It was Christopher Kelley’s mother who found him first.
Susan Kelley stepped out onto the porch of her family’s Street home on a June evening to find Christopher, 21, hanging from shoelaces tied to an eye bolt supporting their porch swing. According to police reports, she dashed back inside, grabbed a pair of scissors, and cut her son down.
Once on the ground, Kelley began to breathe normally again. But when he came to, he heard the sound of approaching sirens from the police his mother had called, and dashed into the woods behind their home.
Six months later, Kelley was found hanging from a bedsheet in his cell at the Harford County Detention Center. When he died at the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center a week later, Kelley became the seventh Harford County Detention Center inmate in just over three years to die from events which took place at the jail, and the second suicide in two years.
The weeks since Kelley’s death have seen a change in command at the detention center, amid rumblings of investigations and disciplinary actions against facility employees. In March, the major in charge of the jail since the retirement of its previous warden last year announced his own retirement, effective April 1. His departure caused Sheriff Jesse Bane to change course and begin a search for a new civilian warden, despite previous comments that he would not reopen the position.
At the time of Kelley’s death, agency spokeswoman Monica Worrell told The Aegis that there was no indication that he was a threat to himself. But following further questions posed by The Dagger, Worrell said jail records showed Kelley had in fact been on suicide watch just a day before his death, as well as during an earlier incarceration in July.
“We dedicate a lot of resources, both in tax dollars and staffing, to endure the best care possible for our inmates,” Bane said in a statement to The Dagger, in response to questions posed about Kelley’s death. “When we have a death at the Harford County Detention Center, it is investigated, and we continually evaluate our protocols to make certain the best care humanely possible is provided to those in our care and custody.”
Worrell declined to comment on any investigations or disciplinary actions which may have resulted from Kelley’s death, saying that both would be personnel matters.
Kelley’s family declined comment for this story, on the advice of legal counsel. But police reports, court records and information from the Harford County Sheriff’s Office show that police were called to the young man’s home three times for attempted suicides in the six months before he finally succeeded in taking his own life.
Those incidents included teams of canines deployed by local law enforcement and air support from the Maryland State Police, all attempting to stop Kelley from hurting himself. Upon his imprisonment in January, Kelley himself—who, according to reports, bore scars on his neck from previous suicide attempts—told officers that he had attempted to take his own life. When released from isolation a day before his death, mental health evaluators determined that he was still at a high enough risk to harm himself that he required a bunkmate and should not be housed alone.
Kelley encountered all of the support mechanisms a local community offers—rehabilitation centers, hospital professionals, the staff of the detention center, and his own family and friends—none of which could stop him from taking his own life. Nonetheless, Kelley committed the acts which would lead to his death while under the watch of the county’s main law enforcement agency, and in a tightly controlled environment, a place with specific procedures designed to prevent what he accomplished.
The Harford County Detention Center is audited every three years by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ Commission on Correctional Standards. The commission focuses on eight areas of compliance, ranging from inmate safety to food service to administrative record keeping. Those areas include specific standards for the supervision of inmates and mental health screening and assistance.
The county’s detention center has been recognized for 100 percent compliance in its last three audits, conducted in 2003, 2006 and 2009. Its next audit is scheduled for October.
At the time of Kelley’s death, Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the department, could not say how the spate of deaths at the Harford County Detention Center had been taken into consideration during the audits.
However, he noted that local corrections facilities tend to face greater instances of suicide attempts than longer-term facilities. An inmate has often been in the criminal justice system for some time before being housed at a facility such as the Jessup Correctional Institution, he said, but local jails may be the first stop for a person suspected of a crime.
“Pretrial jails are difficult places, because people are at their lowest point,” he said.
According to a Department of Justice report issued in December, between 2001 and 2009, a total of 48 inmates committed suicide while in custody at a Maryland prison. Those deaths were among 587 deaths reported statewide from all causes in that timeframe.
Eventually, an updated report will be prepared, and the number of inmates who committed suicide while in custody will be counted.
But Christopher Kelley will not be among them.
Christopher Kelley led a troubled life in the year before his death. He spent several months in the detention center, serving two months for assaulting his then-girlfriend. He attended rehab at least once, and had several other run-ins with police.
Kelley was first arrested in February 2011 after police said he got into an argument with his girlfriend, pushing her to the ground before driving around with her for several hours, threatening to kill her and further assaulting her before returning her to her home, according to charging documents.
Kelley pled guilty to a charge of second degree assault in June, and was sentenced to two months at the Harford County Detention Center. Two other charges of false imprisonment and theft under $100 were dropped.
