As immigrant’s health deteriorates in Seward County Jail, his wife pleads for mercy

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TOPEKA — Felipe Olvera Argueta was weeks away from being released from the Seward County Jail for a crime he didn’t commit when his wife in February received a distressing phone call from his attorney.

The undocumented immigrant from Mexico, suffering from a mental health breakdown, had climbed a wall and destroyed some ceiling tiles. His wife, Annette Yeruski, learned he faced new charges for property damage and trying to escape custody. As a result, she could no longer see him. For other reasons, he was in solitary confinement.

For Yeruski, this was the latest indication of her husband’s deteriorating mental health and Sheriff Gene Ward’s unwillingness to provide the support he needs.

“My husband knew he was going to be out in two or three weeks and on to the immigration process, so why would they accuse him of attempting to escape?” Yeruski said. “Yeah, he’s caused damage when he’s not in the right mind, and (Ward is) the reason that he’s out of control and mentally not there.”

Olvera Argueta now has spent nearly six months in jail after being pulled over for speeding in Texas and transferred to Kansas for a decade-old charge that was dropped. He remains in custody for the new charges and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold. During his stay, he has suffered from hallucinations, severe anxiety and a suicide attempt.

Yeruski is pleading with authorities to allow her husband a smooth transition to deportation — a process he went through twice before facing recent legal issues. She said the sheriff, who didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, has been abrasive and unresponsive toward attempts to address Olvera Argueta’s health and has consistently demonstrated racial bias against him.

Russell Hasenbank, the Seward County attorney, said Olvera Argueta has entered a guilty plea agreement in the new case and is set for sentencing Monday.

Olvera Argueta first faced legal trouble in 2010 for a rape case in Seward County, an accusation that caused him emotional distress, Yeruski said. After cooperating fully with the investigation and maintaining his innocence, the charges were dropped.

A year later, Olvera Argueta, now the owner of a taco trailer, learned the case was reopened. He returned to his hometown in Mexico, where he spent four years suffering from severe depression. 

After divorcing his first wife and longing to see his children, Olvera Argueta returned to the United States in 2014, settling in Austin, Texas, with his extended family.

There he met Yeruski, and shortly after they were married. Olvera Argueta recounted his experience with great difficulty, Yeruski said, but when a Google search returned no signs of his case, both assumed his troubles with the law had come to an end.

“We spent two years saving, building a taco trailer, a 20-footer, and we’re almost done,” Yeruski said. “He works construction in the meantime to earn money, and he goes early in the morning, and he’s pulled over for speeding.”

On Sept. 30, 2020, after being pulled over in Elgin, Texas, Olvera Argueta was arrested on a 10-year-old outstanding warrant in Seward County. After an issue-free stint in Bastrop County Jail in Texas, he was transferred Oct. 4 to Seward County Jail in Liberal, where his mental health began to decay.

An unresponsive jail

In Liberal, Yeruski and Olvera Argueta found a lack of available resources and conditions not conducive to mental and physical wellbeing.

Visitation appointments are difficult to procure, and inmates are allowed just 30-minute windows that must be scheduled two days in advance. Despite traveling nearly 10 hours from Texas to see her husband, little accommodations are made to ease the process for Yeruski.

She said she couldn’t get important information about her husband’s situation, which Bastrop County Jail had offered without hesitation.

Jonathan Justice, Bishop of the Liberal congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visits several area jails frequently. He said the Seward County Jail is far more difficult to access than others. He called it a “rough jail.”

“The county jails, if you’re a minister, you can pretty much go in and see anybody anytime you want, and they don’t have any problem with that,” Justice said. “But Liberal does. They’ve just got some very strict rules for what they do.”

In the Kansas jail, Olvera Argueta began to lose weight and, amid threats from other inmates, was transferred to solitary confinement where his mental health began to deteriorate, Yeruski said. She reported that he began to suffer from hallucinations and paranoia and began using concerning and suicidal language on a Friday before a scheduled visit.

Yeruski became worried, but efforts to contact the jail during the weekend proved fruitless.

On Monday, Nov. 23, Yeruski and Olvera Argueta’s son arrived at Seward County Jail for the visit, where Ward, the sheriff, notified them that Olvera Argueta had been moved to a local hospital after a suicide attempt the previous night. He was found in his cell laying in a pool of blood with lacerations on his head. Olvera Argueta was confused and combative but alert, asking about his children.

