Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott at the Greene County Jail Dedication
Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott at the Greene County Jail dedication. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)


Austin LaRue, of Strafford, a 27-year-old with a sad history of substance abuse and high-profile brushes with the law, in March was found dead in his cell. He died of a drug overdose in the former Greene County Jail.

The new jail west of the city opened in June.

Does Sheriff Jim Arnott have a responsibility to inform the public when someone in jail custody dies of unnatural causes?

Arnott tells me he does not.

I believe he does, but I’ve never won an election.

LaRue died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl on Sunday, March 13, according to his death certificate.

This is the second time the Springfield Daily Citizen has written about someone who died this year in the custody of the Greene County Sheriff’s office.

My colleague Jackie Rehwald wrote a story published June 6 on two Taser-related deaths in Springfield. One man died after Springfield police used a Taser on him.

The other died in the hospital (still in custody) after Greene County sheriff’s deputies used a Taser to try to subdue him, and the man fell and fractured his skull.

The headline on Rehwald’s story was: “Two Taser-related deaths in Springfield this year. Why was the public only informed of one?”

The police department, on one hand, quickly informed the public on what happened.
The sheriff’s department said nothing about the death of the person it had tased.

I asked Arnott why his office did not issue a press release when LaRue died.

“That’s an odd question,” he tells me.

Arnott says he’s not opposed to releasing information about a death in custody, but he does not believe his office is responsible for assigning someone to sit down and write a press release.

He tells me he is willing to discuss a death-in-custody if asked about it.

I’m not sure of that.

Rehwald shared with me her May 31-June 6 email exchange with Deputy Paige Rippee, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department.

Rehwald was trying to reach Arnott for comment for her June 6 story.

Rehwald: “But I’d also like to interview Sheriff Arnott. A phone interview would be fine, and I’m available pretty much anytime this afternoon, Wednesday or Thursday.

“Is there a time that works best for a quick phone call? I could also come to his office.”

Rippee: “The Sheriff declines an interview at this time.”

I asked the sheriff why he decided not to talk to Rehwald. After all, he had just told me he’s open to releasing information.

The reason, he says, is that in February his office received correspondence from an attorney asking about the case so, at that point, the matter became “pending litigation,” and he would not discuss it.

I mention to him that I checked and I could not find records showing a lawsuit has been filed in connection with the death.

Sheriff contacted by Brad Bradshaw’s office

Rance Burger speaks with Sheriff Jim Arnott at Greene County Jail Dedication
Reporter Rance Burger speaks with Sheriff Jim Arnott at Greene County Jail dedication. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

No matter, Arnott says, there was correspondence to his office about the death from a local attorney, Brad Bradshaw. Kevin Winslow, father of the deceased man, told the Springfield Daily Citizen that he did reach out to Bradshaw.

Arnott is not under any legal obligation to issue a press release to the media — or through the office’s public Facebook or Twitter accounts — when someone in custody dies of unnatural causes.

Why would that responsibility fall on the law-enforcement agency? he asks.

It would seem more logical to the sheriff, he says, that the office of the Greene County Medical Examiner write the press release — if one needs to be written — when anyone in custody dies of unnatural causes.

I ran that idea by Deiter Duff, Greene County Medical Examiner. Duff told me he would talk to the sheriff in the near future about the suggestion.

I’ve known the sheriff long enough to know that when I call him, he will inevitably have questions for me, too.

He asked if the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield sends out a press release when a prisoner dies of unnatural causes.

I said I didn’t know for sure, but I did not think so because in my 10.5 years in Springfield as a reporter I don’t recall ever seeing one.

So, I checked. I called the medical center.

First, I discovered we’re not receiving any press releases from the medical center because it doesn’t know the Springfield Daily Citizen exists. We launched our website in February.

I remedied that.

Second, Brandi Ray, executive assistant to the warden, tells me the center does, in fact, send a news release when a prisoner dies of unnatural causes.

I specifically asked her if the prison sends out a news release if an inmate dies of suicide or a drug overdose.

Yes, she tells me.

But the release would not include the inmate’s name or their specific cause of death.

Arnott says he has never seen such a release from FedMed and that, regardless, he will not change the department’s policy.

“That is not something I would do; I do not think it is appropriate,” Arnott said.

Transparency leads to greater trust

The only reason I know LaRue died of a drug overdose in the county jail is because I received an unrelated, lengthy email from a woman who detailed what — in her view — is a litany of the failings of the criminal justice system in Greene County in general and the county jail in particular.

Her husband has been in both the old and new county jails.

In her email to me, she had mentioned in passing that a man had overdosed in jail. She knew this because her husband told her.

I discovered she was correct; it was LaRue.

Arnott says most of the illegal drugs that get into the jail are hidden in body cavities.

The methods deputies use to try to prevent smuggling are not foolproof.

“It is very frustrating for us,” he says. “I would like to tell you that we can keep everything out of the jail but we can’t.”

He said a criminal investigation is underway as to how LaRue obtained the fentanyl.

In May, Rehwald filed a Missouri Sunshine Law request asking how many people have died in the custody of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. The office responded and said there were two.

I assume they are Winslow and LaRue.

For whatever my opinion is worth, I wish the sheriff changed his policy and reported to the public deaths-in-custody not due to natural causes.

We all know Arnott and sheriffs across the nation have a daunting task in housing and feeding inmates, and not only keeping them safe from others, but preventing suicides and drug overdoses.

On the one hand, the public is fully informed when people are admitted to jail and convicted of crimes.

When they don’t come out alive — due to causes like not getting needed medicines, attack, suicide or drug overdose — we need to take note and evaluate if there is anything that can be done to prevent it.

The greater the transparency, the greater the trust.

This is Pokin Around column No. 54.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin