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Jail suicide is its third in four months; 47-year-old inmate from Buffalo is latest in a long series at the Holding Center

Erie County sheriff's officials, already reeling from previous jail suicides that led to a federal lawsuit over Holding Center conditions, now have to investigate their third jail suicide in the last four months.

A 47-year-old inmate from Buffalo died early Wednesday in Buffalo General Hospital, five days after he was found hanging from his jail bars, authorities said.

Lester Foster, of Niagara Street, died at about 4 a.m. Wednesday, from complications he suffered in his suicide attempt early Friday morning, sheriff's officials stated.

Those officials say they followed all the required checks and procedures in dealing with Foster, who they said was an extremely low-risk inmate.

Two other recent suicides have occurred in the Holding Center.

On Oct. 12, Trevell Walker, 36, of Cheektowaga, hanged himself after leaving suicide notes claiming he couldn't cope with having stabbed his wife to death last year.

A month earlier, on Sept. 4, 18-year-old Rakim Scriven was found hanging from a bed sheet in his cell, one day after he was taken off one-on-one observation, authorities have said. Scriven died the day after he was found.

About three weeks before Scriven died, county attorneys and the U.S. Justice Department signed an agreement to dismiss a federal lawsuit over conditions at the county jail.

Under that deal, the county must notify the Justice Department and state officials of any death or serious suicide attempt at the jail, while also sharing autopsy reports and other documents.

"It's one thing if we didn't follow our policies or what the Commission of Correction or the Department of Justice requires," Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said late Wednesday, referring to the three suicides. "But that's not the case. We're doing exactly what we agreed to do and exactly what our policies tell us to do."

Foster was sent to the Holding Center at about 4:30 a.m. last Thursday on felony DWI and other charges, authorities said.

At about 2 a.m. the next day, he was found hanging by his jail-issued pants and shirt from the bars in his cell, in the old part of the jail. That discovery was made by a deputy making his required rounds.

The deputy immediately cut Foster down, and he was resuscitated by an Emergency Response and Medical Team.

Wipperman cited some of the required steps that his staff took with Foster, a former inmate who never had any previous problems with fellow inmates or staff members.

After Foster was brought to the Holding Center, he underwent a required suicide screening, scoring a "1" on a scale of 0 to 8. "It tells us that he's not suicidal, and he's OK for the general population," the undersheriff said.

Later that day, Foster was arraigned before City Judge David M. Manz, who set bail at $15,000.

As part of the agreement with the Justice Department, sheriff's officials are required to conduct another suicide screening, whenever an inmate has gone through another step in the criminal-justice system.

"Again, there was no indication that his mental health status had changed whatsoever," Wipperman said.

Sheriff's officials stated that jail deputies made and properly documented all required routine checks on Foster, who was to be checked every 15 minutes. Those checks are documented electronically. "During our preliminary investigation, we check the computer monitors to make sure the checks were properly made, and they were," Wipperman said.

That investigation has revealed all departmental and state procedures were followed after Foster was jailed, officials stated. That includes the Justice Department's suicide-prevention guidelines spelled out in the dismissal of the federal lawsuit.

The latest suicide comes less than a week after the news that Erie County faces two possible lawsuits over a suicide and an attempted suicide since last summer in the Holding Center.

Notices of claim have been filed both by Scriven's father and by Holding Center inmate Alvin McKenzie over his own suicide attempt at the jail in July. In both cases, attorneys claimed that negligence on the part of Erie County and its Sheriff's Office led to the incidents.

Buffalo News archives show that Foster, the latest suicide, had several drunken-driving convictions. In March 2010, he pleaded guilty to drunken driving twice in late 2009, after his license already had been revoked because of an earlier DWI conviction.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com