How a homeless man wound up dead and covered in bugs in Fulton County Jail

Arrested by Georgia Tech police, Lashawn Thompson died in the jail’s psychiatric wing
Lashawn Thompson, 35, of Winter Haven, Florida, was found unresponsive in a cell in the psychiatric wing of the Fulton County Jail last year, according to a Fulton County Medical Examiner report, which says his body showed no obvious signs of trauma and that the cause of death was undetermined. The report also cites a “severe bed bug infestation” at the jail. His case is drawing national media attention.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Lashawn Thompson, 35, of Winter Haven, Florida, was found unresponsive in a cell in the psychiatric wing of the Fulton County Jail last year, according to a Fulton County Medical Examiner report, which says his body showed no obvious signs of trauma and that the cause of death was undetermined. The report also cites a “severe bed bug infestation” at the jail. His case is drawing national media attention.

The Georgia Tech police officer who found Lashawn Thompson sleeping in a park outside a childcare center in Midtown Atlanta in June 2022 wrote in her report that Thompson was homeless and noted his meager possessions, including a spoon, a green cup and a blue backpack with a dinosaur design.

Campus police were familiar with the 35-year-old Florida native. They had charged Thompson with criminal trespassing after finding him in a campus parking deck in 2019. In 2020, they charged him with simple assault for spitting on a woman near North Avenue and Tech Parkway.

After last year’s encounter, police found a warrant from Alabama; Dothan Police Department records show Thompson was charged with property theft in 2017. Tech police also charged Thompson with simple battery for allegedly spitting on one of them and took him to the Fulton County Jail.

Three months later, he died in the jail’s psychiatric wing and was found covered in bed bugs. The cause of death is undetermined, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner.

On Monday, Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat announced that over the weekend he had asked for and accepted the resignations of his chief and assistant chief jailers. He added that his office is reviewing options for changing medical vendors.

“It’s clear to me that it’s time, past time, to clean house,” he said.

Thompson’s case is drawing international media attention. Prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump announced Monday that he was joining fellow attorney Michael Harper in representing Thompson’s family. Meanwhile, they are planning a rally at the jail Thursday.

Dr. Homer Venters, a federal court monitor of health services in jails and prisons, called Thompson’s death horrifying and said mentally ill people “need treatment, not jail.”

“When they get into jail, they actually are further removed from the psychiatric care that they need,” said Venters, who served as the chief medical officer for the New York City jail system. “Somehow the framing that a person has a mental health problem in a jail means that they are often just locked in a cell. And not only are they deprived of the basic psychiatric care they need, they also may be deprived of the medical care they need.”

Devon Orland is the legal director for the Georgia Advocacy Office, which looks out for people with disabilities.

“People with psychiatric disabilities can’t advocate for themselves. They are frequently left in jail because they can’t bond out. They can’t communicate with family to help them bond out,” Orland said. “They decompensate while in the facility, even beyond where they were to begin with, which results in an ongoing crisis or an exacerbation of a crisis. Then you end up with longer stays.”

Nearly half the people held in U.S. jails have a mental disorder, according to a 2017 report published by U.S. Justice Department. People with mental illness are represented in Georgia’s county jails at twice the rate of the general population and stay behind bars an average of more than twice as long as those without mental illness, Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council said in a 2022 study.

Georgia jailers are working with the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

“The sheriffs do the best they can at providing medical and mental health services in jails,” Norris said. “What we need in this state are clinical beds, where people don’t have to go to jail.”

Thompson’s brother, Brad McCrae, said last week that his family wasn’t aware he was being held in Fulton’s jail.

“We talked to him periodically throughout the years. He was not from Atlanta, but he loved Atlanta. He would always call my sister and check in and we would always three-way and see how he was doing,” McCrae said during a news conference outside Fulton’s courthouse. “He did have some mental health challenges, but we were dealing with that. And he was trying to get better.”

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