Learning From a Life
JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION
On a crisp fall day, Donna M. Gauthier, newly widowed fiancé of U.S. Coast Guard Commander William “Bill” Goetzee, shows a visitor into their suburban home in Laplace, La.
This Christmas will be her first holiday season without him since his arrest on Aug. 2 and his suicide inside Orleans Parish Prison Aug. 7. “Bill’s life should not be remembered or defined by two days in 2011,” Gauthier says.
Goetzee was a decorated hero of both Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. His white uniform caps, commendations, oil spill training certificates and college diplomas are spread throughout the house – a neatly mapped coastline of a proud career.
During the first week after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, then-Lt. Commander Goetzee responded to more than 1,600 distress calls, according to a medaled commendation. “He also coordinated a joint effort between the Coast Guard and the United States Navy, resulting in the rescue of critical care patients at Charity Hospital.” In addition, he secured the delivery of fresh drinking water to the storm-weary crew of a ship under a Lithuanian flag.
In 2010, Goetzee’s environmental expertise helped the Coast Guard battle the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
“His clear and effective communication of updated results allowed senior decision-makers, including the National Incident Commander [Admiral Thad Allen], to make critical national-level response decisions,” read a medaled commendation issued weeks before Goetzee’s death.
He coordinated the Coast Guard’s subsurface monitoring program of the leaking wellhead in the Gulf. He also developed a streamlined decontamination process guide for maritime vessels, which became the standard during the environmental disaster.
A career federal employee, Gauthier met Goetzee in 1998, when they were both working for the Coast Guard in New Orleans. They began dating two years later.
They lived in Lakeview until Katrina hit in 2005 and destroyed their home. They relocated to Laplace.
They had spoken often and recently of marriage, she told a packed funeral home audience of family, friends and uniformed Coast Guard colleagues from around the country.
However, while recovering from Katrina and the BP oil spill busy work schedules always seemed to take priority. “What a tragic mistake for allowing those things to take center stage,” she said.
They were planning their wedding destination and their wedding planner was waiting for them to set the date. “Instead of planning a wedding, I had to plan a funeral,” Gauthier says.
On Aug. 2, 2011, Goetzee, 48, left his Laplace home – and he never returned.
Exhausted from overwork and sleep deprivation, and unable to adjust to powerful medications for medical problems including lingering pain from a one-car accident in June, Goetzee attempted suicide.
He allegedly grabbed a Federal security officer’s holstered gun outside federal court, saying he wanted to kill himself. Goetzee, who had no criminal record, was arrested on a well-publicized felony charge of assault on a federal officer. On Aug. 3, the day after his arrest, Gauthier saw Goetzee at a court hearing. “He was in civilian clothes. His hands were handcuffed in front of him. His legs were shackled. He was sitting in a restraint chair. His head was down.”
It was the last time she saw her fiancé alive, she says.
On Aug. 7, this hero of Katrina and the Gulf oil spill committed suicide in a psychiatric cell of Orleans Parish Prison, authorities say. He allegedly suffocated himself, aided by a dangerously inattentive OPP staff.
“Goetzee, who had been placed under suicide watch at the prison, ingested a large amount of toilet paper and asphyxiated himself,” a federal prosecutor for U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said in a court filing.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman quickly suspended a veteran deputy, who now faces criminal charges for allegedly abandoning his post during suicide watch.
Goetzee’s death was the fourth suicide and 13th in-custody death at OPP since the U.S. Department of Justice reported numerous constitutional violations at the prison. The federal findings were detailed in a letter to Gusman dated Sept. 11, 2009 (the end of National Suicide Prevention Week).
The feds found staff brutality, inmate-on-inmate violence and inadequate mental health care, including a lack of proper suicide prevention.
On Sept. 15, 2009, Justice Department lawyer Samuel Bagenstos told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that suicide risk detection and prevention is “perhaps the most urgent issue” in jail and prison mental health care nationwide. “We also find that inmates with mental illness are often vulnerable to attack by other inmates, yet jail and prison officials fail to provide adequate protection.”
Bagenstos said the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that jails and prisons have a duty “to provide adequate medical and mental health care. And they impose a duty to protect jail and prison inmates from self-inflicted injury where jail and prison officials know or have reason to know of potential suicide risks.” (Italics added.)
The feds’ letter to Gusman states that the U.S. Attorney General may initiate a so-called CRIPA lawsuit to protect the rights of incarcerated persons with mental illness at OPP. “The Attorney General must personally sign a CRIPA complaint and he must certify that reasonable efforts at informal, voluntary correction of the constitutional violations have not succeeded,” Bagenstos said.
In New Orleans, activists are impatient. DOJ lawyer Corey Sanders got an earful from a small, but spirited, crowd at the Treme Center on Oct. 1.
“We’re asking the Justice Department to file this litigation,” said activist Norris Henderson. “It’s time for y’all to strike!”
Sanders insisted the feds’ negotiations with the Sheriff were progressing: “I’m telling you – I see sunlight. I’m committed to seeing that this jail will be reformed. … I follow each and everything that happens in this jail. I know everything that is going on.”
Activist Sandra Wheeler-Hester said the problem with OPP is clear: “No more listening sessions. [Attorney General] Eric Holder has the obligation to enforce the law!”
Gauthier says she wept through most of the meeting. “In the Coast Guard, Bill worked to serve and protect everybody, and it seems nobody served to protect him; I don’t understand why no one could have helped him.”
A federal investigation into the death of William Goetzee is underway. Twenty days after he died, the Coast Guard reclaimed its Commander. On Aug. 27, he was buried with full military honors and posthumously recognized for civilian work as an environmental protection specialist on the oil spill. “Mr. Goetzee’s selfless actions and diligent devotion to duty reflect great credit upon himself, and are in keeping with the highest traditions of Coast Guard service,” according to the commendation by Rear Admiral Roy Nash, the highest-ranking officer at the commander’s funeral.