Inmate in county kills self in his cell


Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 11:43 p.m.
An Alachua County jail inmate, upset about pending federal charges for a November bank robbery, apparently hanged himself inside his cell at the facility early Wednesday.
John A. McPherson, 42, of Niagara Falls, Ontario, was due to appear at the Gainesville federal courthouse that morning on bank robbery charges, court records show. Instead, jail staff found he had choked himself using a makeshift rope made of clothing attached to the cell's top bunk.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office considers the case an ongoing death investigation, but Sheriff Steve Oelrich called McPherson's death an apparent suicide by hanging.
McPherson, who weighed about 300 pounds, "got down in a position where he literally asphyxiated himself," Oelrich said. "He blacked out and his own weight held him until he expired."
The Canadian man also left two long notes to relatives, Oelrich said.
"In those letters, he told family members that he was very disappointed in himself and he did not want to face these upcoming charges and trial," Oelrich said.
Officers discovered McPherson at about 6 a.m., Oelrich said. Staff had last seen him alive about 40 minutes earlier.
An internal investigation, which is standard procedure when someone dies or is injured in the custody of the Sheriff's Office, is pending. A preliminary investigation showed staff followed jail policies that include performing a check on inmates once an hour, according to the sheriff.
McPherson was one of two men charged for the robbery of the First National Bank of Alachua, 4040 NW 16th Blvd., on Nov. 16.
Officers accused McPherson and Dustin E. Bracewell, 19, of Lakeland, of leading them on a high-speed chase down Interstate 75 after the robbery. The suspects dumped stolen cash out of a car window as they tried to escape the pursuing officers, investigators said. The two were arrested a short time after the robbery in Marion County.
His cell was located in an adult felony housing pod with no special designations except that the inmates have "high" felony charges. He was alone in the two-person cell at the time of his death.
McPherson, listed in court records as an unemployed contractor, had been in Florida for about four months before his arrest. He had family in Central Florida, according to police.
Investigators have said McPherson and Bracewell may have been connected to a string of bank robberies and attempted robberies in Central Florida. A warrant also had been issued last year for McPherson for a 1999 bank robbery out of Saskatchewan, Canada.
He had a prior criminal history out of Canada for charges including conspiracy to commit murder and armed robbery, police reported.
Cameras are not used to monitor the inside of cells.
"We want to give the inmates a modicum of privacy," Oelrich said. "We don't have the personnel to stand over each and every inmate in that jail. The whole privacy issue, many times, and staffing runs contrary to monitoring these people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"We try to do the best we can but sometimes people are determined to take their own life and in this case it was successful."
The last suicide to occur at the jail took place in August 1999. David Patrick Urbancik, 23, of Gainesville was found hanging in his cell. Urbancik had been arrested on charges of sexual battery and possession of a date-rape drug.
After four reports of attempted suicides in the last half of 2004, Oelrich, in a recent letter to County Manager Randy Reid, demanded modifications at the jail he said he had first requested in the spring.
The attempts occurred July 20, Sept. 24, Dec. 1 and Dec. 9, all in an area for inmates with mental health concerns. In those instances, inmates would either jump from the second floor or tie themselves to a second-floor railing and jump off.
According to the county and the Sheriff's Office, steps are being taken to have a barrier installed to prevent future attempts at this location in the jail.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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