Husband of Inmate Who Killed Herself in Jail Says MCSO 'Didn't Protect Her'

Norali Ramirez Talavera and Michael Sterling.
Norali Ramirez Talavera and Michael Sterling. Photo via Michael Sterling
click to enlarge Norali Ramirez Talavera and Michael Sterling. - PHOTO VIA MICHAEL STERLING
Norali Ramirez Talavera and Michael Sterling.
Photo via Michael Sterling
Last October, Norali Ramirez Talavera was booked into the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix after getting arrested during a traffic stop.

Detention officers found her about 48 hours later hanging in her cell by a bedsheet wrapped around her neck. She was rushed to a hospital, but medical staff determined that she was brain dead. Talavera, who was 31 years old, was eventually taken off a ventilator and died on November 2, 2020.

According to Michael Sterling, Talavera's 58-year-old husband, staff at the jail are to blame. In late April, he filed a notice of claim — a procedural precursor to a lawsuit — against Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, who oversees the county's five jails, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and Maricopa County Correctional Health Services, the agency that provides inmate medical services. Sterling is accusing jail personnel of failing to prevent Talavera from killing herself even though they allegedly knew that she displayed suicide risk factors. He wants to settle the matter for $500,000.

"Norali was clearly showing signs and symptoms of alcohol and opiate withdrawal, and suicidal tendencies. On information and belief, staff at Maricopa County Jail [sic] were aware that Norali was at high risk of suicide due to these symptoms," the notice of claim states. "However, your staff and contractors made an intentional decision to deny Norali the care she needed, and instead placed her without care, but with the means to end her own life."

In a phone interview with Phoenix New Times, Sterling described Talavera as a woman with a long history of severe mental health issues and substance abuse.

"Yes, she has problems. Some of those problems were not her fault. She didn't ask for mental illness," Sterling said. "They lock her up but they don't keep her safe. That’s not okay."

Talavera was one of seven people who died by suicide in Maricopa County jails last year, according to Calbert Gillett, a spokesperson for MCSO. This year, at least three people have killed themselves, while suicide attempts for this year are on pace to exceed last year's total. The majority of inmates who killed themselves, or tried to, used bed sheets as Talavera did, according to records leaked to New Times. Suicide attempts for this year are on pace to exceed last year's total of 100. The majority of inmates who killed themselves, or tried to, used bedsheets as Talavera did. MCSO hasn't disputed the authenticity of the documents.

In an email, Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, an MCSO spokesperson, declined to comment on the notice of claim: "We can’t comment on a notice of claim that is intended to result in litigation," she wrote. Fields Moseley, a spokesperson for Maricopa County, also declined to comment, citing "potential litigation."

History of Mental Illness

Sterling, a headhunter for certified public accounting firms, and Talavera, who was from Tucson, met online in March 2018. They got married in November 2019 near Mountain Park, New Mexico, the rural town where Sterling grew up and still lives. She was living at his home on his eight-acre property and soon got pregnant. Sterling said that he was aware of her mental health issues prior to the marriage.

 As he tells it, Talavera, who was calm and collected most of the time, could become intensely paranoid, angry, and even physically violent. She had never been formally diagnosed, but based off of his conversations with psychiatrists, Sterling said, her symptoms resembled schizophrenia.

"She would take off frustrated thinking that I had people living at the house. And she was paranoid. She would think people were watching her when driving around town," Sterling said. "She didn't believe there was anything wrong with her."

"I loved her," he said. "I believed I could help her get help and she loved me."

Her erratic behavior caused significant issues while they were living together at Sterling's home. One month after the wedding, Talavera left town and moved back to Tucson, having tried to hit Sterling during her delusion about people living in the house. The two stayed in touch and Sterling sent her money to cover living costs. Talavera's mental state remained unstable and she repeatedly declined to seek mental health services, Sterling said.

Talavera then moved to Scottsdale before giving birth in early August 2020. She had heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine in her system, prompting the Arizona Department of Child Safety to give Sterling legal custody of their baby boy. Sterling had already filed for divorce and emergency custody to keep the child safe and out of the foster care system.

"She needed help. She needed medical help," Sterling said. "She used drugs to self-medicate."

Roughly two months later, Talavera was pulled over by a Scottsdale police officer for having expired vehicle registration, according to a police report from the incident. She didn't have a driver's license on her and the officer found a warrant for her arrest out of New Mexico; she had failed to appear in court there after getting charged with felony drug possession and two misdemeanor drug-related charges in May 2019. A search of her car also turned up small quantities of heroin, meth, seven hollow-point bullets, and a Smith and Wesson .40-caliber pistol. She was booked into the 4th Avenue Jail on nine separate charges, including drug possession and driving without a license.

Sterling said that he tried to contact staff at the jail to inform them about her history of mental illness but that he couldn't get through to anyone after calling "50 times."

"Honestly, it felt like a gulag situation," he said. My wife is taken somewhere and I lose contact with her."

'They Don't Care'

Sterling's notice of claim accuses jail staff of being aware of Talavera's "suicide risk indicators" but failing to keep her from killing herself.

When Talavera was booked, she told jail staff that she had mental health issues, according to jail medical records that were provided to New Times by Sterling. She disclosed that she used alcohol, heroin, and meth on a daily basis. Medical staff noted that she had "moderate" acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms. But Talavera also told staff that she wasn't suicidal.

She was referred to in-house mental health services, the records state. She was also placed on alcohol withdrawal protocols after a staffer observed "tongue fasciculations" and tremors. She was prescribed medication used to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Early in the morning on October 30, Talavera hung herself in her cell. Jail staff had found her "suspended with a sheet from a bunk" with "extensive ligature marks" around her neck and no pulse, jail medical records state. Phoenix Fire Department personnel transported her to Banner University Medical Center.

When Sterling arrived at the hospital after driving to Phoenix from New Mexico, medical staff conducted several tests to demonstrate her incapacitation. The decision was made to take her off the ventilator.

"My son will never know his mother," Sterling said. "I don’t know if she would have cooperated with treatment, but I just wanted her to have a chance to get treated, to get diagnosed and treated."

Lindsay Hayes, a leading expert in inmate suicide prevention at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, told New Times the circumstances of Talavera's death aren't unique. He said that many inmates hang themselves with bedsheets and that suicidal inmates often don't disclose the fact that they are considering self-harm.

"The most important things are that you make the correct decisions to identify them as suicidal and putting them in a safe environment," he said. "Just the mere fact that they denied [being suicidal] when you asked them doesn't mean much because you might have asked the question in a poor manner or might have just acted with no privacy around because the inmate wasn't wiling to tell the truth. I think it happens in the vast majority of cases."

MCSO Chief Barry Roska, who oversees the agency's Custody Bureau, said during a phone interview that inmates are typically booked in a large room that resembles an "airport waiting area" and that the large volume of inmates that they book every day prevents them from conducting more secluded medical screenings.

"For the initial intake process, it’s just not feasible to go through 250 bookings on an average Thursday night and have a 30-minute one-on-one private room conversation with everybody," he said.

Stacy Scheff, Sterling's attorney, said that MCSO has likely concluded that it's "cheaper" to "just pay out lawsuits for wrongful deaths than prevent death by revamping jail facilities to make it harder for inmates to hang themselves."

"It’s really sad and disappointing that we have a new sheriff in town and he just he seems to be just as inhumane as the last sheriff," she said. "They don’t care."

(This story has been updated to reflect MCSO's latest estimate for the number of inmate suicides and attempted suicides that occurred inside jail facilities in 2020 and 2021.)
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety