Natalina Slaughter was walking through an isolated corridor in the St. Louis County jail when, without warning, a corrections officer lunged at and began strangling her — apparently the officer's form of a guerrilla "training exercise," according to a lawsuit filed in Minnesota U.S. District Court this week.
Slaughter, a medical technician who'd recently started working at the jail, says she thought the officer, James Burhans, was trying to kill her as he "placed one hand around her neck, and started to compress and strangle her," according to the suit. She tried to break free by thrusting a medication cart at the officer. Eventually, Burhans released her.
"He was just really strong, and I distinctly remember being surprised at how easily he could overpower me," Slaughter said in an interview Friday. "And that was really terrifying."
Slaughter called police, who investigated the Sept. 11, 2016, incident. But the officers did not recommend charges because they couldn't prove criminal intent, she said.
Slaughter suffered injuries to her neck, head and legs, according to the lawsuit. She's endured PTSD, panic attacks, missed a month of work and feared leaving the house.
"If I walk into a building and see security guards and police, I don't feel safe," she said. "It makes it difficult just to function in the world."
Slaughter learned Burhans had a history of similar attacks on new medical staff, according to the lawsuit.
"St. Louis County and its jail administration knew that Officer Burhans was perpetrating these attacks on new medical staff, but the County failed to take any action to discipline Officer Burhans or to direct him to terminate his unprovoked and unjustified attacks on new medical staff at the jail," the suit states.
The lawsuit alleges St. Louis County and Burhans violated Slaughter's constitutional rights and Minnesota law, and the county failed in its duty to keep employees safe.
The St. Louis County jail is in Duluth. Slaughter was working for MEND Correctional Care, a company that contracts with jails and provides medical care to inmates. She had started the job earlier that month while finishing her master's degree. She now works as a therapist, she said.
Slaughter incurred lost wages due to missing work and medical bills, the lawsuit states. Burhans' actions "were unreasonable and unnecessary, constitute punishment, were carried out for the purpose of punishment, were not reasonably related to any legitimate governmental interest or purpose, and are shocking to the conscience."
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said he was aware of the lawsuit but couldn't comment at this time.
Burhans is still employed by St. Louis County as a deputy sheriff corrections officer, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036