SALEM — As officials continue to investigate how a Peabody man managed to hang himself in a Salem District Court holding cell Tuesday afternoon, the man's mother is struggling to understand how it could have happened.
"This should never have transpired," a distraught Jeannette Sawyer said yesterday afternoon. "My son should still be alive."
Her son, Harley L. Sawyer, 40, was found hanging by a piece of his pants inside a holding cell shortly after 2 p.m. and was pronounced dead at Salem Hospital at 2:36 p.m., officials have said.
His death came shortly after he'd been told that he was wanted on a warrant in Comal County, Texas, where he'd been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was facing eight years.
Sawyer's mother said her son had been trying, without success, to have his probation transferred from Texas to Massachusetts. Eventually, unable to get a job and living on the street there, he gave up and simply returned to Massachusetts without permission, where he had a job waiting for him working as a finish carpenter for his brother's business, she said.
"I called his probation officer in Texas and thanked him for dragging his feet," Jeannette Sawyer said.
It's not clear whether Harley Sawyer knew that Texas officials had issued a warrant. If he did, he didn't say anything to his lawyer or his mother about it. He did tell his mother, "If I have to go back there, I'll never make it," Jeannette Sawyer said.
Sawyer's lawyer, John Morris, said yesterday that he advised his client that they might have a shot at beating the case he was facing Tuesday, a 2006 larceny charge brought by Danvers police, because of the length of time that had passed, but Morris said Sawyer was adamant. "He told me he wanted to do a plea," said Morris, who said his client feared losing his apartment and job if he was held in custody.
"I've just got to get out of here," Morris said Sawyer told him.
Sawyer was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay restitution to the gas station he'd stolen from.
At that point, neither the Salem probation department nor Morris knew of the Texas warrant, which would not have appeared on the state record check normally conducted by probation officers unless they have a reason to suspect someone has out of state warrants, Morris said.
It wasn't until court officers called Middleton Jail to find out whether there were any warrants that would prevent Sawyer's release that anyone at the court knew of the Texas matter, the lawyer said.
"Court officers followed court policy in contacting the sheriff's office on Tuesday morning to determine if criminal databases reflected any reason why Mr. Sawyer should continue to be held, said Mary Rafferty, a Trial Court spokeswoman. "The sheriff's office advised them that a fugitive-from-justice warrant from Texas was being issued."
It remains unclear exactly when the Essex County Sheriff's Department became aware of the Texas warrant, which would have required an interstate record search to find.
Paul Fleming, a spokesman for the sheriff, said he could not say when the jail learned of the Texas warrant, and would not confirm that the Sheriff's Department was the source of the information to the court.
Fleming would say only, "The court found out Mr. Sawyer had that charge out of Texas, and he was notified of that while he was at Salem District Court."
Morris and other lawyers say the jail has routinely withheld information about warrants from other jurisdictions until defendants are about to be released.
Rafferty said yesterday that court officials are awaiting the results of a state police investigation and an internal investigation.
"The court is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether policies were followed and will take appropriate action based on the findings," Rafferty said.
Sawyer's mother and brother said they have been getting conflicting information and would like some answers.
"He had to have been left in that cell for some time in order for the life to drain completely out of him," she said. "I've been told different stories. I was told he was in a bathroom and that he was in a holding cell."
She said she was also told that her son was found by a lawyer who had gone to visit another person in custody at the courthouse.
"Who was watching the cameras?" Jeannette Sawyer asked. "Why did he have a tie on his pants? They told me it was a tie from his jogging pants. He was wearing jeans."
"Under no circumstances should this have happened," she said.
She also said there were no signs that he might take his own life. "He was doing well here. He had a little apartment. He had a job."
And he was supporting two sons, who lived with their mother in Danvers. Jeannette Sawyer said her son was "heartbroken" that he hadn't been allowed contact with the boys for years. She just learned that both boys, who are 12 and 15, had been trying to find their father on their own via Facebook.
"He'll never know that they were trying to reach out," she said, breaking down in tears.
Her son grew up in Peabody, attending Kiley School, and then the family moved to Everett, where he went to high school for a while. He later got his GED, his mother said. In addition to his mother and his sons, Sawyer leaves behind a sister and three brothers.
"I don't know how I'm going to make it without him," said Jeannette Sawyer, who is also struggling with another emotion, regret.
"He had taken my car, and I called the police," she said, something that led to his arrest. "If I hadn't called police, he'd still be alive."
In their last conversation, in a phone call from her son the day before his death, she said he apologized. "I didn't mean to hurt you," he told her. "I love you."
Sawyer said that court and correctional officers need to do a better job taking care of people in custody, no matter why.
"They're somebody's brothers, somebody's child," Sawyer said. "They're not animals. To those people, they're nothing but a number."