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I-TEAM | Dead wrong: Jail medical staff thought mom was faking illness; now she’s gone

Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 6:41 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 24, 2022 at 9:20 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An Augusta mother is dead, and the I-TEAM is uncovering she didn’t have to die. Instead of getting Ashley Asuncion the help she needed, records show jail medical staff accused her multiple times of faking her symptoms.

Asuncion’s family is handcuffed to the same heartbreak of another Augusta family. Lendon Stephens’ family first asked the I-Team for help getting answers about Stephens’ homicide in the Richmond County Jail. Instead, our I-Team discovered a pattern of problems surrounding his medical care.

That’s when Asuncion’s family reached out to our I-Team.

https://www.wrdw.com/2021/09/16/i-team-continuing-coverage-investigating-missteps-inside-richmond-county-jail/

For nearly six months, we combed through records and interviews in both case files. We also examined lawsuits. It’s allowing our I-Team to uncover what could be an emerging pattern of medical missteps by the people paid millions of your tax dollars to care for inmates.

On any given day, the Charles B. Webster Detention Center houses around 1,000 inmates. More than half are there for non-violent offenses.

Since this is the county jail, most haven’t been to trial yet and are presumed innocent.

That means they haven’t had the chance to defend themselves yet, but we found some must fight another battle: the one to get medical attention.

We first uncovered this in Lendon Stephens’ case file when deputies accused him of faking a seizure. We found warning signs of a head injury all throughout Stephens’ case file, yet he was labeled a mental patient, despite having no mental health issues in his history or jail file. The young father died alone in his cell of a brain hemorrhage.

Now in an all new I-TEAM investigation, we’re piecing together a different case – the one of a mother also accused of faking an illness.

Yet again, it appears the jail medical staff was dead wrong.

Ashley Ascunion’s family thought time in jail would help, NOT HURT

If the greatest things are memories, Ashley Asuncion left her four sons a good supply of happy ones.

“She was an amazing mom,” said Bryson, 15. Fifth-grader Kayden said: “She’d give her heart to us.”

Blake, 17, said: “I was really close to my momma.”

Ashton, 8, is her youngest.

“Breaks my heart,” Bryson said.

They’re innocent young lives, yet they’re still sentenced to life without their mother.

“She was only in there a couple of weeks,” said her mother, Terrie Lamb. “That’s it. A couple of weeks.”

She was arrested in Augusta 2020 after deputies found her in a “suspicious vehicle” in a motel parking lot during a “routine patrol,” according to an incident report.

Body-cam footage captured the arrest.

“She’s had that meth sitting in her purse a little while,” it recorded a deputy saying.

What happened next can feel all too familiar to anyone who loves someone struggling with addiction.

“I didn’t have anything, did I?” she said on the body-cam footage. You can see a deputy cuff her and escort her to his patrol car. “Please tell them I didn’t have anything!”

She was booked into jail charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug-related objects. It was her second arrest, and her family hoped jail would be a wake-up call.

“We thought she was safer in there that she was being out and we not knowing where she was,” Bryson said. That’s why her parents, Terrie and Les Lamb, decided to leave her there until the drugs were out of her system.

Other inmates at the time told Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents it was obvious when that happened.

“She started, like getting her color back, gaining weight,” the inmate told a GBI agent in an audio interview in her case file. “Getting to be a happy person again.”

Her mom and dad were busy watching the calendar. “We counted the days, and we knew! The day she called and talked to my wife, we knew she was clean,” her dad said.

Terrie Lamb said: “She said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m ready. I want my boys. I’m ready to come home. Whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.’”

As soon as the judge signed the papers, Ashley could leave for rehab. Instead, she left in an ambulance for University Hospital.

What happened to Ashley Asuncion?

When the doctor called her family, he explained she had peritonitis, or inflammation of the abdomen, usually due to a bacterial or fungal infection.

“He said, ‘She’s not doing really good,’” Les Lamb said, choking back tears.

