WECT Investigates: County preparing for potential claim in death of inmate Nicholas Oates

Incident listed under “malpractice” on county insurance paperwork
Updated: Feb. 4, 2020 at 4:22 PM EST
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - New Hanover County has notified its insurance carrier about the death of one of its inmates. Documents show the county’s insurance carrier has earmarked $40,000 for a potential “malpractice” claim stemming from Nicholas Oates’ death late last year while in the custody of the New Hanover County Jail.

Nicholas Lavon Oates, 40, died around 9:45 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. According to Lt. Jerry Brewer with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, his death was due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Oates, a former special education assistant for New Hanover County Schools, was indicted in 2018 on charges that he sexually assaulted one of his students.

Brewer said Oates had been battling an unspecified condition since his initial arrest in July 2018. Oates had remained in county custody since that arrest. It is unclear how long Oates was being treated at the hospital before his death, or what medical care had been provided to him in the 17 months he was in jail awaiting trial.

Oates next court appearance was scheduled for Nov. 12, 2019, the week after he died. According to District Attorney Ben David, the state was seeking a lengthy prison sentence against Oates, given the seriousness of the charges. Both sides were preparing for trial at the time Oates passed away.

The limited paperwork provided by the county indicates they notified their carrier, Travelers Insurance, about Oates death on Nov. 4, the day after he died. The “malpractice” claim amount is listed on insurance documents as $40,000. The county initially redacted other details about the claim, saying it was still an open case.

When we asked for clarification, the county said the Oates case should not have been included on the list of claims we were given, because no claim has actually been filed. They added that they have not been contacted by Oates’ family or his attorney involving a potential wrongful death claim.

“Any time an inmate passes away in custody, there are several agencies that get contacted. The insurance company is one of them," Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer added. “There is no lawsuit. Basically, this is a formality of procedure.”

The $40,000 estimate on the insurance document for the Oates case was calculated by the insurance carrier, not the county. The same insurance document lists an open claim for Kyle Horton, who was killed by law enforcement officers during a standoff in December. No money is earmarked for a potential claim in that case. County officials say that listing also relates to a proactive notification to their insurance carrier, not a lawsuit or claim against the county.

Before getting that information from the county, we reached out to Dr. Jerry Oates, Nicholas Oates’ brother, to ask about the apparent malpractice claim. Oates said he was unable to provide any information at this point, but suggested we call his late brother’s attorney, Jason Vaughn. We reached out to Vaughn and left a message.

Oates was accused of molesting a then-12-year-old student at Myrtle Grove Middle School in 2016 and then beginning a sexual relationship with her after she turned 13.

In 2018, a grand jury indicted him on two dozen charges that included:

  • Indecent liberties with a child (5 counts)
  • Statutory rape of a child under 15 (7 counts)
  • Second-degree kidnapping (4 counts)
  • Indecent liberties with a student (4 counts)
  • Sexual activity with a student (4 counts)

Though the alleged inappropriate relationship apparently began in 2016, Oates had only been charged for incidents occurring in June and July of 2018, according to the grand jury indictments.

Oates was initially hired by New Hanover County Schools on Jan. 16, 2016 as a special education assistant at Myrtle Grove Middle School. During his tenure, he was suspended twice without pay over alleged misconduct.

The first suspension occurred on Dec. 2, 2016, while the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office investigated text messages exchanged between him and the alleged female victim, as well as other students. The messages – at least some of which were sexually suggestive – were ultimately deemed not criminal, and Oates was reinstated on Dec. 13, 2016.

A month later, Oates was suspended without pay again, this time after teachers came forward with allegations of misconduct. That suspension lasted until Oates resigned on Feb. 1, 2017.

New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) has been under a firestorm of controversy over its handling and alleged failure to report concerns of sexual abuse by teachers against students.

It began after Isaac Bear Early College High School teacher Mike Kelly was arrested for sex crimes against students in Feb. 2018. He later pleaded guilty to crimes against nearly 20 underage victims. Oates’ arrest the following July renewed concerns about insufficient oversight by school administrators. Then, just last week, Roland Grise band teacher Peter Frank was arrested for taking indecent liberties with students. Frank is facing criminal charges involving six alleged victims dating back to 2003. Search warrants indicate that NHCS was aware of troubling complaints about Frank’s behavior as early as 1999.

A number of Mike Kelly’s sexual assault victims have filed a lawsuit against NHCS. Their attorneys have condemned administrators’ failure to report suspected sexual abuse of students, and say they created a culture that protected sexual predators in the school system. The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Kelly case are now investigating whether NHCS administrators knew about Frank’s alleged behavior before his arrest.

In addition to the civil investigation, the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) is also looking into whether there were criminal failure to report violations by NHCS administrators. In North Carolina, it is a misdemeanor for public employees not to report suspicions or allegations of child abuse to law enforcement.

Members of the public have expressed frustration at the lack of information being disclosed in terms of what school officials did or did not know before their employees were arrested for sex crimes. In open court during Kelly’s plea agreement, Prosecutor Connie Jordan said Kelly had admitted school administrators previously investigated claims he had exposed himself to students and cleared him. She said there was no indication the schools ever notified law enforcement.

However, the public did not get answers they had wanted in the Oates case because he died before trial. While the criminal sexual assault case died with him, District Attorney Ben David assured WECT that state investigators are still looking into claims administrators failed to fully report suspicions to law enforcement in the Oates case and others. The results of that criminal investigation will eventually be handed over to the North Carolina Attorney General.

“I have referred this for investigation by the SBI to be fully reviewed by the AG, so the allegations involving failure to report can be fully investigated and known by the community that all of us serve,” David explained. He added that he has requested the state release information on what they find and what they do not find during the course of their criminal investigation, so that the public will have answers to these pressing questions.

The school board met in closed session on Sunday and is meeting behind closed doors again this week. They have said they will consider releasing portions of Frank’s personnel file, but no decision has been made on that yet.

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