Suit accuses Rio Arriba County jail, health care contractor of fatal negligence

March 22, 2019

A new lawsuit accusing the Rio Arriba County jail and its private health care contractor, VitalCore Health Strategies, of negligence and medical malpractice says a 48-year-old inmate with heart problems collapsed dead on the floor of his cell as he was set to be released in December.

Walter Stroop was arrested in mid-November on suspicion of stealing two packs of steaks from the Walmart store in Española, according to the complaint, filed Tuesday in state District Court on behalf of the man’s estate and his son, who is a minor.

Stroop was sentenced to 21 days in the jail in Tierra Amarilla beginning Nov. 11. Included in his inmate file, the suit says, was a list from Presbyterian Española Hospital of his medical conditions. Among the health issues listed were congestive heart failure and evidence of heart attack.

After Stroop complained of chest pain and was found to have severely high blood pressure during a health exam Nov. 12, the lawsuit alleges, medical staff gave him the drug clonidine, which can interact with heart medications.

Following Stroop’s exam, the lawsuit says, medical staff failed to properly monitor his worsening health.

However, the suit says, sometime between Nov. 14 and Dec. 2, a jail staff member or VitalCore employee asked the Española Police Department to take Stroop from the remote jail to the hospital because he was sick. According to the suit, an officer declined to help, saying that was not the agency’s job.

Then, the complaint says, at 10:49 a.m. Dec. 2, the day of Stroop’s scheduled release, a detention officer found him unresponsive on the floor of his cell. Medical staff began CPR about five minutes later, the suit says, and emergency medical technicians arrived around 11:25 a.m. But they were escorted back to their ambulance; the suit claims the jail didn’t have supplies to resuscitate Stroop. He was pronounced dead shortly after.

Rio Arriba County officials and representatives of VitalCore did not return messages to comment on the lawsuit.

Along with allegations of wrongful death, the lawsuit says the jail is not accredited by the American Correctional Association or the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

“The accreditation issue is something we are trying to figure out in the course of this lawsuit, said Robert Gentile, an attorney who is representing Stroop’s young son and the boy’s guardian in the case.

“This issue continually comes up,” Gentile said. “The contract between the facility and state require the accreditation. How they are being able to provide health care without one is an issue, and we are working to determine its cause.”

The complaint — which also names as defendants the Rio Arriba commissioners; the jail and its administrator, Larry DeYapp; VitalCore; unnamed jail staff; and unnamed VitalCore employees — lists 11 counts, including medical malpractice, negligence and wrongful death.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages in an amount to be determined by the court. Gentile said he expects the case to go to trial in the next 12 to 24 months.

“The allegations speak for themselves,” Gentile said. “We’re trying to get these questions about health care in correctional facilities answered.”