At the end of June, officials at Western State Hospital claimed they restored Thomas J. Sturges’s mental health enough for him to stand trial, so they returned him to King County jail to resolve his criminal case. At the end of August, jail staff found him unable to stop vomiting, reduced to nearly half his body weight and in need of medical and psychiatric care.

Sometime between January 2022 and August 2023, the 31-year-old, six-foot-tall man dropped from 180 pounds to 100 pounds. As of this week, he remains at Harborview Medical Center. His mom, Lenette Garza, said doctors told her he may need weeks to stabilize before release. A month after the hospital admitted him, Garza said he’d regained just ten pounds. At this point, she hopes the court doesn’t send her son back to jail. 

“I want him back in California as soon as possible so we can take care of him,” Garza said.

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesperson Noah Haglund couldn’t comment on the specifics of Sturges’s medical needs but said his condition stabilized after arriving at the hospital. Except in rare circumstances, jail staff cannot compel residents to take medications or eat, Haglund said. He added that the Jail Health Services medical director reviewed Sturges’s care while in custody, but Haglund couldn’t share details of that review due to federal medical privacy laws.

Lawsuits and settlements over the care of people with mental illness in Washington jails crisscross federal and local courts. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against King County over deficient medical and mental health care at the downtown jail, in part due to staff vacancies within the jail’s health services department. Meanwhile, the state continues to incur fines in an ongoing federal lawsuit settlement over its slow competency restoration process. Sturges’s case shows how the system drags out the criminal cases of people with mental illness, despite no mechanism to care for them, and leaves them in conditions that can worsen both their physical and mental health.

Police arrested Sturges in January of 2022 after he turned himself in for allegedly using a fake gun to rob a QED Coffee shop near Seattle University. Police say he stole about $400. Sturges also admitted to allegedly robbing a nail salon in Burien with the same fake gun. The court ruled him incompetent due to a mental illness, and he sat in jail waiting for the state to pick him up for competency restoration. 

His mother, Garza, who lives in California, heard from him almost immediately. She wanted to bail him out, but bail bond companies require people who live outside of Washington to pay the whole bond rather than just 10% of it, and she couldn’t afford the court’s $15,000 price tag for his pre-trial freedom. So she supported him as best as she could from a distance, putting money in his account and playing songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers for him over the phone. Sturges waited nearly a year (315 days) before the state admitted him for competency restoration in February of 2023.

After the hospital “restored” him and sent him back to the jail this June, Garza said he seemed hopeful his case would wrap up. His attorney managed to negotiate a plea agreement, which required Sturges to resume taking medication for his mental illness, and he agreed to that condition. To get a new prescription, though, he first needed to meet with the jail’s health care provider. But the jail’s health care provider was busy, so he found himself on a waitlist. Around this time, Garza said she started to notice a change in her son. He seemed tired and dejected. Then he stopped calling her all together.

Between the end of July and the end of August, in a series of rescheduled court hearings judges note that staffing shortages prevent the health department from meeting with him. 

A spokesperson for the county public health department, which oversees health care in the jail, said the shortage amounts to about 61 vacancies for mostly health care positions, or about 28% of its workforce. The County hired about 60 temporary and contract staff to help fill staffing gaps, but those workers do not provide a one-to-one replacement, as temporary staff generally work limited hours rather than full-time.

The week before jail staff called an ambulance for him, Sturges’s public defender, William Prestia, told the court that health providers had taken so long to meet with his client that he believed Sturges had lost competency. So, even after Sturges made it through the state’s process for competency restoration services, King County apparently couldn’t keep him stable enough in jail to get him through the last couple months of his criminal case.

On Monday, Aug 28, Garza finally got a call from the jail, but this time the person on the other end of the line was a social worker. The worker told her that the jail had transferred her son to Harborview the day before because he could not stop vomiting. Garza drove up from California, and the jail granted her a few limited visits to see him at the hospital. Doctors told her he weighed 100 pounds when he arrived.

She pieced together a little bit of what happened after Sturges stopped calling her. He told her he’d stopped eating around July because he’d gotten angry about jail conditions. When he tried to eat something, he thought he must have eaten some bad food because he told her he started vomiting and couldn’t stop. Garza said she thought he’d just gone so long without eating that it made him sick to start again.

At the hospital, doctors tried to start feeding him, but a tear in his esophagus, possibly caused by the vomiting, forced them to put him on a feeding tube. That situation got a little better this week, Garza said. He can now drink a liquid diet without nausea.

Prosecutors continue to pursue the criminal case against Sturges, and at his most recent hearing the judge noted he couldn’t appear because “he was severely malnourished in jail.” The judge pushed his next appearance for Sept 28.