Apr 9


County inmate dies from water intoxication

Homeless and mentally ill, William Hager died after four months in jail. He's the seventh inmate to die in Erie County's lockup in the last three years. The state is investigating.

Jennifer Hager holds a photo of her brother, William Hager, as a child. Photo by Garrett Looker.

William Hager drank himself to death in the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. With water.

He was a homeless schizophrenic accused of breaking into a store and had been locked up for four months, according to his family. Relatives say jailers should have kept closer watch.

“They knew he had mental health concerns, and nobody was monitoring him,” said Jennifer Hager, an older sister. “Drinking enough water to poison himself – nobody noticed that?”

William Hager.

Two state oversight bodies are responsible for determining whether jail employees bore responsibility in Hager’s Nov. 19 death.

Schizophrenia increases risk of drinking a fatal amount of water, according to medical experts who say that schizophrenics can have trouble excreting water. The Erie County medical examiner last month determined that Hager succumbed to water intoxication and that the death was accidental, relatives said.

Hager’s sisters say that psychotropic drugs helped control his mental illness, but their brother didn’t always take his medication. They say that their brother’s lawyer, who did not return phone calls from Investigative Post, told them that he wasn’t taking his medication while in jail and had also stopped eating. The sisters say that he was supposed to be under observation.

“There were probably plenty of opportunities for them to intervene – something could have been done,” said Tina Pope, another older sister. “A doctor could have been brought in. I can assume they’re not trained properly.”

Hager, 44, was the seventh county inmate to die between April 2021 and January of this year, making Erie County lockups among the state’s deadliest, according to records held by the state attorney general’s office. No other county with between 500 and 1,000 inmates had that many fatalities during the same time period. Since 2005, 37 inmates under custody of the sheriff’s office have died, according to state records and media reports.

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Families of three of the six inmates who’ve died since Sheriff John Garcia took office in 2022, including Hager’s kin, have retained lawyers. So far, one lawsuit has been filed.

The attorney general’s office and the New York State Commission of Correction both must review Hager’s death, standard procedure when someone dies in county jails.

Garcia declined interview requests regarding deaths at the jail.

State ordered close monitoring

Hager died less than a year after the state commission told the sheriff’s office to make sure inmates are properly monitored.

The commission questioned whether guards properly supervised Michael Frears, who was found dead from a fentanyl overdose at the holding center in 2021. Frears had been dead for at least two hours, the commission wrote in its report released in January 2023. A logbook showed no documentation regarding Frears between 1:35 p.m. on March 12, 2021, when he was placed in his cell, and 5:15 a.m. the next morning, when he didn’t get up for breakfast and was found deceased, the commission reported. 

“This finding indicates that the supervisory tours conducted by the deputy did not comport with the requirements of (state law) which state: At a minimum, general supervision shall be maintained in all facility housing areas when all prisoners are secured in their individual housing units,” the commission wrote.

A guard told state investigators that he’d made rounds every 15 minutes and that Frears appeared to be sleeping all night. According to the commission report, the sheriff’s office told the state that guards had made required rounds.

The commission acknowledged verification of rounds having been completed. Nonetheless, the state instructed the sheriff to ensure compliance with regulations mandating supervision of inmates confined to individual cells.

The sheriff’s office refused to release records in the Frears case, telling Investigative Post that disclosing logbook entries, incident reports and witness statements would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Kirstan Conley, commission spokeswoman, said she couldn’t comment beyond what’s in the state report.

History of mental illness

Hager enlisted in the army shortly after high school and was honorably discharged a few years later, his siblings said. He was on full disability due to mental illness and a back injury suffered while in the military, according to his sisters.

Hager began exhibiting signs of mental illness in his teens, his sisters said, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in his 30s. He had several stints in rehab due to drug use, his siblings said, with legal woes stemming from stealing food, cigarettes and other things to survive.

“He wasn’t dangerous at all,” Jennifer Hager said. “Any of the trouble he got himself into was just trying to live. He was homeless.”

William Hager, second from left. 

Tammy Cumpston, another sister, said that Hager insisted that Veterans Administration facilities were closed and that no water was available when she took him to her Hamburg home shortly before his arrest last summer.

Mental illness can trigger excessive water drinking, medical experts say, with researchers reporting that between 10 percent and 20 percent of schizophrenics drink at least three liters of water per day, with 2 percent to 5 percent drinking enough to develop water intoxication. Researchers also say schizophrenia can interfere with water excretion.

Water intoxication can be marked by delirium, seizures, lethargy, coma and uncontrolled muscle movements, according to a paper published by Brain Research Reviews. The artist Andy Warhol succumbed to an irregular heartbeat caused by water intoxication, according to his family, which received an undisclosed settlement after suing a New York hospital where he died in 1987 following gallbladder surgery.

“It can happen in a day,” said Dr. Edward Skolnik, a nephrologist at New York University Langone Health in New York City. “Assuming normal kidney function, you’d have to drink 12 liters of water before you’d get into trouble.”

Fatal water intoxication occurs when brain cells can’t absorb the amount of fluid someone has consumed, triggering cerebral edema, said Dr. Arthur Siegel, a Boston physician who has published papers on water intoxication.

“There’s no room for expansion inside the skull,” Siegel said. “It’s rare, fortunately, but it’s well known.”

Jennifer Hager said she instantly knew something was wrong when a sheriff’s detective called her the day her brother died.

“He said ‘Your brother had what looked like a seizure and collapsed in his cell,’” Jennifer Hager said.

Advisory board silent

The death drew no mention from members of the Erie County Corrections Specialist Advisory Board at the group’s March meeting held less than a month after the medical examiner determined Hager’s cause of death.

The board at its previous meeting didn’t discuss the holding center death of Shaun Humphrey, whose August death was ruled a homicide less than two weeks before the group’s February meeting. The medical examiner determined that Humphrey died from positional asphyxiation while guards were handcuffing him.

Created in 2020, the board is supposed to hear complaints about county lockups, recommend improvements in programs and services, and try to improve policies, practices and conditions.

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Sheriff’s employees were present at the board’s two most recent meetings and did not bring up the deaths.

Board member Jerome Wright said the sheriff’s office should notify the board of jail deaths and that the board should talk about them.

“That’s the reason we’re here,” Wright said. “A death should be reported immediately. We should be discussing it. We should be questioning the (corrections) superintendent. And that’s not happening.”

Former board chairwoman Cindi McEachon agreed that the sheriff’s office should notify the board of jail deaths. She said that happened before she resigned from the board last May, even though detailed information usually couldn’t be provided due to pending investigations.

McEachon said she resigned because she didn’t think that the board was having “transparent conversations” with the sheriff’s office. Board members bore some blame, she said.

“It’s up to the board to engage with the sheriff’s office,” McEachon said. “Right from the start, there was a lot of struggle to unify us and understand what our charge was.”

Investigative Post

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