On the paper trail of a pedophile, part 6: Suicide in federal custody
This blog is the sixth on John David Roy Atchison, Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola, arrested in Detroit in September 2007 on charges relating to pedophilia. He committed suicide in federal prison in October 2007; arrest and suicide were not foregrounded by the Justice Department in the Bush administration. FBI material obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggests that Atchison’s suicide in federal prison could have been prevented, leaving him alive to cooperate with authorities targeting an alleged large pedophile ring.
As written previously, the prison death of an alleged pedophile tends to receive little attention. Although Atchison could have assisted law enforcement going after a large pedophile ring had he survived, his death received little media beyond the immediate event; predictably, the Bush administration did little to bring it to public notice. Nor was there a congressional investigation, amidst the highly publicized focus on other problems at the Justice Department, often homing in on the individual career of Alberto Gonzales. The facts in Roy Atchison’s suicide are as painful as is much else in the story, including the similar lack of oversight.
Briefly, the chronology:
- Atchison was arrested at the Detroit airport Sept. 16, 2007, having flown to Detroit to meet what he thought was the five-year-old daughter of a single mom, actually an FBI agent working an online pedophilia sting. He did not resist arrest and went quietly. Interviewed by the FBI en route from the airport to the Clinton Township, Mich., FBI office, he said he went to Detroit to talk the mother out of selling her child for sex. He was placed in custody at the Macomb County Jail.
- The FBI field office in Detroit issued a press release on the arrest Sept. 17, 2007.
- A search warrant for Atchison’s home and computers was signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Miles Davis Sept. 17, and searches were executed that day; the inventory included hundreds of images of child pornography stored in his PC, laptops and flash drives.
- Atchison was assigned to the Sanilac County Jail in Michigan’s Thumb, Mich., to await trial. Authorities told the press that they were taking special precautions with Atchison, as customary for prisoners at risk—those in law enforcement, those accused of crimes against children, and those who might be informants. Atchison fell into all three categories.
- On Sept. 18, Atchison was placed on suicide watch in detention.
- Atchison was taken off suicide watch Sept. 19, by U.S. Magistrate Judge Virginia M. Morgan, who said that the suicide watch had been imposed out of “an abundance of caution.” Morgan, like Atchison himself, came into office under the Reagan administration. Both Atchison and his Detroit attorney, James C. Thomas, assured the judge that Atchison would not try to harm himself. Thomas said, “We think he is not a risk to himself and it certainly will be argued that he is not a risk to others.” Atchison consented to continued detention, waiving his right to a detention hearing in Detroit but reserving his right to a future bond hearing.
- The same day, a grand jury in Detroit handed down a three-count indictment.
- Atchison tried to hang himself in the county jail Sept. 20, using a bed sheet. A cellmate who saw the 4 a.m. attempt alerted a guard; Atchison was not harmed. U.S. Marshals immediately transported him elsewhere. Thomas, his Detroit attorney, told reporters, “At the time, I thought it was the right decision. Apparently it was a mistake. I feel as bad about it as anyone.”
- Suggesting that he might have provided further information had he lived, Atchison changed his statements to the FBI in a subsequent interview on Oct. 3. He repeatedly denied having had sexual contact with a child but admitted that he had flown to Detroit for that purpose, dropping the initial story that he was investigating pedophilia, trying to talk mom out of it, etc. On Oct. 3, he told the FBI that he had flown to several cities for sex encounters. He also said that he knew of a pedophile ring in the western United States. Atchison consented to have his online identity assumed by undercover investigators.
- On Oct. 5, 2007, Atchison was found dead in the shower area of the Milan Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security federal prison in York Charter Township, Mich., used for detention of defendants awaiting trial. He had hung himself with a sheet, as in his previous attempt. The FBI commenced an immediate investigation of the death.
- Photographs taken by investigators include photographs of the shower area, shown with Atchison’s clothes. The baggy prison pajamas and other garments clearly had enough room in them for Atchison to smuggle a bed sheet from his cell to the shower, where he was unobserved for long enough to hang himself with a sheet.
There was little left for the FBI to do, beyond establish that the death was not foul play. The evidence is definitive that indeed Atchison’s death was suicide and not murder.
Nonetheless, it should be considered evident by this time that his death was most awfully convenient for the Bush administration, saving the Justice Department further embarrassment in the form of a trial that might have shed light on the atmosphere in the Pensacola office where Atchison worked—including among other things his computer use at the office, his friendly relationships with co-workers who unwittingly facilitated his tendencies, the sloppy overview that enabled him to tote laptops to and from work, and the acceptance of his work habits as an open ‘wheeler-dealer.’ Arguably little of this would have played well, in Florida or nationally, in election year 2008.
Second, it seems clear even to a non-lawyer that the most elementary preventive measures were not taken. Atchison had already clearly signaled his desire to kill himself, and had even signaled the method of choice. Smuggling a bed sheet from his cell to the shower area is an act as preventable as it was foreseeable. Be it noted that we live in a country where detainees routinely, underscore routinely, have to hand over their shoe laces and belts.
Atchison’s former friend George Witcher, also an Alabama attorney, demurs at this view. Interviewed by telephone, Witcher declares firmly that the authorities could not have stopped Atchison: “This was the end. His life was over.” His career gone, his family affected–there was no way they were going to keep him from killing himself, Witcher states.
Still, as said, elementary preventive measures went missing. The suicide watch was lifted remarkably quickly, leaving nowhere near enough time for the prisoner to catch up on sleep, let alone undergo a dependably thorough psychological evaluation.
Signs were abundant that Atchison intended to take matters into his own hands.
Final note: Sad as the death is, the sadness would not seem to be an adequate explanation for refusing to take steps to keep the same thing from happening again, or for refusing to shine a media light that might lead to such steps. Deaths in jail are not supposed to happen.
Similarly, the argument that refusing to face these events somehow spares the family pain does not hold water. Had the judicial process been handled more professionally, the death might well not have happened. In all likelihood, the man’s relatives would prefer to have him alive and trying to work toward recovery.
Next, Part 7: Further fall-out?