Ryan Everson died in jail over a missed child support payment. His family needs answers

 (Noel Everson)
(Noel Everson)

Twelve hours before 42-year-old Ryan Everson died inside a cell at the Clay County Jail, he promised his brother Noel Everson over the phone that he would travel from Missouri to attend his wedding this summer. Ryan, who was in prison for missing $600 in back-paid child support and was experiencing seizures from opiate withdrawal, told his brother he wanted to move to Hawaii and turn his life around.

“The last conversation we had, he told me, ‘Dude, will you make sure to keep money on my books? Will you make sure to keep phone time on?’” Noel tells The Independent. “I was like, ‘Absolutely, you’ll have phone time. I’m not going to spoil you, but I’ll get you what you need.’”

“He said, ‘Listen, I’m gonna be at your wedding, I promise I’m going to be there, I can’t wait. I just want to get out and move back to Hawaii’.”

But in the early morning hours of 23 January, after spending 10 days in custody, Ryan was found unresponsive by guards. His mother and brother were told that Ryan died by suicide, but three months after his death — the third in the facility within the last two years — many questions remain. Why, for instance, did the father of three land in jail over a simple case of missed child support instalments? And why was there such an apparent lack of proper medical treatment available for his seizures?

Shawna Almendarez, Ryan’s ex-wife and the mother of his children, told The Independent that she was against his arrest but felt pressured to follow through with child support demands so her kids could keep their medical insurance.

“They kind of forced me to do the enforcement because they told me that I would lose health insurance for my kids, the medical,” an emotional Ms Almendarez said in a phone interview. “That’s the only thing I get help from the state with is medical and just for my kids. I enforced it because I didn’t want them to lose that.”

Ryan’s addiction had spiralled out of control in the last years of life. He was struggling financially and relying on the kindness of friends and family to get along. At one point, he lived in an abandoned house and, later, at another property that had sustained serious smoke damage from a fire.

But despite his mounting issues, he had hoped to go to rehab and beat his addiction so he could finally have the close relationship he craved with his children.

‘He loved his children’

When Ms Almendarez moved to Missouri from Alaska in 2015 following her divorce from Ryan, he followed. He said he didn’t want to be far away from his kids.

According to court documents reviewed by The Kansas City Star, prosecutors estimated that he owed $30,272 in Alaska and had missed $600 in payments in Missouri.

Because of his struggle with addiction, Ryan had not been in communication with his children for a year. Ms Almendarez said that although she knew he was a devoted father and it was a very hard decision, she and her children distanced themselves from Ryan due to his lifestyle.

“He loved his kids so much. Anybody that knew him, the first thing they ever tell me is, ‘He loved you guys so much,’” Ms Almendarez said. “He struggled with child support but that was never an issue to me. His life was a lot more important, and having my kids [eventually] have a relationship with their dad was important.”

Ryan Everson died while in custody at Clay County Jail (Noel Everson/Facebook)
Ryan Everson died while in custody at Clay County Jail (Noel Everson/Facebook)

Not having contact with his children was difficult for Ryan, but also motivated him to get better, according to his brother Noel. He said that Ryan was flawed and unreliable at times, but agreed that his ultimate purpose was to regain his loved ones’ trust.

“He did struggle with depression and was heartbroken over his kids,” Noel told The Independent. “He might not have been the best guy in the world, but he was a major lover. He loved his kids, they were his world. I can’t even tell you how many times he’s cried to me about his kids.”

But hopes that Ryan would recover from his addiction are now gone as his family is left wondering how his incarceration over a nonviolent offence led to his death. They claim that the combination of an unfair and ruthless legal system and alleged neglect by jail officials factored into the tragedy.

“Everybody loses from this, you know. The kids lose their father, I lost my brother. My mom loses a son,” Noel added. “And really, the world loses my brother. He might have been messed up but he was such a good person.”

Ryan Everson’s family alleges neglect

Noel said that his brother complained several times during his phone conversations about the seizures he was suffering. Ryan, who was experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from opioids, told Noel that he had fallen and hit his face several times during those episodes.

“He had told me on the phone about him having seizures, I was really concerned about him,” Noel said. “He didn’t feel like they were doing enough to help him. He told me that he had a big cut and had busted his eye open and broke his nose after falling.”

Noel claimed that while some of the time inmates in neighbouring cells initially alerted guards when Ryan was having seizures, her brother was later placed in an unmonitored cell and left by himself. Ryan was later taken to a hospital during his stay at the prison and was under medical watch until three days before his death.

