Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald: Graham County is expected to receive a Notice of Claim regarding the death of Jorden Marie Simms, 28, who died while in the custody of the Graham County Adult Detention Facility.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – Two Phoenix law firms report they plan to serve Graham County with a $5 million Notice of Claim regarding the death of Jorden Marie Simms, 28, who died while in the custody of the Graham County Adult Detention Facility. As of Wednesday afternoon, Graham County officials told the Gila Herald that they have not seen any such notice as of yet.
The Notice of Claim is expected to be filed on the behalf of Simms’ mother, Deborah Sanchez, by the Zachar Law Firm, P.C. (which specializes in personal injury cases) and Taylor & Gomez LLP. Both law firms are located in Phoenix. A Notice of Claim is a precursor to a lawsuit and advises the other party of the intention of filing a lawsuit. After receipt of the notice, the recipient has 60 days to respond to the claim in defense. If no response is given or if the response is found unsatisfactory and there is no settlement agreement, the attorneys who filed the notice may likely file a lawsuit. If a Notice of Claim is not filed within 180 days of the incident, a civil lawsuit cannot be filed.
“We’re planning to seek justice for Jorden Simms and her family,” Benjamin Taylor of the law firm of Taylor & Gomez said. “This was a tragic killing and we hope the investigation from the Department of Public Safety is thorough and fair because it doesn’t make any sense how Jorden was killed.”
Simms reportedly managed to leap from a moving jail transport vehicle while it was traveling on 20th Avenue on Dec. 26, 2019. After initially being taken to Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center, she was flown to Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, where she was declared brain dead Dec. 27. On Dec. 28, an honor walk was performed for Simms as customary for organ donors and she was then taken off life support and passed. The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) is investigating Simms’ death and accusations she made regarding sexual assault, and the incident has garnered international news.
The Notice of Claim states that Graham County and the GCSO failed to take all the necessary precautions to keep Simms safe from others – including herself.
Previous to the initialization of the DPS investigation, Graham County Sheriff P.J. Allred spoke to the Gila Herald and said he didn’t believe his employees did anything incorrect and that they took Simms’ allegations seriously and did what was necessary to be held accountable.
“I wish it hadn’t happened, but when somebody is bound and determined to do things, most of the time they find a way to get it done,” Allred said. “We will never be able to ask her and find out exactly what it was she was thinking or what she wanted to get done. A lot of people can speculate, including ourselves, but until we find some other type of evidentiary type of stuff we won’t know.”
Simms was initially arrested by a Safford officer and booked into the Graham County Adult Detention Facility on Dec. 21, 2019, on a theft- and drug-related felony warrant with a $25,000 bond out of Yavapai County.
The following is a timeline of events as reported by the Graham County Sheriff’s Office.
After Simms claimed the arresting officer had sexually assaulted her, she was transported from the jail by the Safford Police Department on Dec. 23, 2019, to have a “rape kit” specialized sexual assault examination. The SPD then turned the kit over to the DPS for investigation. Per the department’s policy, the officer was placed on administrative leave following the accusation. The officer’s attorney has stated that his client adamantly denies Simms’ accusation.
Simms was returned to the jail at about 4 a.m. on Dec. 24, and that night, at about 7:57 p.m., a report was taken by a Graham County deputy in which Simms alleged she had been sexually assaulted by a jail detention officer when she was brought back to the facility.
Two days later, on Dec. 26, 2019, Simms was transported to the Advocacy Center in Sierra Vista for another “rape kit” sexual assault examination. Afterward, detention officers were transporting Simms to the Mount Graham Regional Medical Center at the recommendation of a staff member from the Advocacy Center when she opened the door to the Ford Explorer transport vehicle and leaped from the moving vehicle.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, its preliminary investigation showed Simms had convinced detention officers to loosen her ankle restraints and that she had used shower gel likely obtained at the Advocacy Center restroom to help slip out of her handcuffs, belly chain, and ankle restraints. The Ford Explorer does have interior door handles and utilizes a simple child safety lock, which was found to be in the off position. The Sheriff’s Office theorized that Simms disengaged the lock while being taken in and out of the vehicle.
According to a draft of the Notice of Claim, the attorneys say Graham County is liable for Simms’ death because she fell out of a vehicle in which she should have been secured and locked in place.
“At the time she was transported from the Sierra Vista Advocacy Center to Mount Graham Regional Medical Hospital (Center), Jorden was placed in ankle restraints and handcuffs with a belly chain,” the notice of claim reads. “In addition, she should have been seat belted in her seat in the police vehicle with the doors securely locked. Within just a few blocks from the Mount Graham Regional Medical Hospital (Center), Jorden’s seatbelt was unbuckled, her ankle restraints and handcuffs with a belly chain were removed, and she was ejected from the vehicle with the doors admittedly not being locked. She sustained fatal injuries despite the speed limit being just 35 mph.”
Legal experts advised the Gila Herald that if the version of events played out the way the Sheriff’s Office describes, that could significantly lessen the potential monetary award to the family due to Simms having been responsible for her own death as well. However, the county would likely still ultimately be held liable to some degree due to her being in its custody when the incident occurred.
“Graham County’s job was to make sure that Jorden was secure and safe, and by allowing her to die in their custody they are liable,” Taylor said.