A convicted murderer under observation for behavioral problems was allowed to remain in his cell as he destroyed a radiator over an 8-hour period, eventually flooding the tier with water and scalding himself to death, according to an internal investigative report obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Prison officials wouldn't say if they disciplined any of the three correctional officers who were placed on administrative leave after Louis S. Leysath III was fatally burned Feb. 20 at the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution near Baltimore.
Prison officials had disclosed the death but not the details and timeline.
Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen Moyer, when asked about the incident Tuesday, gave a condensed version of the investigative report.
"Yes, a huge metal cover was pulled off of the heating system, and the steam got on him and he did pass away," Moyer said.
Attorney William Renahan said he has filed a wrongful death claim with the state on behalf of Leysath's family, a first step toward a possible civil lawsuit.
"They should have removed him," using force if necessary, Renahan said in a telephone interview. "How does the cell get filled with steam, to the point that you get steamed to death, if somebody's watching you?"
An internal criminal investigation concluded there was no foul play. The report, obtained through a Public Information Act request, included recommendations for maintaining effective communication between shifts and ensuring that staff members know how to resolve emergency situations.
Leysath, 35, was serving a 30-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2010 to first-degree murder in Charles County. The day before he died, he was placed on single-cell, "close observation" status due to odd behavior, including talking and smiling inappropriately. His autopsy revealed high levels of diphenhydramine, an over-the-counter antihistamine that can cause hallucinations and disorientation.
Staff members told investigators Leysath was talking to himself and kicking the walls and cell door. By about 7:30 p.m., he had kicked loose the radiator cover.
Leysath was taken out of the cell without incident while custodial workers removed the cover. Then he was put back in.
Lt. Boehnflahn Herring said in a written statement that Leysath was calm and compliant while the cover was removed. Herring said he told Capt. Odette-Henry McCarthy "the cell was safe for the inmate to return."
McCarthy said in her statement that she approved the plan, based on Herring's opinion, and informed Maj. James Harris, the shift commander.
Harris told investigators he didn't see any danger in returning Leysath to the cell.
"Based on the constant vigil by the observation aid assigned and the regular security rounds I concurred with the decision to leave inmate Leysath in the cell," his statement reads.
Some of those observing Leysath reported that he continued kicking and yelling. Shortly after 3 a.m., staff members noticed water leaking from beneath Leysath's door into adjoining cells. Some inmates were ordered to mop up the water while staff members tried to shut off a master valve. Leysath defied orders to leave his cell.
Sometime around 4 a.m. several people said they heard a "pop" from Leysath's cell, followed by a curse and then silence. When officers opened the metal door, which was hot to the touch, they found the cell filled with steam and Leysath unresponsive in a pool of scalding water.