Metro Louisville

A 36-year-old man in custody at Louisville Metro Department of Corrections died Sunday, according to Metro Corrections Assistant Director Steve Durham. He identified the man as Lesley Starnes. 

This is the sixth death at the downtown jail since Nov. 29. 

In a news release, Durham said officers found Starnes late Saturday night. He said it was a suicide attempt. 

Starnes was transported to University of Louisville Hospital where he was pronounced dead around 1 a.m. Sunday. He had been booked into the jail Jan. 26. Durham said Starnes was arrested in Jefferson County on charges from Bullitt County. 

Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark was “on the scene,” and had asked the Louisville Metro Police Department Public Integrity Unit to investigate the death, “which is standard practice,” according to Durham.

A 66-year-old person in the jail’s custody died on Jan. 9, 41-year-old Gary Wetherill died on Jan. 1, 48-year-old Stephanie Dunbar on Dec. 4, 34-year-old Rickitta Smith on Dec. 3, and 59-year-old Kenneth Hall on Nov. 29.

Several Democratic Louisville Metro Council members, including president David James, are backing a “no confidence” vote of jail leadership. They filed a resolution last week. 

“Obviously, this is concerning,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said during a press conference at Metro Corrections Sunday afternoon. “We’re trying to figure out, why are all these deaths concentrated in this short period of time? Is there some systemic failure or some process failure? Or is it just a really unfortunate situation?”

Jail officials have attributed the string of deaths to staffing shortages. Fischer seemed to double down on that Sunday. 

“We know that we’ve got a staffing problem here,” he said, adding that they’ve raised salaries, are trying retention initiatives and other measures to build staff capacity. 

Yet, according to Metro Corrections Director Dwayne Clark, the “particular area, floor” the death occurred on was “fully staffed” that night, with a sergeant and five officers. He said there are about 1,450 people in Metro Corrections custody, with around 480 staff members and 12 mental health professionals, who are contracted through Wellpath Care. 

“I want to assure you that me and my staff are working hard each day, examining our processes and seeing what we can do to improve on our processes,” Clark said during the press conference. 

James told WFPL News Sunday that he doesn’t think that a staff shortage is what’s at play. He said it’s because of “piss-poor leadership.”

“First of all, it’s horrible, just horrible,” James said. “This is our sixth death in about three months, and the mayor still has Director Clark in place there. I just don’t understand the logic of this. Director Clark is a nice person, but he’s definitely not the person [to be] leading Metro Corrections right now.”

The “no-confidence” resolution has been assigned to the Public Safety Committee and is on the committee’s agenda for Wednesday. James feels “pretty confident” it will pass out of committee and go to the full Council for a vote. 

After the press conference, James said he was “disappointed that I didn’t hear the mayor talking about accepting the resignation of Director Clark and replacing him and his executive team.”

He wants to see more urgency around the issue, and believes Louisvillians want that too.

“It’s like a broken record over and over again, which causes great frustration for many members of our community and many members of Metro Council,” he said.

Advocates have also been urging city leadership to do something about the conditions at the jail, including overcrowding and understaffing. They pushed for items like bail reform.

In a statement following the Sunday press conference, ACLU of Kentucky’s interim executive director, Amber Duke, said this number of deaths at the city jail, “without any meaningful steps toward change, is cruel and inhumane.”

“It is clear the few steps they have taken over the past 90 days are not enough and have not ended the loss of life at the facility,” she said in her statement.

Duke insisted officials hasten their investigations into these deaths, and for leadership to do more than share national statistics at press conferences and say they are reviewing their processes. She also asked Metro Corrections to bring in more health support, including professionals who are experts in suicide prevention.

Rebecca Feldhaus Adams contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with additional information.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.