An Oklahoma sheriff and all her deputies resigned together — and now no one knows who's in charge

YouTube/KJRH -TV | Tulsa | Channel 2Former Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett speaks with local media after resigning over conditions in a jail a judge had ordered her to house inmates in.
  • Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett resigned with all of her deputies on Monday.
  • A judge had ordered her to house inmates in a jail she said is rife with black mould, exposed wiring, and dangerously high carbon-monoxide levels.
  • An interim sheriff was appointed and hopes to have deputies back on the job by Wednesday night, but sheriffs and police chiefs from neighbouring counties have expressed confusion over who’s in charge.
  • A local police chief and a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol told INSIDER the agencies are happy to help out in the meantime – but they’re unsure when deputies in Nowata County will return to their posts.

An Oklahoma sheriff, all of her deputies, the undersheriff, and much of the jail staff resigned on Monday, protesting what they describe as abysmal and dangerous conditions in the local jail.

A judge had ordered Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett to house inmates in the jail, but Barnett wrote in a resignation letter that doing so would violate both her conscience and the constitution. Barnett served an area of about 10,000 people, according to the US census.

She outlined a number of alarming problems with the facility. For starters, Barnett said, the carbon-monoxide level in the facility reached 18 – just two levels short of lethal. Four employees were even sent to the emergency room in February over the issue.

Nowata county jailYouTube/KJRH -TV | Tulsa | Channel 2The Nowata County jail where conditions were so dangerous the sheriff resigned rather than send inmates there.

The shower areas were rife with exposed wiring that posed a risk of electrocution, she added, saying that inmates have been shocked in the shower before.

Barnett said the plumbing was also substandard, with improperly installed sewer lines occasionally leaking methane gases into the facility. She described the jail and offices as being covered with potentially poisonous black mould.

Once, she said, a snake even fell on a prisoner’s head.

“The jail is inadequately budgeted,” Barnett said. “We have a bare minimum staff and it is inadequate.”

No one seems to know who’s in charge now

No inmates have stayed in the Nowata County jail since the carbon-monoxide level rose to 18 on February 28. Instead, the inmates have been detained in Washington County, which Associate Judge Carl Gibson deemed too costly, according to Barnett.

When Gibson issued a court order on Monday morning demanding that inmates be sent back to the Nowata County jail that same day, Barnett and Undersheriff Mark Kirschner resigned.

They told reporters on Tuesday that Gibson had tried to order them not to resign.

“I do not work for the judge,” Barnett said on Monday. “The judge is an elected official. I am also an elected official. I do not believe that we live in a country where I can be ordered to go to work after I have already tendered my resignation.”

Gibson could not be reached for comment.

Read more: Millions of files from the Oklahoma government, including details of FBI investigations, were left exposed in a massive data breach

The resignations sparked widespread confusion over what would happen after nearly the entire sheriff’s office abandoned the job. Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton, whose county is nearby,told reporters after a hearing on Tuesday that he didn’t know who was in charge or what was going on.

“I don’t think a person walked out of there with any clear direction on what happened today,” he said. “There was no end result, and where does it go from here? At the most disadvantaged would be the people that live and work in this county, that look to law enforcement and the county government for some type of leadership.”

On Wednesday morning, the county commissioners held an emergency meeting and appointed Mirta Hallett as interim sheriff.

Hallett told News on 6, the local CBS affiliate, that she expects deputies to be back on the road by Wednesday night, but it’s unclear whether those would be the same deputies that resigned or newly hired ones. A person who answered the phone at the sheriff’s office declined to comment to INSIDER.

In the meantime, nearby departments are helping out

In the meantime, state authorities and a neighbouring police department have offered their help – but it’s unclear how long that will be required and when the county will have its own deputies back on the job.

A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol told INSIDER that officers would be “willing to help out,” but that the agency was “not taking the lead on that by any means.”

The South Coffeyville Police Department, which patrols the neighbouring town, will be handling any 911 emergency calls from Nowata County residents, Police Chief Wade Lamb told INSIDER.

“They can count on us, 100%,” he said, but added that he didn’t know when Nowata County would have its own deputies back out on patrol.

“Hopefully it won’t be long,” he said.

Despite the confusion, Barnett’s move won praise for her principled stance on upholding the inmates’ rights even in the face of a court order.

“Barnett said she promised to ‘do the right thing’ if elected, and we believe the sheriff followed through on that pledge – so did those who risked their livelihoods to do the same,” the editorial board of the Muskogee Phoenix wrote. “Even with her own future in question, the sheriff’s overriding concern was for the safety of the prisoners and best interests of the county to which she was elected [to] serve.”

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