San Diego County has agreed to pay millions of dollars to a family whose loved one took his own life in jail. The death and lawsuit that followed have also spurred serious changes in how the jail treats people with mental illness.
“Relief,” said Michelle Moriarty, describing her reaction to the settlement on Friday. “It’s been a long time. It’s been 5-and-a-half years.”
It’s a feeling a long time coming for the Moriarty family. This week’s settlement agreement of nearly $3 million is the largest in San Diego County history for a suicide inside a jail.
“It really speaks volumes to what happened to Heron Moriarty in this case,” said Chris Morris, the family’s attorney. “The evidence was pretty devastating. He was left to languish in solitary confinement when he was sent up to be in a safety cell.”
The family of Heron Moriarty, 43, said he suffered a psychotic break for the first time in his life in 2016. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, mania and psychosis.
But soon after, his wife Michelle said he stopped taking medication and spiraled out of control. He threw furniture at his brother’s home prompting his arrest that May.
In the days leading up to his death, Michelle Moriarty called the jail more than 30 times worried her husband was suicidal.
A text thread presented as evidence, between a jail deputy and a nurse shortly after they discovered Heron Moriarty’s body, shows at least some jail staff shared Michelle Moriarty’s concerns.
The nurse had asked that he be placed in a safety cell but a jail sergeant denied her request. In one text, the deputy writes, “Yeah this one is going to cost the county money.” Later he adds, “Try to have a nice day. As usual everyone else dropped the ball not you.”
Moriarty suffocated himself with two t-shirts. So much time passed before they discovered him, rigor mortis had already set in, according to
“That just shouldn’t happen,” Morris said.
In the five years since Heron Moriarty died, Morris said the jail has made significant changes in how it handles inmates with mental illness, including a revamp of the intake questionnaire, additional behavioral health housing units and more monitoring.
“But really, at its core, the problem is a problem of apathy,” Morris said. “And that’s going to take years to undo because the apathy that existed in the jail system, unfortunately continues to exist.”
Heron Moriarty left behind a wife and three children, who in the years since his death have relocated closer to family in Oklahoma.
“It doesn’t just affect the person who dies,” Michelle Moriarty said. “They’re not just a number. They have a whole family connected to them and their lives are deeply devastated and changed forever by what happens in those jails.”
Michelle Moriarty said her daughters won’t have a father when they walk down the aisle and her son doesn’t have a father figure, but she holds out faith that what happened to her husband will help prevent it from happening again.
“All I can do is just pray and hope that I help at least one family so they don’t have to go through this,” Michelle Moriarty said.
NBC 7 reached out to County Board of Supervisor Chair Nathan Fletcher, and to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department for a comment on the settlement, but we have yet to receive a response.