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Posted on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 2:51 p.m.

Man sues over son's 2008 suicide at the Washtenaw County Jail

By Lee Higgins

Washtenaw County Jail officials failed to take reasonable actions to prevent a man from hanging himself in a maximum-security cell two years ago, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.

Robert Robertson is suing the county, former sheriff Daniel Minzey and numerous sheriff’s deputies over the death of his son, Rodney. The suit seeks at least $500,000.

Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, declined to comment this morning.

Rodney Robertson, who was jailed after a domestic dispute at his Ypsilanti Township home, hanged himself with a torn bed sheet attached to a light fixture on Aug. 12, 2008, the suit says. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead the following afternoon.

According to the lawsuit, jail officials failed to respond to warning signs that Robertson might make a suicide attempt. The day he died, the suit says, Robertson told two relatives in separate phone conversations recorded by jail officials that he wasn’t going to make it through the night.

He was crying during one conversation and said he "already tried to commit suicide in his cell," the suit says.

The lawsuit also says Robertson told a deputy during his Aug. 11, 2008 arrest that he had been off his medications to treat bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder for three months and was suicidal. According to the suit, Robertson told the deputy he was waiting for a Supplemental Security Income check to refill a prescription.

The suit claims officers should have notified their superiors after the phone conversations Robertson had with his relatives or put him in an observation cell.

In failing to do so, the suit alleges, they "acted so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern" whether Robertson would injure himself.

Four other defendants named in the suit and listed as officers at the jail are: Curt Graber, Thomas Arnett, Loree Kunath and Gerrod Visel. Other officers whose identities are not known to the plaintiff also are being sued.

Lee Higgins covers crime and courts at He can be reached by phone at (734) 623-2527 and e-mail at



Sat, Jun 8, 2013 : 5:03 a.m.

He got what he deserved n I hope he burns...he left 4 kids without a mother I hope they don't get a cent and I have no sympathy for him or his family


Wed, Nov 17, 2010 : 11:21 a.m.

I was in jail in Dec. of the same year Rodney death! It was very scary trying to figure out what happen. who to believe and who not? I am the step father of "Aaron" which is the son of Rodney. I have gotten to know the parnets some what and there sister. The thing that really got me was. The mother Carol Which loves her son very much, cause I saw the tears in her eyes. She told me that She Bailed Her son out at 5:00 p.m. Then at around 7:30 an C.O. Corectional Officer came up to her in the parking lot at Washthenaw Co. jail and ask her if she was Carol Robertson. Then she was informed that her son had taken his life a short time ago. This I find very odd 1) why didn,t they just let Rodney Go!! 2) Why did it take so long? Also the there were people that were out to get Rodney. 1) the proir wattriess that work at Big Boys The family were out for revenge. After what happen. Nobody is talking about this. I felt very sorry for Rodney. Jail is a scary place. Especially when your sick and no doctor. They just don,t care cause they have that choice to look the other way,Rodney Father loved his son very much. Not knowing what really happened but,C.O.,s know. I,m not saying all C.O.,s are bad. I think that like las Vegas What happens in jail stays in jail??? I am saying this because I think it the thing to do for Aaron! Tim Scrivnor (stepfather)


Fri, Aug 20, 2010 : 8:30 a.m.

The jail was not preventing him from taking his medication. He couldn't afford his meds because he couldn't hold a job. Let's not forget he was in custody for beating on the mother of his children. Real stand up guy.

Former Inmate

Tue, Aug 17, 2010 : 7:47 a.m.

Mr. or Ms. fortin911: Would you advocate withholding insulin from diabetic inmates, too? The fact that an inmate has been accused of a crime and is in jail does not make them lose the right to obtain medication for their illnesses. Inmates at the jail are in the care of Washtenaw County and are completely at their mercy. If your son or daughter made a mistake and ended up in the care of the officers at the local jail, would you say he or she deserved any ill treatment, or denial of life-saving medication, simply because they were accused of a crime in Washtenaw County?


Tue, Aug 17, 2010 : 12:56 a.m.

