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Man charged with manslaughter after cellmate dies in Spokane County Jail

FILE - The Spokane County Jail. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - The Spokane County Jail. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A man being held in the Spokane County Jail for failing to register as a sex offender now faces a second-degree manslaughter charge in connection with the death of his cellmate last week.

The charge against Anthony J. Weber, 35, was filed Monday in Spokane County District Court. He is accused of brawling with and causing the death of 56-year-old Christopher N. Luman, who was the seventh inmate to die at the downtown jail in about 14 months.

The fistfight happened early last Thursday in a cell that also held eight other inmates. The cell is in the jail’s annex, a part of the Public Safety Building that sits adjacent to the main jail building and is used to hold sex offenders and other inmates who might be targeted in the general population.

After the fight, Luman was bleeding and complaining of difficulty breathing. At about 1:35 a.m., he asked that a cellmate push a button in the cell to sound an emergency alarm, according to court documents. Corrections officers and medical personnel tried to save him, but Luman became unresponsive and was pronounced dead at 2:13 a.m.

Following an autopsy on Friday, Dr. John Howard, the county’s medical examiner, told detectives that Luman had suffered from severe coronary artery disease, and that his death “was precipitated by the physical exertion and stress suffered by Luman during the altercation with Weber,” according to court documents.

One cellmate also told detectives that Luman had complained of breathing problems to jail nursing staff a night or two before his death. It’s not clear if he had been receiving treatment or medication for his heart condition. The jail contracts with an Alabama company, NaphCare Inc., to administer inmates’ medical care.

Sgt. Tom Hill, a spokesman for Spokane County Detention Services, said he couldn’t discuss Luman’s medical care because it is confidential and because his death remains under investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office has not operated the jail since 2013, but its detectives are tasked with investigating inmate deaths.

Weber had been in jail since March, when he was arrested for failing to give law enforcement a current home address after moving from a residence in Reardan. He’s been a “level one” sex offender since he was convicted of two counts of taking indecent liberties – a charge distinguished from rape under Washington law – in Pierce County in 1997.

Luman had been in jail since July 2016, when he was arrested, along with a dozen other people, as part of a sting operation targeting child predators in Spokane County. A jury found him guilty of two counts of first-degree attempted child rape, and last month he was sentenced to 90 months of imprisonment.

Cellmates described fight

In their cell in the annex, the two men had shared a bunk – Weber on top, Luman on the bottom.

According to court documents, Weber refused to speak with detectives about the fight, and five cellmates claimed they had not witnessed the incident; they said they awoke only when someone sounded the emergency alarm.

But detectives did obtain statements from three inmates who were in that cell and three inmates from an adjacent 10-person cell that is separated only by a wall of metal bars. Those witnesses asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation, according to court documents, which identify them only as “concerned citizen informants.”

They reported that Luman had been upset with Weber for talking loudly and making noise late into the night. When Luman told him to shut up, Weber jumped down from his bunk and became physically aggressive. Profanity was exchanged. It’s not clear who threw the first punch, but Luman managed to get Weber on the ground.

One cellmate said that Luman had Weber in a “hold,” and another described the move as an “arm bar,” a grappling maneuver in which the opponent’s elbow joint is hyperextended. One cellmate said Luman appeared to momentarily “pass out” while on top of Weber.

The fight was brief. At one point, Luman told Weber, “You need to stop before something comes of this,” a cellmate told detectives. When the two men agreed to stop fighting, Weber used a white towel and some disinfectant spray to wipe Luman’s blood off the floor.

The cellmates’ accounts vary only slightly. One said Luman asked to activate the alarm just 15 seconds after the fight; others said Luman returned to his bunk, and a few minutes passed before he made the request.

While searching the cell, detectives found blood stains on some bedsheets hung near the toilet area and a bloody towel wrapped inside a yellow jail-issued shirt, also near the toilet.

On the floor where the fight occurred, investigators applied a compound called leucocrystal violet, which reacts with blood to give it a violet color. While there was no blood visible to the naked eye, the reaction revealed streaks of blood residue that appeared to have been wiped with a towel, according to court documents.

A detective tried to interview Weber a few hours after the incident. He wrote that Weber appeared to have “fresh, but only very small and slight” abrasions on his left shoulder and right elbow. After obtaining a search warrant, detectives obtained DNA swabs and fingernail clippings from Weber to corroborate the cellmates’ accounts.

During Luman’s autopsy, officials noted blood on his clothes, nostrils, forehead, left hand and left forearm.

No cameras in cells

The annex is the same part of the jail where Justin T. Betts was assaulted by a cellmate in April 2012. Betts, who is in his 30s and has a history of mental illness, fell to the ground and suffered a skull fracture when the other inmate punched him from behind.

Betts sued the county, claiming jail staff had acted negligently by failing to protect him from the other inmate, and received a $75,000 settlement last year. Among other things, his attorney questioned why the assault was not captured on tape, and whether inmates in the annex were receiving adequate supervision. At the time, corrections officers were expected check the annex cells every 30 minutes, a jail official said in a deposition in the case.

Hill, the jail spokesman, confirmed Monday there are no cameras facing into the cells in the annex.

“There’s a long hallway with an east camera and a west camera, and that’s it,” Hill said. “So you can see basically who goes into the cells, but you can’t see what’s going on inside.”

He said jail officials are “always looking for ways to improve our video system” and that the goal is to have all cells monitored at all times. But, he said, such a system would be expensive.

Cameras in jails and prisons have come under scrutiny as a possible invasion of inmates’ privacy, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that prisoners have no reasonable expectation of privacy that must be protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Online sting nets arrest

The sting operation that sent Luman to jail in 2016 was conducted by the Washington State Patrol’s Missing and Exploited Children Task Force.

According to court documents, Luman responded to a Craigslist ad in which a WSP detective posed as a mother offering sex with her three young children, and in text messages, he made sexual comments about the kids. He also showed up with condoms and candy at what he thought was the mother’s residence, where he was arrested by undercover officers.

He’d had several previous run-ins with the law dating back to 1982, including convictions for drug possession, burglary and grand theft in California, and for fourth-degree domestic assault in Yakima County. Before the sting, he had never been charged with a sex crime.

In a written statement he provided to the state Department of Corrections before his sentencing, Luman indicated he had responded to the detective’s ad in a moment of weakness and despair. He wrote that his wife of 21 years – with whom he had raised three children, including a son with autism and a daughter adopted from an abusive family – had cheated on him, and so he had left home in Yakima to stay with a cousin in Spokane.

Luman wrote that when he heard back from the “mother” behind the ad, he was confused by her offers and did not think she was serious about the kids.

“In the eyes of the law I’m guilty and I did say those things and go over there but (it) was to have sex with the mother,” Luman wrote. “If there were minors there I would not have stayed.”

A report prepared by the Department of Corrections states that Luman “took some ownership for his offense” during a pre-sentencing interview.

“While he stated that he went to the residence to engage in sex with the mother, not the children, he did acknowledge the sexual comments he made and understands how that impacted his conviction,” the report states. “He stated he planned to just leave if the woman truly wanted him to engage in sex with her children. He stated he thought she was ‘just a kinky woman.’ He stated, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking; I wasn’t thinking clearly.’ ”

The report adds, “It is difficult to determine if Mr. Luman truly has deviant arousal to minor-aged children or if this was his response to the chaos that was going on in his relationship and in his life. Sex offender treatment is recommended in order to explore the extent of his deviancy and to help him gain understanding about why he made the choices he did.”


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