Tommy McMahan, 53, was found dead in his jail cell Monday morning. McMahan, who was homeless, recently topped a list of the 25 most arrested people in Asheville in 2007, compiled at the request of the Asheville Police Department. The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death, but asserted in a statement that McMahan was alone in the cell and the death is believed to be of natural causes.
In 2007, McMahan was arrested 29 times, receiving 28 intoxicated and disruptive charges, 16 charges of second-degree trespassing and a slew of other charges including simple assault, littering and possession of marijuana. On Sunday he refused to leave Mission Hospitals, where he’d been taken after falling ill at the AHOPE shelter on Friday, and was reportedly blocking the entrance to the emergency bay. He was then arrested for second-degree trespassing by the APD, who took him to the county jail. During a shift change Monday morning, he was found dead.
Amanda Thomas, assistant director of AHOPE, said that the shelter dealt with McMahan frequently and that he had been sick throughout the week.
“He was so ill-looking. He wasn’t intoxicated, he was obviously very sick — he thought he had the flu,” she told Xpress, adding that he’d had a history of lung and heart problems. “There’s been some really bad illnesses going around the shelters lately.”
Thomas described McMahan as well-liked and polite. “Tommy had a lot of friends in the community here,” she said. “He would always say ‘Thank you,’ even when we couldn’t let him in. He will be missed by the staff and everyone here.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Ross Dillingham called McMahan’s death “very unfortunate.” He said that detectives are investigating the case and an autopsy will be conduced, but that so far, he believes the death was of natural causes. According to the office’s statement, McMahan “had no physical altercation with any Detention staff and no physical contact with other inmates during this time period.”
Dillingham said that McMahan’s arrest record — and those of the others on the APD’s list — highlight a common problem. “What you have are homeless or indigent people hanging around downtown. They spend what little money they get — from begging, for example — on alcohol,” he said. “Then they get disruptive, [and] they’re taken to jail. They plead guilty, get time served taken off and they’re back out on the street.”
He said he’s seen those similar to McMahan come through “three to four times a week. Bottom line: It’s a problem, but that’s the way the system is set up.”
Dillingham added that Sheriff Van Duncan is taking steps to increase substance-abuse programs and rehabilitation efforts at the jail, including focusing on finding treatment, housing and work for offenders after they leave “so we won’t see so many of them coming back again and again.”
Val Westlund, director of inmate programs at the jail, said that the facility has just hired a manager to direct substance-abuse programs in an effort to help tackle the problem. Westlund said that decreasing mental-health facilities and support, especially for the indigent, often leave jails facing the brunt of a larger social problem
“We’re left facing the lack of education and health resources elsewhere — because they end up in jail,” Westlund said.
— David Forbes, staff writer