Why would anyone sympathise with Rodney's stupid behavior? Everyone in this county is doing better without him! Life is worth living even though Rodney chose not to. Rodney's parrents had their chance to influence his decisions in life and they failed him long before he arrived at the Washtenaw County jail.


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 11:20 p.m.

Suicidal ideation is a medical phenomenon and jail administrators are under a legal duty to use reasonble care to ensure that the medical conditions of all inmates are attended to. When jailers are deliberately indifferent to an inmate's needs in these regards legal liability may attach to the county officials who fail to discharge their respective duties. By holding such officials accountable, it will help ensure that these needs are addressed. Suicidal ideation is no different than any other potentially deadly condition. Jailers need to be cognizant of these issues and be trained to act accordingly.


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 7:24 a.m.

Rodney did this himself. It was his own choice. It was by his own hands. And the family needs to deal with it. Not sue for money and make me and other residents of Washtenaw county pay for Rodney's decision. No jail is a babysitter. They are not going watch every inmate 100% of the time. If he'd wanted to do it (and it looks like he did) he would have found a way. Drop the suit and get some counseling instead.

Former Inmate

Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 7:48 p.m.

I was an inmate at the Washtenaw County Jail during the time of this supposed "suicide." It seems highly suspicious. Read the end of the Washtenaw Jail Diary, Chapter 6 part 1, where, I believe, this death is discussed.


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 4:17 a.m.

Apparently you all missed the fact that Rodney told the deputy he was waiting on a check so he could get his medication, if someone says they are waiting to get something in the future a reasonable person would not think a suicide is imminent. Obviously the father only wants to gain from his sons death, anything for a check.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 9:54 p.m.

@stunhsif, You're spot on...


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 8:18 p.m.

@cash Of course being a parent does not end, regardless the age of the child. But that has nothing to do with my question. And yes, this was a terrible tragedy that should not have occured. But the question remains - how is it that the parent has standing to sue? Maybe he is suing on behalf of the estate? The article is unclear on this point.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 7:54 p.m.

Who in their right mind would award a parrent damages for their son's stupid behavoir? These are questions a jury will have to answer.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 4:20 p.m.

that is so sad lord have mercy


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 3:14 p.m.

average, Do you stop being a parent when your child is 35? I don't. I would fight for the rights of my child to the die I died.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 12:59 p.m.

According to the online records of the Washtenaw County Register of Deeds, Rodney Robertson was 35 years old. Can someone tell me - - what gives a parent of an adult standing to sue, especially for an amount like $500k? I understand if plaintiff were a spouse or a dependent, but not a parent of a legal adult. - depending on the answer to above, can then anyone (relatives, friends, John Q, etc.) join as a plaintiff in this suit if they feel aggrieved? Thx


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 12:39 p.m.

@johnnya2. You said: "The sheriff can not be put in jail for this. I don't care if it costs the taxpayers billions, elected officials have a duty of care. The county (people) elected somebody who failed in their duty. They should be the ones who pay." I bet you aren't a George Bush fan. How about we make you pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which Obama has continued, I might add), because you voted (presumably) and he got elected? Or were you planning to ferret out only the people who voted FOR the sheriff and make THEM pay. If so, how about we go after you for Obama's porkulus bills and the bail-outs? Sound good?


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 11:33 a.m.

stuns, The agency running a facility that incarcerates humans is responsible for their safety by law. Why? Well, maybe partly because we are a civilized society (for the most part). So yes, by law they are responsible for using good judgment in cases where any inkling of suicide is there. Thus, anyone who could be a risk is put on suicide watch, usually in an area of the prison where they can be watched closely. If you think that's luxury treatment perhaps you've forgotten the journal written at Ann Arbor Chronicle a few months ago. I think it is still available on line. The institution is of course not a mental health agency. They do not treat the inmate, but are expected to just keep them from harm, including harm self-inflicted.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 10:41 a.m.

