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Sheriff, county officials served with $50 million lawsuit threat over teen jail death
Dawson County Detention Center

Note: An updated version about this lawsuit was published in April 2022. You can read it here.  

Attorneys representing the family of Jonathan Sanford, an 18-year-old man who was found dead in the Dawson County Detention Center last year, filed a letter late last week stating that they are prepared to level a $50-million wrongful death lawsuit against county officials over the teen’s death. 

According to the letter, which was sent to Dawson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Billy Thurmond, County Manager David Headley and Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson on Thursday, March 18, attorneys allege that negligence, insufficient training and failures in leadership and Dawson County Sheriff’s Office policy led to Sandford’s death in June 2020.  

In Georgia, and other states, anyone planning to file a lawsuit for damages against a city, county or state governmental entity must notify the potential defendant in advance of the filing of any such litigation. State law requires the notice of intent to sue a county to be filed within a year of the event on which the suit is based.

Sanford was initially arrested by the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, June 1, 2020, for a narcotics charge and for DUI Drugs, according to an incident report previously obtained by the Dawson County News

Prior to Sanford’s arrest on June 1, Dawson County deputies had been searching for a possible impaired driver identified by a witness several hours earlier, and after a traffic stop at 378 Marketplace Parkway in south Dawson County, the teen was taken into custody. 

Several hours after being processed into a holding cell at the Dawson County Detention Center, Sanford was found lying unresponsive by an officer who was conducting a check in the detention center and was pronounced dead at the scene. 

In July, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that they had concluded their investigation into Sanford’s death, and had ruled that the teen’s death was an accident caused by a “combined drug intoxication.” 

A toxicology report from the GBI’s Division of Forensic Sciences obtained by the DCN states that a drug screen of the teen’s body yielded positive results for amphetamine, methamphetamine, morphine, THC and Flualprazolam. 

In their letter to county officials, Richman and Park allege that “despite signs of medial impairment from the moment of arrest” Sanford never underwent any medical screenings or evaluations prior to being placed into a cell at the Dawson County Detention Center. 

“The Dawson County Sheriff’s Office failed this young boy and his family on multiple levels,” Attorneys AJ Richman and Sean Park write in the letter. “This young man had no prior criminal record and had his entire life in front of him when the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office failed him at every turn.” 

The attorneys also allege that Dawson County Sheriff’s Office staff showed careless or reckless handling and supervision of Sanford, who was under suspicion of being an impaired driver, stating that staff should have conducted a medical or physical assessment on the teen prior to leaving him alone in a cell and stating that detention center staff failed in their duties by not conducting timely wellness checks on Sandford. 

“The last time anyone saw Jonathan Sanford alive while in the custody of the Dawson County Detention Center was at approximately 11 p.m. on June 1, 2020,” Richman and Parks write in the letter. “At least seven (7) hours had passed from the Detention Center’s last documented check on Mr. Sanford at 11:00 p.m. before he was discovered and not breathing at approximately 6:30 a.m. on June 2, 2020.” 

In a statement to the DCN, Dawson County Public Affairs Officer Laura Fulcher said that the Dawson County Government had no comment on the allegations made by Richman and Parks at the current time. 

Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Joey Homens told the DCN that the material allegations made in the letter were, “denied and disputed” and refused any other comment citing the possible pending litigation.