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Inmate facing charges of burglary kills himself; Man found hanged in cell was under observation


An inmate facing burglary charges hanged himself at the Howard County Detention Center yesterday morning, despite close supervision that included checks of his cell every half-hour, county officials said.

Ronald Phillip Johnson was jailed Monday after Howard County Police arrested him that day and charged him with fourth-degree burglary. Johnson, who has no fixed address and is believed by police to have been 39, was charged in connection with a break-in into a recreational vehicle at Vernon's Auto Repair in North Laurel, said Lt. Pete Dantuono.

Bail was set at $500, but Johnson couldn't meet it.

Examining him upon arrival, detention center doctors determined he should be placed in a single cell and checked regularly because he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal.

"He was intoxicated when he came in," said Melanie C. Pereira, detention center director. "We wanted to make sure he got the immediate attention he needed."

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include tremors, hallucinations and seizures.

Officials checked Johnson's cell every half hour to ensure they saw a "living, breathing body," Pereira said.

The last time a detention officer saw Johnson alive was at 7: 04 a.m. When an officer arrived at 7: 31 a.m., Johnson was hanging by his bedsheet from a window, detention center officials said. A detention center nurse tried to revive him, and he was rushed to Howard County General Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 8: 50 a.m.

Pereira said Johnson never gave any sign of being suicidal.

The detention center and the Howard County Police Department are investigating the death. The investigation will include interviewing inmates in Johnson's unit, who could talk to -- although not see -- Johnson.

Johnson was to stay in the unit until "doctors determined he was safe to go into the general population of the detention center," Pereira said.

The last suicide at the jail occurred in December 1995. The last death occurred in June, when an inmate died after an asthma attack.

Detention center officials said they do not plan to change their procedures as a result of Johnson's death.

"I am satisfied with everything my staff did," Pereira said. "I am not anticipating procedural changes because ours are sound."

Staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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