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Sheriff says prisoner used sling in hanging

July 24, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

A 19-year-old city man who committed suicide at the Washington County Detention Center on Saturday apparently used a sling obtained for a self-inflicted shoulder injury to hang himself from a heating grate, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said Wednesday.

Mades said Zachary Joseph Burger hanged himself at about noon Saturday while being held in the medical isolation wing of the detention center.

Mades said Burger used the parts from an arm sling to create a makeshift noose and a hook, which he attached to a heating grate in his holding cell.

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Burger apparently hanged himself between the requisite 30-minute checks by guards in the medical isolation wing, Mades said.

Authorities had taken Burger to the Washington County Hospital emergency room for treatment of a dislocated shoulder twice after he was taken into custody on drug charges nine days before his death, according to the sheriff.

"We're led to believe he could do that (dislocate his shoulder) himself, somehow or another," Mades said.

"Inmates do things like that to get out of their cells, get attention or get medication to ease their pain," Mades said of the shoulder injuries.

Mades said there was no sign of any foul play. He also said there had been no indication Burger was in the mental state to commit suicide.

Mades said the death will not prompt changes in prison policies because it was more of an exception than a usual occurrence.

Mades said Saturday's death was the first suicide by hanging since renovations were made at the detention center.

In 1995, three prisoners committed suicide at the jail over a four-month period, two from hanging. There were several other subsequent suicide attempts, at least one by hanging, in the late 1990s.

Mades said the prison corrected a design flaw in the cells' heating grates that would enable an inmate to slip a bed sheet through the gaps and use it as a makeshift noose.

A woman who identified herself as Burger's aunt said in a telephone conversation that his parents were grieving and were not ready to comment publicly.

Burger faced criminal charges in Washington County, according to court records. The most serious charges included felony counts of possession of, possession with intent to distribute and distribution of heroin, records say. Burger allegedly sold heroin to an undercover police informant twice, on March 12 and April 15, and told police he was a heroin addict selling the drug to supplement his addiction, according to records.

He also faced charges including theft, forgery, uttering false documents and attempted theft stemming from incidents in December 2002 and January 2003, according to records.

Burger, a 2002 Smithsburg High School graduate, was involved in the school's marching and jazz bands as well as the tennis and wrestling teams. He was a certified lifeguard, an emergency medical technician and a member of Bethel United Methodist Church in Chewsville.

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