Family sues after nuclear physicist’s death in Virginia jail

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — The family of a nuclear physicist who died by suicide in a Virginia jail is suing the U.S. government after his psychotropic medicine was discontinued and he was denied admission to a federal medical prison.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court on behalf of Christopher Lapp’s 16-year-old daughter alleges that a series of errors by prison officials, federal marshals, prosecutors and physicians contributed to Lapp’s 2021 death.

Lapp was being held at the Alexandria jail awaiting sentencing on a federal bank robbery charge when he died, even though a judge had ordered that he be sent to the federal medical prison center in Butner, North Carolina, to continue receiving care there that had restored his mental health.

Lapp, who was 62 when he died, had multiple degrees, including a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His father, Ralph Lapp, was a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project.

He lived in a wealthy Great Falls neighborhood and owned a $1.3 million home there at the time of his arrest. Prosecutors said in court papers that Lapp had multiple romantic interests, including a Playboy model, and that “he was working to keep his romantic love interests happy with additional money.”

Lapp was charged with entering a Wells Fargo Bank in Great Falls in November 2018 and taking money from a teller at gunpoint. He then carjacked a vehicle to get away, prosecutors said. He was arrested when a K-9 officer tracked Lapp to his home.

The robbery occurred during what the judge called a manic episode and what the Lapp family’s lawyer described as a psychotic break. He was initially found incompetent to stand trial but was restored to competency after being sent to Butner.

After his competency was restored, Lapp decided to plead guilty to the bank robbery charge. The judge, T.S. Ellis III, accepted the guilty plea but ordered at the plea hearing that Lapp return to Butner while he awaited sentencing so he could continue the treatment that had restored his competency.

That never happened. Butner refused to accept him, saying their policy barred them from taking an inmate who had not yet been sentenced for “continuity of care purposes.”

So Lapp remained at the Alexandria jail and a physician who evaluated him there ended his medications after Lapp insisted he did not need them. The physician also said Butner failed to send over Lapp’s full medical record.

Lapp hanged himself in his jail cell in May 2021, roughly a month after he had pleaded guilty. He left a behind a note for his daughter, writing that “some bad people have been after me for a while. I have been trying to determine who they are but things are not good. It is better for everyone if I am not around so they can’t harm others.”

A month after the suicide, Ellis convened a hearing in which he excoriated Butner officials for disregarding his order. He also accepted a measure of blame himself — Lapp’s defense lawyer had filed notice to the court in late April that Butner refused to admit Lapp, but Ellis said he was unaware that Lapp had not been transferred.

The Lapp family’s lawyer, Victor Glasberg said he was disappointed that a lawsuit was necessary. “Numerous public employees manifestly failed to act properly, and a man died. Now his 16 year old daughter has to take them to court,” he said.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson declined comment on the lawsuit.

The suit comes a month after the sheriff’s office in neighboring Arlington County reached a settlement with the family of an inmate who died there in 2020 from what a coroner determined was heart disease complicated by opiate withdrawal.

The family alleged that jail officials failed to treat his withdrawal symptoms and showed deliberate indifference to his medical needs. That proposed settlement hit a snag, though, when the jail’s former healthcare contractor filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.

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