.”
Ms. Jennings said there are people in Obion who have tried to help Collins over the years. He was offered an air conditioner but turned it down because he thought it would run up his electric bill.
“He just did not want to be a charity case,” she said. “He was a hard case, a very hard case. … This didn’t happen in a week. It’s been going on for years and years.
“I personally feel that had we been able to get him out of that house at 12:45, he might be alive today. But as the day wore on, the house continued to heat up. It was hot, had been for several days. He was severely dehydrated. When I first said to Renee that officer Wilson had entered the house at 12:15, I said, ‘That is all the reason right there that this man should be reprimanded.”
Is the letter of reprimand sufficient punishment for Wilson?
“I can’t speak for Renee (Webber), and I hate to see anybody lose their job in these times,” she said. “I will say this: I would hate to know that my life or the lives of my loved ones was in his hands. I would not feel safe, I would not feel protected by the law.”
Akers’ letter of reprimand to Wilson addressed a plethora of individual complaints and advised him it is issued not because of violation of any policies and procedures, but because “this situation was not handled as it should have been.”
“But I do not think it was anything done intentionally or for spite,” he added. “He did what all of us have done before. He made a mistake and when I talked to him about it and gave him a copy of the complaint, he did not deny or try to sugar-coat anything in the statement. A lot of people made mistakes that day, but I am only dealing with Officer Wilson.”
Mrs. Barker speaks
Former Obion Mayor Patsy Barker said two or three years ago, she advised Collins that the Council on Aging was furnishing small air conditioners to senior citizens such as he, but he turned it down.
She said Collins was a smart man, a collector of antiques and rare books and used to come talk to her when she was mayor.
“But on into the years, his mind started slipping, and he had a lot of medical problems,” she said. “He had heart problems and kidney problems. I think it was his wish just to be let alone. That’s the way he wanted it. Neighbors checked on him. It wasn’t as if Obion turned its back on him. The two ladies who went (to his house), bless them. They felt a need and they went. I told them, ‘You can be thankful he spent his last days in a hospital where it was clean and cool. Just be thankful for that.”
And about Obion police officer Jimmy Wilson? How does Ms. Barker feel about his situation?
“There were mistakes made all around,” she said. “There were a lot of people who could have called 911. It wasn’t just the policeman.
“That man’s death was not caused by that police officer.”
Wilson told The Messenger he feels his job is in jeopardy. He said he got little sleep Monday night after the police committee meeting.
“I could understand it if I’d done something wrong, had I been trained in this or had I broken the law or a city ordinance,” he said. “But I don’t feel I’ve done anyhing wrong. I did the welfare check. The man told me he was fine.”
Will he remain with the Obion Police Department?
“It depends on the outcome of this,” he said.
John Brannon may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 9.8.10