COVINGTON, La. -- A death at a Northshore work release facility is raising some questions about the facility's oversight, safety and security.
Wesley Fitzpatrick, 30, died of a drug overdose at the privately-owned Northshore Workforce facility in February 2012, and the investigation into it shows no one discovered his body for hours.
The case reveals some stark differences in how certain inmates housed in the facility are treated.
Fitzpatrick got caught up on the wrong side of the law in St. Tammany Parish in 2008. But like so many people out there, his friends and family said you never would've known it.
He got a DWI in 2008 and was caught with a marijuana cigarette in his pocket in 2010.
“He is anybody's son. Anybody's brother. He is the guy next door, this quiet guy next door. Kind of nerdy. Loved working on computers. Loved computer stuff,” said Nancy Vicari, Fitzpatrick’s supervisor at the computer company he worked for.
Vicari was the one who hired Fitzpatrick as an IT engineer.
His probation got revoked in January 2012 because he tested positive for marijuana, but the company allowed him to keep working there serving his time in one of St Tammany's privately-owned work release programs, Northshore Workforce.
“I think it's a decision any decent human being would have made because when you have daily interaction with somebody and you know who they are,” Vicari said about the decision to allow Fitzpatrick to remain on the job while in the work release facility.
He wasn't supposed to be in the facility for very long, only four months, but it turns out even the month he was in there was too long.
He died of an accidental drug overdose at Northshore Workforce the Sunday before Mardi Gras two years ago.
“I think he was extremely stressed out,” Vicari said.
The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office conducted a detailed investigation into Fitzpatrick's death. Their report shows Fitzpatrick was sleeping in the middle of a triple-decker bunk with towels hanging around his bed. The St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t say whether staff at Northshore Workforce should’ve removed the towels.
One of the owners of the facility, Marlin Peachey, didn’t return emails seeking comment for this story.
In the investigative report conducted by the sheriff’s office, an inmate reported last seeing Fitzpatrick awake in his bunk at 6:45 a.m. Another found him dead in it at around 10 a.m.
Employee logs included in the investigative report show head counts of the inmates were conducted at 5:46 a.m. and again at 9:30 a.m. with nothing noted about Fitzpatrick.
When the Fire Department arrived at 10:06 a.m., a response report notes Fitzpatrick’s body was cold, showed signs of lividity and was stiff with rigor mortis.
The investigative report shows Fitzpatrick had been hanging out at a friend's house at 9:30 p.m. the night before he died. His father drove him to the friend’s house in Covington. His friend, Michael Vinti, told investigators that Fitzpatrick had thrown up and couldn't hold on to a glass of water before Vinti took him back to Northshore Workforce.
A spokesman for the sheriff, Capt. George Bonnett, said his absence from the work release center was a “breach of his contract.”
Fitzpatrick clocked back in just before 10 p.m. that Saturday.
The guard logs for the facility show they conducted a bed check and did a pat search on Fitzpatrick's bunk, No. 68, at 10:21 p.m. They didn't report finding anything.
Other inmates told detectives that Fitzpatrick had thrown up again and that he said he was "loaded on xanax" that night. One inmate is mentioned in the report as saying it took Fitzpatrick 30 minutes to open his locker.
But the sheriff said video surveillance backed up the guards' reports that everything appeared normal.
“The work release employees have to aggressively enforce the rules and look for indications that people in their program are abiding by their rules, particularly in terms of drug use and alcohol consumption,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
Fitzpatrick's mother, Robin Hurston, told us Wesley was coping with a lot. He was the primary caregiver for his sick father. He was trying to provide for the young son he adored.
"He was trying to cope the best he could given the circumstances in that time period," she said.
“He was just working every day as normal,” Vicari said.
Fitzpatrick had access to his car parked in a grocery store parking lot off of Hwy. 190 in Covington. The investigative report says either friends or employees of Northshore Workforce would drop him off at it.
While technically incarcerated, he was driving himself back and forth across the Causeway to work every day to the French Quarter, something that is strictly against the rules of state work release programs.
Sheriff Jack Strain said the handful of parish inmates assigned to Northshore Workforce are allowed to have cars, but “NSWF drove him to and from his vehicle, which was parked off site, because residents are not allowed to have vehicles on facility grounds."
Last year, records from the Louisiana Department of Corrections records show Northshore Workforce had nine escapes, the highest number of all the work release facilities in the state.
Sheriff Strain also dubs escapes a "breach of contract."
The sheriff's office points out, however, that the per-inmate escape rate is 5 percent, and that the highest escape rate, 14 percent, is at another facility.
Fitzpatrick's case also shows the drastic difference in the rules that can apply to parish and state inmates at Northshore Workforce.
A policy manual given to WWL-TV late Wednesday reads that their standard operating procedures are the same as those approved by the state for transitional work programs.
Investigators found a cell phone and an iPod in Fitzpatrick's locker on his bed. Cell phones are considered contraband for state inmates, and they can be prosecuted for it.
Sheriff Strain's spokesman said, "All parish offenders are allowed to have a phone in order to call for a ride when they need to be picked up. The phones are to be kept in their private vehicles, parked off-site."
Yet, they did not find Fitzpatrick's phone when they searched him the night before he died.
“Even if you say, well, that offender is not a high-risk offender because he's serving time for a misdemeanor, if he brings that in the facility that would be contraband because other inmates would have access to that too,” Goyeneche said.
When investigators found Fitzpatrick's car in the grocery store parking lot, it had four prescription pill bottles in it. Two were Wesley's for generic forms of anti-depressant Prozac and for Xanax. One was an anti depressant prescribed to his father and the other was a medication for sleeping prescribed to his brother.
The limited information the St. Tammany Parish coroner would release about Fitzpatrick's death showed he died of an accidental overdose from a combination of the Xanax, Prozac and methadone from an unknown source.
The sheriff's office said Northshore Workforce has a "keep on person" policy where inmates can keep and take their own medication as prescribed.
“They need to be even more vigilant to make sure that the people that are there aren't abusing the drugs that are being given to them,” Goyeneche said, because so many people who are incarcerated have substance abuse problems.
When the judge revoked his probation, he recommended Fitzpatrick for the little-known “8 to 4” program. According to the sheriff's office, participants do community service Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but live at home.
Bonnett said Fitzpatrick chose to do his time at Northshore Workforce instead in order to keep his job. He did keep his job and Northshore Workforce kept more than half of his pay.
It's the maximum allowed by law, and 62 percent is the standard cut that Northshore Workforce takes from all its offenders.
“Every inmate and offender that they wash out reduces income for them. So, the question then becomes are they placing profits above the safety of the inmates and the public?” Goyeneche said.
Fitzpatrick's family and friends say they wish he could have gotten some counseling or some mental health help while he was in the program. They said without law enforcement “indifference”, they believe Wesley might still be alive.
Goyeneche said the sheriff needs to do more spontaneous checks of the work release facilities to ensure they are closely following their rules and procedures.