On June 5, shortly after 7:15 p.m., police received a call from Susan Kelley about Christopher’s attempted suicide. Arriving at the scene and finding that he had fled into the woods, deputies called in canine units to assist in the search, according to a police report. His parents said Kelley “had been using drugs for awhile” but had recently completed a stint in rehab. Kelley’s father, Scott, also said that one of his son’s close friends had been killed in an automobile accident.
Kelley was eventually located several hours later at a Bel Air address, and was sent to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center for evaluation.
The next day, Scott Kelley reported that his son had stolen two items of Civil War memorabilia from the home and pawned them in the hours before his suicide attempt.
Police next encountered Kelley on July 14, five days before he was scheduled to start serving his sentence for the February assault. Kelley had texted friends, including the same woman he assaulted, to say he planned to kill himself.
According to a police report, a Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputy viewed a text message sent by Kelley which read, “No Dude i am about to kill myself dude it was good knowing you bro this is it i can’t take it my life sucks to no one loves me anymore good knowing you dude.”
Kelley was home alone due to his parents being out of town, police said, but answered the door. He said “numerous times” that he would not kill himself, but said he was upset because his girlfriend was breaking up with him, one of his friends had died, and he was about to report to the detention center for incarceration, according to a deputy’s report.
Kelley was taken to Harford Memorial Hospital on an emergency petition, a procedure used by law enforcement officers to take an individual into custody for an evaluation against their will.
Five days later, on July 19, Kelley reported to the detention center to begin serving his sentence as planned. Worrell said Kelley told officers he had tried to kill himself and was initially held in isolation under suicide watch, until he was transferred to a direct supervision unit on July 22. While there, he was initially under a 15-minute watch, and remained in the unit until his release on September 16.
Worrell said any corrections officer can place an inmate under constant watch, a state of custody in which they are continually monitored. However, she said an inmate can only be removed from constant watch on the recommendation of mental health professionals, following an evaluation.
Just over two months after his release, Kelley was again arrested for allegedly breaking into the home of his deceased friend’s family on Nov. 21 and stealing a video game console and video games from their late son’s room.
Kelley was charged with burglary, theft under $1,000, and malicious destruction of property. He was released on $7,500 bond after spending less than five hours at the detention center.
Nine days later, on Nov. 30, Kelley was stopped by police and consented to a search, which revealed heroin. Kelley briefly struggled with officers before being arrested and charged with resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance.
Police were called to the Kelley home once more on the morning Dec. 4 following an argument the previous night between Kelley and his father over the theft of a family video game console. Kelley fled into the woods that night, later telling his father that he had tried to hang himself three times but failed “because the branches kept breaking,” according to a police report.
The next morning, Kelley told his family he wanted to die and again fled to the woods, triggering a four-hour search which included canine bloodhound units and two flyovers by a Maryland State Police helicopter. The search was eventually called off after police said all resources had been exhausted.
A missing person report was filed, which indicated that Kelley bore a scar on his neck from a previous suicide attempt. The report also indicated that he had a history of suicide attempts and drug problems.
Kelley was eventually found on the morning of Dec. 5 after he was taken and admitted to Harford Memorial Hospital by the same woman involved in the February incident.
The exact circumstances of Kelley’s January arrest for violation of probation in connection with that assault charge are not clear. Worrell said he was arrested on Jan. 8 and housed in general population for one day before being moved to isolation under suicide watch. Worrell said it was not clear why he was initially placed in general population, or what caused him to be removed from it and placed under watch.
While housed in isolation under constant watch, Worrell said inmates are not allowed items in their cell, are not given bedding materials, and are clothed in paper garments. She said individuals can be placed on constant watch as a result of statements or actions made at the time of their booking, their psychological history, or prior suicide attempts.
Kelley spent four days in isolation under constant watch. Eventually, mental health evaluators determined he would be better served by being around other people, and Kelley was moved into a direct supervision unit, but housed with a bunkmate.
A day after that move, at approximately 11:30 p.m., the corrections officer in charge of the unit began shepherding inmates from the common area back to their cells for the night. Kelley’s cell mate returned to their cell to find him hanging by a bed sheet from the top bunk.
Calling for assistance, the bunkmate worked alongside the corrections officer to perform CPR on Kelley before he was transported to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, and later to the Shock Trauma Center.
On Jan. 17, as Kelley lay in a hospital bed on life support, a court order officially released him from the custody of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
Several days later, on Jan. 21, Kelley’s family removed him from life support, and let him go, too.