He was then airlifted to Wesley Medical Center in Wichita with lacerations on his liver.

Medical records from the hospital and counseling centers obtained by Kansas Reflector confirm the head injuries were self-inflicted. Records also indicate possible paranoid schizophrenia.

“Thank goodness there was no permanent brain damage,” Yeruski said. “This is something I tried to prevent, but I couldn’t get through to anybody.”

Despite promises from the sheriff that he will help her contact her husband, Yeruski had to wait until he was discharged to speak with him directly. A subsequent mental health evaluation resulted in a prescription of Celexa, an antidepressant, but Olvera Argueta’s mental state did not improve, Yeruski said.

Improper treatment

In the weeks following the suicide attempt, jail staff reported there were days where he would be “screaming, yelling, singing, dancing” and unable to sit still, according to an intake report from Southwest Guidance Center in Liberal. When he was at the hospital, he reported seeing people hurting his family and was yelling his daughter’s name.

Hoping to get better mental health treatment for Olvera Argueta, Yeruski called Ward to discuss options but was met with what she called rude and unprofessional behavior.

“He said he treats all of the inmates the same, and there are a lot of other grown men here that are just fine, as if to imply that there was something wrong with Felipe,” Yeruski said. “He grew agitated and said that I had two choices, to either contact the attorney or post bail.”

Olvera Argueta’s bail was set at $100,000, money that would have been lost as deportation would follow shortly after. 

In a later exchange in January, Yeruski said Ward began “violently yelling” at her, telling her he did not know what she was talking about. Yeruski said the exchange frightened her so much she immediately left Liberal.

With Olvera Argueta’s erratic behavior persisting and new struggles falling asleep, Yeruski began to pursue any option to help her husband recover. However, with the jail unwilling to cooperate, she found little recourse.

Sharon Brett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the general standard of care should prevent jail staff from being “deliberately indifferent” to serious medical and mental health needs. The U.S. Supreme Court held that that the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment requires the jail to provide this level of care but the interpretations of the standard provide significant latitude to correctional administrators in what course of treatment they provide.

Officials may still be held liable for failure to provide care only if they knowingly fail to take reasonable measures to address a “substantial risk of serious harm.”

“The courts have not really interpreted the Eighth Amendment to include a right to robust care,” Brett said. “They certainly have not interpreted it to include a right to access the same level or quality of care that you would if you were living in the community, and that’s unfortunate.”

Brett said those who feel proper care has been denied often have to file grievances and must exhaust all administrative remedies before pursuing litigation. Yeruski wasn’t inclined to prolong her husband’s stay by exhausting these options.

On Jan. 13, Yeruski finally received good news. The rape charge again was dropped and all that was left to do was sign some paperwork before the immigration process would commence. But within a month, Olvera Argueta would face new charges for his actions during mental health breaks. 

Other options

Since the new charges of property damage and attempted escape were filed, things have not gotten any easier, Yeruski said. Olvera Argueta picked up an additional count of aggravated escape in recent weeks, for which the case is still pending.

Yeruski has continued to push for a follow-up mental health evaluation. She has also spoken with her husband’s sister in Mexico, who has since brought the Mexican Consulate in Kansas City into the fold.

Yeruski said Ward has yet to respond to the consulate’s requests for a mental health evaluation. Olvera Argueta’s sister has since filed a petition with the office of the president of Mexico to expedite the deportation and address the abuse and neglect they allege Ward allowed.

In addition to mental health difficulties, Olvera Argueta has suffered from a worsening hernia since October for which he recently had surgery.

Olvera Argueta is currently being kept in solitary confinement and will be kept there until his sentencing, Yeruski said. That decision baffles her as she does not see her husband as a hardened criminal.

Yeruski knows her husband faces certain deportation if cleared, but she said she just wants him to be free of the trauma he has experienced in the custody at Seward County Jail. She has considered a lawsuit or pursuing a mental illness defense, but the advice she has received from attorneys indicated this would be a long and expensive process.

“Can my husband last another six months to try to show in a case that he was mentally ill during that time, and he didn’t know what he was doing when he did it?” Yeruski added. “I really feel uncomfortable with my husband being guilty because he’s not, given the circumstances.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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