Sad. And preventable. The bureau of justice guidelines for jails has banned fixtures that could be used to hang from for a couple of decades. BUT it grandfathers in facilities until funds are appropriated for upgrades. There have been ballot proposals to upgrade the Washtenaw County Jail for years. All have been voted down by those same taxpayers who will have to pay for this now. And before you say the few deputies on duty should monitor all hundreds of people in a chonically over-crowded jail you should check how staffing at our jail has dropped over the last decade. It is easy to find someone to blame. First, ask what your own responsibility is...I voted against several of these proposals for jail funding becasue I believed the 'pitch' that we should find a better solution than locking people up. More prevention, less incarceration. But, eventually, I realized that the need for incarceration has its place and looked deeper into the issue. I will take my share of the blame. And I will wait to see if the suit proves negligence or not before making judgements about the people working at the jail.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

What truly needs to be done to prevent events like this from happening is involvement and investigations by the state to determine what resources are out there to educate officers and why they are not properly educated and held personally acountable for their actions. Taking more money from the taxpayers will not solve departmental issues. Like I said before, this would not have happened if so.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 9:53 a.m.

To say lawyers are the only ones who win in this is just short sighted and ignorant. A family will have their case heard in a PUBLIC forum. They will win money, they will win changes at the jail. They could win a closure in knowing they might help a future person not allow their rights to get trampled on. They may win in helping others look for warning signs of suicide. The money aspect of this case is to show the sheriff's office what they did was wrong. It is unfortunate that based on current law,t he only punishment that can be collected is money. The sheriff can not be put in jail for this. I don't care if it costs the taxpayers billions, elected officials have a duty of care. The county (people) elected somebody who failed in their duty. They should be the ones who pay. If you sue Ford Motor Company and win, the argument could be made you only hurt employees who can;t get a raise or others are laid off. Money is the only way to get things through their heads sometimes.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 9:51 a.m.

Okay Tony, I will try again. Rodney had not been taking his bi-polar medication the past three months, is that the police departments fault? No, of course not. If he had been taking his medication he most likely would not have ended up in jail and this sad outcome would never have happened, at least not at the jail. This is a jail, not a psychiatric hospital and to expect the police to give "one on one" attention to make certain one does not harm ones self is not feasible or reasonable.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 8:42 a.m.

Why did no one know he was off his medication for three months? That is also very sad. I am not a doctor, but maybe this whole tragedy could have been prevented if he was able to get and stay on his medication. Funds for community mental health programs are consistantly being cut. There is little help if you cannot afford your medication.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 4:52 a.m.

@Tia Kring, I am so sorry. This is a disgrace. What do you think we, as taxpayers and citizens, could do to push for change at the jail? Please accept my condolences.


Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 4:49 a.m.

@pawky, If we were to follow that train of thought, the sheriff at that time would have announced to the public that he have changed the policy and procedures on suicide watch and apologized to the family and to the taxpayers for this tragedy happening in taxpayer funded facilities. Didn't see or hear that. The fact is that when people reach into our pockets, we pay attention! And we will now be watching this sheriff (this sheriff is not the one in the suit, but he is the one now responsible for making changes) to see that this tragedy is prevented in the future...not only because we don't like making payouts, but because we respect and value human life.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 9:16 p.m.

There are quite a few suicides that occur in this jail. My brother took his life in the very same place in 2000 at the young age of 17. All the fighting my family endured to changed the departmental policy on suicide and how officers deal with suicidal people has done nothing to change it. This young man would still be alive if so. My sympathy is with the Robertson family.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 7:47 p.m.

@Cash I still believe that the sheriff can be held accountable without cash payouts. The problem that I have is that people view lawsuits, padding an insurance claim, bankruptcy, walking away from an upside down mortgage that they can afford to pay, but choose not to, etc as free money. Ultimately, you and I pay for all of this through higher insurance premiums and interest rates. I dont know about you, my friend, but there are too many hands in my pockets already.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 6:06 p.m.

@pawky, First while taxpayers fund liability insurance, they do not make the payouts for settlements. But they will have to pay the insurance company rates that may increase if they lose this case! Second, money talks. If the family wins, the sheriff will need to clean up the suicide watch procedures. That in turn may save other lives. Now, if no suit was filed, there's no impetus to change. Money talks.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 5:59 p.m.