“He said, ‘usually, if caught in the early stages, he said, we can just do antibiotics, and he said, with antibiotics, in a few days it clears up, and the person is fine,’” he said. In some cases, a patient will need surgery but left untreated, it can lead to severe, potentially life-threatening infection throughout the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When Ashley arrived at the hospital, records show it was already too late.

What about the medical care she received at the jail before deputies called an ambulance?

The I-TEAM tracks Wellpath’s history of shortcomings

Wellpath is a private company that handles health care at more than 500 correctional facilities including Richmond County’s jail. It used to be named Correct Care Solutions.

The I-TEAM has tracked issues with the medical provider for years.

In 2019, Correct Care settled a federal lawsuit for an “undisclosed amount” after the death of another mother at the Richmond County jail.

The GBI says 50-year-old Debra Leverett died of peritonitis – the same thing that would later claim Ashley Asuncion’s life.

The similarities don’t stop there.

“‘Daddy, I’m telling you if they don’t let me out of here, I’m going to die,’” Les Lamb said his daughter told him. “She said, ‘I’ve GOT to get some help.’”

According to the federal lawsuit, Leverett also told her mother, “I’ll die if I don’t get out of here.”

She was later found lifeless in her cell.

What the records show in Ashley’s death investigation

Inmates not far from Ashley’s cell told GBI agents in a recorded interview what they overheard. “She was hollering. She was throwing up, and she had diarrhea. He’s like, ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with you.’ "

Another inmates told GBI agents, “She would scream constantly. And they just kept saying, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with her.’ "

Deputies made a note in their activity log about “Ashley being sick and not looking very well.”

A deputy went on record with the GBI in a recorded interview saying, “Ashley’s like saying she’s in pain, we call the nurse. The nurse said they can’t do anything. We talked to Sergeant Roberts, we logged it.”

Others told the GBI why nurses were refusing to help. Another deouty said: “The nursing staff said that she was pretending because she wanted more detox medication.”

The biggest discrepancy, the I-TEAM found, is a substance shown in photos.

This audio statement is from a deputy during a GBI interview from Asuncion’s case file: “She just kept spitting up this brown stuff or dark, dark brown stuff.”

Here is another deputy recorded statement: “They said you were eaten eating a brownie and Kool Aid and, and acting like you were throwing it up. And she kept insisting that she was in pain and that she was not doing that.”

She wasn’t faking. She was dying, and none of the 14 medical staff members who came in contact with her in her final days got her the help she needed until it was too late.

The I-TEAM found the mother of four cried out in pain for days while many of those who should have helped her repeatedly accused her of faking. By the time the ambulance arrived, and she was loaded on the stretcher, she was almost gone.

Ashley Asuncion died a few hours later.

Toxicology reports show she had no drugs or alcohol in her system.

Ashley’s family left to battle grief

Les Lamb: “If it happened one time, I’d maybe understand it, but we don’t understand how it just keeps happening in the same place.”

Meredith Anderson said: “Think of how many people are in that jail right now.”

Terrie Lamb said: “I know.”

Les Lamb said: “Yep.”

Terrie Lamb: “And they have families at home. That pray. And they cry. That their child will come home.”

As for Ashley’s children, Blake, her oldest, graduates from high school this spring.

“I want to show other families that are going through the same thing, that don’t sit here and, you know, be quiet,” he said. “Speak about things and don’t let your emotions hide inside of you.”

Both he and his brother Bryson already know the pain of losing a parent.

Their father died in a police chase in 2011.

Now their mom is gone, too.

Bryson: “You’ve just got to be strong. You got to believe in God because God will help you through anything.”

It’s a faith they cling to just as tightly as they now hold their memories of their mother.

We reached out to Wellpath last week and heard back from the company’s vice president of corporate communications on Wednesday. She said she would try to get back with us by Friday.

Here it is Monday, and we still haven’t heard anything.

We also reached out to Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree. He says he cannot comment because of pending litigation.

Ashley’s parents have filed a lawsuit, and of course the I-TEAM will be watching.

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