A seven-person jury determined on Tuesday that there was nothing criminal about the hanging suicide in June of a man in the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
The jury made the finding after a coroner’s inquest, which is required by state law when a person dies while in law enforcement custody, into the death of 34-year-old Steven Tyler Russo.
Held at the county jail and presided over by Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis, the inquest included testimony from jail staff, investigators and medical personnel, all of whom were called by the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office.
Russo was arrested June 5 on suspicion of burglary, theft, obstructing and resisting arrest. The next day a little before 2:30 p.m., a detention officer found Russo unconscious and unresponsive in the shower.
He died a short time later at Billings Clinic. An autopsy indicated he died by hanging.
Four detention officers from the jail testified Tuesday that Russo, who’d been booked into the jail a handful of times in the past, didn’t give any indication that he might harm himself.
Jarred Anglin, a booking and escort officer, said Russo asked him if he could shower after his booking. While in the shower, Russo became emotional about being arrested but cheered up quickly, Anglin said.
He marked on Russo’s file that he’d become emotional with a note to keep an eye on him, but said on Tuesday that Russo didn’t give any reason for concern after.
“Russo didn’t demonstrate a need for strict watch,” he said.
Classification Officer Brian Degele was the next to encounter Russo that day when he interviewed Russo to determine where to place him in the jail. During that interview, Degele asked Russo if he was suicidal or had ever attempted suicide — standard procedure during such interviews — and Russo answered no to both.
Russo spent the night in the jail’s maximum-security and classification wing before he was transferred to a medium-security wing the next morning, on June 6.
James Shirley was the detention officer in charge of that wing for the day and told the jury on Tuesday that Russo didn’t show unusual levels of anxiety or anger.
“Usually a lot of people are pretty upset when they first come in” to the jail, he said.
During the lunch break for his section, Russo ate and checked out a newspaper before asking to use a first-floor shower a little after 2 p.m., Shirley testified.
Shirley told him to go ahead and went about his duties, announcing the 2:15 p.m. lockdown and making sure the inmates returned to their cells.
During a check and head count, Shirley noticed Russo was missing and his cellmate reported he was still in the shower.
Shirley found Russo in the shower and reported on Tuesday that Russo used his prison-issued boxer shorts to hang himself from a knob in the shower.
He called for help and, with the aid of another officer, pulled Russo from the shower. Jail staff and nurses performed CPR on Russo until an ambulance crew arrived at 2:30 p.m.
Jeff Crow, an American Medical Response paramedic and operations supervisor who responded, said that due to the quick response and call from the jail staff, he decided to take Russo to Billings Clinic.
“I figured there was probably a chance,” he said.
Russo died at the clinic.
Dr. Tom Bennett, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Russo, testified that there was no sign of struggle by Russo nor was there any indication of foul play or that somebody else was involved.
He said that it only takes 5 to 15 pounds of pressure on the neck to cut off veins and arteries and about 30 pounds of pressure to cut off the airway.
He went on to say that a person can lose consciousness in 15 to 30 seconds from such pressure and suffers irreversible brain damage after three minutes.
“Mr. Russo died as a result of asphyxiation by hanging,” Bennett said.
Russo also had a nonlethal amount of methamphetamine in his system, Bennett said.
The jury also heard from Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Cunningham, who was in charge of the investigation into Russo’s death.
He said that a lengthy investigation, which he approached as a homicide until proven otherwise, determined Russo’s death was a suicide.
“What we learned is Mr. Russo took his own life,” Cunningham said.
The jury deliberated for about 10 minutes before deciding Russo’s death was a suicide and didn’t come about by criminal means.
Russo’s death was the second suicide at the county jail this year and the second in nine years. In May, a coroner’s jury ruled that the Jan. 18 death of Chad Shuler, an inmate at the jail, was a suicide and not criminal.
He hanged himself by wedging a sheet into his cell door.
Three more coroner’s inquests are pending in Yellowstone County. The inquest into the Jan. 6 shooting death of Daniel Brawley by Billings Police Officer Dave Punt is scheduled to begin on Nov. 5.
Hearings into the May 17 shooting death of Thomas Hilger by a sheriff’s deputy and the July 5 shooting death of escaped Montana State Prison inmate Dean Randolph Jess on the West End will also be held.
County Attorney Scott Twito said dates for those two inquests have not yet been set.