A spokesperson for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office told The Independent that prisoners undergo medical and mental health assessments when they are booked in. The department said that Ryan was not placed on suicide watch because he did not exhibit symptoms of emotional distress.

Ryan was briefly taken to a medical facility on 15 January before he returned to the jail the next day. He was placed under medical watch until 20 January and was then returned to general population, according to the jail.

“Inmates are constantly monitored by video and in person during the day when they are in their dayrooms, and when they are locked in their cells at night, they are checked hourly by detention staff,” the jail said in a statement, denying neglect.

Ryan was last seen alive around 11pm on 22 January. A detention officer found him hanging from his bunk bed an hour later, according to an autopsy report reviewed by The Independent.

In addition to the seizures he suffered, Noel said that Ryan had head trauma. He had suffered an injury that led to a brain bleeds years before, and still lived with the effects. His family has asked law enforcement whether there is a chance his health condition played a part in his death, but have not received conclusive answers pending an ongoing investigation.

“He’s having seizures so they put him in a cell by himself? How does that make sense? Why would you put somebody [like that] in a cell that’s not being monitored?” Noel added. “Where he can’t ask for help. He should have had a cellmate or he should have been [under] medical [watch].”

‘They set him up for failure and then punished him for it’

Prosecutors in Clay County have said that they issued both a court summons and a warrant that Ryan did not comply with, which then led to his arrest. But his family say that his lack of permanent residence and active addiction likely made it hard for him to keep track of court dates in the child support case.

Along with the lack of empathy that Noel said his family experienced when they were first informed of Ryan’s death, he said his brother could have benefited from a more compassionate approach by the legal system. Considering that Ryan’s crime was not violent and that he was behind in payments because he couldn’t even afford to pay rent, he belonged in rehab, Noel said, not in jail.

“He didn’t have a home to receive a letter, you know, or maybe they told him the date. He’s a drug addict. You think he’s going to remember?” Noel said. “He didn’t have any means of transportation. Maybe he tried to go. Maybe he did remember and he was walking there and missed it.

“We just don’t know like, but they just set him up to fail. And then punished him for it.”

Ryan Everson and his brother Noel Everson as children (Noel Everson)
Ryan Everson and his brother Noel Everson as children (Noel Everson)

His bond was lowered to $5,000 three days before his death, but Ryan’s family said he still couldn’t afford that sum. Ryan also reportedly did not have a lawyer during his 17 January bond hearing, which was his constitutional right.

“Where was his legal team? Why didn’t he have a lawyer present? At his initial hearing. He’s kicking drugs so he’s not feeling good. All he wants to do is probably go back and lay down or get the shower. A clear-minded [person] can probably defend themselves but not someone coming off heroin or fentanyl,” Noel said.

“Opiates are freaking brutal. He needed somebody to stand up for him and be his voice.”

‘He deserved a chance’

Ryan was deeply troubled. During the last years of his life, he relied on financial support from his brother and mother to make ends meet. He had once been a carpenter but addiction robbed him of his ability to provide for himself.

Noel likens his brother’s illness to an aggressive type of cancer that he fought tooth and nail until the day he died.

“[People who struggle with addiction] deserve a chance. Probably more than anybody,” Noel told The Independent. “Give them some help. He needed treatment. That’s what he needed. Jail was not the place for him; he was not a violent criminal.”

“There needs to be more guidance in that direction and into substance abuse. It is a real deal. They need to focus on how to help people overcome their addiction, not incarcerate [nonviolent criminals] — that doesn’t help anybody.”

Ms Almendarez said she now lives with lingering feelings of guilt and sadness. She and her children are trying to move on with their lives, but the grief comes in waves, she said.

“Ryan had talked about when he got out that he was going to go to rehab because he missed his kids so much that he was just dying to see them,” she said, through tears. “He was a good guy. He did everything in his power that he could to let his kids know how much he loved them.”

Ms Almendarez has been in touch with the daughter of a woman who died while in custody at Clay County last year. Ryan is one of two inmates to have died by suicide at the jail in the past year, while another individual died as a result of an overdose.

“I want this to end. I want the word to be out,” Ms Almedarez said. “I think the laws on child support need to change here, but also the medical response in the jail system. It’s so bad and they need to know how to deal with addicts. I don’t think they know the first thing about addiction and how to handle someone coming down from it.”

If you are based in the US and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

If you are based in the UK or Ireland and are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offer support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.