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Sheriff Cory Hutcheson Vowed to Clean Up His Rural Missouri County. Now He's the One Facing Prison

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The sheriff's troubles have been a hot topic of conversation in the Prairie Queen restaurant in East Prairie. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • The sheriff's troubles have been a hot topic of conversation in the Prairie Queen restaurant in East Prairie.

Drama seemed to follow Hutcheson's law enforcement career.

He had grown up normal enough. Former classmates remember him as a nice guy and smart, if a touch nerdy. He played a little football on some mediocre East Prairie High School teams. He later studied political science at Southeast Missouri State and graduated with distinction.

It was in college that his political ambitions began to show. He went to work for Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Cape Girardeau) while still in school, according to his LinkedIn profile, and also ran for student body president. (He lost badly.)

Hutcheson married an East Prairie girl shortly after graduating in 2006 and later returned to his hometown, taking a job with the sheriff's office at the county jail. He rose quickly through the corrections ranks, eventually landing a job as jail administrator.

In September 2014, a 28-year-old woman named Tara Rhodes was admitted to the jail. Rhodes was an addict with a history of low-level offenses tied to using drugs and trying to get money to buy drugs. She was also pregnant, a fact she learned from a pregnancy test taken inside the jail.

In a lawsuit later filed on her behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, attorneys describe a difficult pregnancy. Jail staff noted in records that she had reported pain and bleeding. She eventually persuaded jailers to transport her to the hospital.

On October 31, 2014, two deputies shackled her and drove her the 35 miles north to St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau. It was there that an obstetrician diagnosed Rhodes as having a high-risk pregnancy. The doctor faxed a note to the jail, informing staff that it was serious enough that Rhodes would need "urgent/emergent access to healthcare."

Rhodes posted bond and was released shortly after, but she knew her legal troubles weren't over.

"She knew a longer prison sentence was a possibility, so she wanted to make arrangements for childcare," ACLU attorney Jessie Steffan says. "I think she tried."

Rhodes had found a family friend who was willing to adopt the baby. The two of them visited Cape Perinatology Services for a checkup in December, and they made plans for another follow-up visit, according to the suit. But before they could make it, Rhodes was arrested again for stealing a credit card and drug possession.

She was high on December 15 when she was booked into the jail. Steffan says they dumped her in an isolated "detox" cell without medical attention for three days before moving her into the general population on December 18.

By then, Rhodes knew something was wrong. She was in pain and leaking fluids so badly her pants were soaked through. When she asked for medical attention, a jailer told her she would have to wait until December 23, five days away.

Hutcheson is named as a defendant in the case along with the county and six members of his jail staff. He knew what was going on, the ACLU contends. As jail administrator, it fell to him to approve trips to the doctor and other medical care.

Rhodes filled out form after form, pleading for help, she claims. She was sure she was going into preterm labor. But even though she was passing blood clots by December 22, she still remained at the detention center. One of the jail staffers told her she did not know where she was getting fluids and blood clots but she needed "to stop," according to the suit.

Instead of a hospital, Hutcheson's crew began making plans to transfer Rhodes to a state prison on the other side of Missouri, in Vandalia. That night, they told her she was being moved to a different cell in preparation for her departure the next morning.

Four days had passed since she asked to see a doctor, and she could barely move. When she told Hutcheson and the others she could not walk, he had jailers drag her on a sleeping mat into her new cell, according to the suit.

It was a long night. When Rhodes pounded on the door, pleading for help, jailers allegedly threatened to physically restrain her.

Finally, at 6 a.m. on December 23, they shackled Rhodes around her belly, loaded her into a van and began a miserable five-hour journey across the state. They passed St. Francis along the way, followed by more hospitals in the St. Louis metro area. Yet when they paused, it was at a gas station — so corrections officers could use the bathroom, Steffan says.

Rhodes' pants were soaked down to the ankles, the fluid now coming out green, by the time they finally reached the women's prison in the northeastern end of the state.

Jailers in Mississippi County had listed her medical condition on transfer forms only as pregnant and in need of "follow-up care," the suit says. That gave staff in Vandalia little warning of the crisis at hand.

Rhodes spent another hour in a cell before a nurse checked her out and called for a doctor. They made arrangements to send her to the Audrain Medical Center, 30 miles away. By the time Rhodes was admitted, nine hours after leaving Mississippi County, five days after she first began begging for help, it was too late.

A doctor discovered her cervix had dilated two centimeters and she had ruptured membranes. The umbilical cord and the baby's foot were poking out of her vagina. The doctor detected a heartbeat, but there was little to be done. On Christmas Eve, Rhodes delivered a lifeless baby boy. The child's foot was black.

In April 2016, the ACLU filed its suit on her behalf, alleging that her callous treatment violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is supposed to guard against cruel and unusual punishment.

Steffan, who is representing Rhodes along with ACLU Missouri legal director Tony Rothert and ACLU attorney Gillian Wilcox, says her client is undergoing therapy for depression and anxiety at the prison in Vandalia and seems to be doing better, given the circumstances.

Hutcheson and his staff at the jail never took Rhodes seriously, Steffan says. They let her suffer for days, and then shifted the responsibility for her care to the state Department of Corrections.

"Not having any way for a person in acute medical distress to get emergency care is, I think, beyond the pale, and pretty awful," Steffan says.

The suit is still pending in federal court.

"Leaving a pregnant woman in excruciating pain for days is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment," Rothert said in a statement when the suit was filed. "This kind of abuse, which reaches far beyond the boundaries of human decency, is exactly what the Constitution was designed to protect against."

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