@Justice4all, Yes. But this sheriff will want to get elected again....thus he will want to be sure that all necessary procedures are in place for suicide watch. He will know the taxpayers are watching.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 5:28 p.m.

This is one lawsuit I hope the plantiff will win. Washtenaw County Jail officials are rude, insensitive, and unprofessional in their dealings with people under their care. Go git'em brother.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 5:11 p.m.

@cash "When you lose a child, an apology doesn't suffice, nor does a payment." I agree. I'm not sure why I was "moderated". I'll try again. I just don't understand why a large cash settlement funded by the taxpayers is the answer. Investigate the circumstances and make the needed corrections, if any. The sheriff is accountable to the people.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 5:05 p.m.

@Cash, you are correct the Sheriff is elected and the Sheriff that was in office when this happened lost.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 4:44 p.m.

@pawky, When you lose a child, an apology doesn't suffice, nor does a payment. However, the department will now have to make changes in the way it handles suicide watch. And that change may save the life of someone elses' child. So be it.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 4:39 p.m.

@Smiley, Suits like this absolutely change departmental policy! Major change happens after a court case like this. The court ruling will impact the way the jail staff deals with "suicide watch". The Sheriff does not want this to happen again as his future depends on it! In many jails the slightest mention of suicide or of mention of any absence of medication needed for mental or emotional balance....would put that inmate on suicide watch. Every step of this situation will be looked at for failures and new policy will be written. Remember, Washtenaw County Sheriff is an elected position!


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 3:19 p.m.

Suicide is a very sad thing no matter where, when or why it happens. I would like to personally like to invite the Robertson family, and everyone who is reading this, to attend the 2010 Ann Arbor "Out of the Darkness" Suicide Prevention Walk. This event will help prevent situations such as this. The walk is hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and is taking place on Sunday, September 19th at Gallup Park. Check-in begins at 11:00 a.m. and the walk starts at noon. Last year the walk had around 350 participants and we hope to exceed that this year. A major goal of this event is to show support for the families and friends of the 33,000 Americans who die by suicide each year and the 20 million people who suffer from depression. The walk is designed to help erase the stigma surrounding suicide and its causes, encourage those who are suffering from mental illness to seek treatment and also helps to raise funds for suicide prevention research and educational programs in the Ann Arbor area and around the country. On-line registration is now available at - just click on the "Find an Event Near You" link on the top right hand corner. You may register individually or you can create a team. It is FREE to register and attend. For more information please contact I truly hope that you all consider joining us at this event. The more people we can education about mental disorders and suicide warning signs, the more lives we can save.

Atticus F.

Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 3:14 p.m.

Well as I taxpayer, I understand that when the state gets sued, we all get sued...I just think we should be training our deputies to be more sensitive to the needs of people on medication.

Blue Marker

Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 2:45 p.m.

Atticus, I didn't mean to be insensitive to anyone's pain. It truly is a tragedy. What I meant is regardless of how this suit comes out the family will still be missing a member and I doubt there will be much if any change in the way sheriffs or deputies work. I am very sorry for the family.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 2:25 p.m.

I vehemently disagree with Atticus and Cash that these types of lawsuits have the actual effect they claim. Someone may get fired if something was done wrong...the taxpayers will fund a settlement...etc. But to claim these lawsuits have a lasting and material deterrent effect on the future behavior of other public employees is extremely unlikely.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 2:12 p.m.

Atticus, I agree. I am wondering if the relatives who spoke with him on the phone reported what he said immediately. Because those recorded calls aren't always listened to immediately but may be kept for a future problem etc....they aren't really meant to monitor every comment an inmate makes. But I would have to guess the relatives did immediately contact the jail warning them that he was suicidal. I'm sure it will all come out in the civil trial. It's heartbreaking that this happened.

Atticus F.

Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 2:04 p.m.

Blue Marker, thats not true...If we can prevent someone elses son or daughter from killing themselves, then it's not just the lawyers that have won. I personally knew Rodney. I was saddened to hear about his death, and still think about him to this day. It also troubles me to know that his death might have been prevented.

Blue Marker

Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 1:57 p.m.

Lawyers are the only ones who win in these situations.