PIEDMONT, Ala. (WIAT) – Britney Dixon said that John Wayne Snider would do anything for anybody. Dixon, a critical care nurse and the mother of Snider’s 13-year-old son, said that if somebody needed him, John Snider was always there. But in August 2020, she said, the city John had grown up in – Piedmont, Alabama – didn’t return the favor. That month, she said, following an arrest for unpaid fines, Snider died in the city jail, neglected by the community that he called home.
In a recently filed federal lawsuit, Dixon claims that the city of Piedmont, then-Police Chief Freddy Norton, and then-Officer Nathan Johnson knew that during his time in the city jail, John Snider was suffering from severe symptoms of withdrawal, including chest pains and repeated vomiting. Piedmont, Norton, and Johnson were “deliberately indifferent” to his medical condition, she said. Other inmates expressed their concerns about Snider, according to the lawsuit, and ultimately, paramedics even recommended that Snider be taken to a hospital. The city, Norton, and Johnson did not listen, the lawsuit claims, a decision that caused Snider’s death.
In response to the lawsuit, the city, the former police chief and the officer (who now serves as the city’s top cop) denied any responsibility for Snider’s death. “Any injuries and damages” suffered by Snider, they wrote in a court filing, “were caused by his own actions.”
What came before
She’d only come from Alexandria – another small, Calhoun County town 30 minutes up the road – but Britney Dixon was still the new girl in town. More than a decade ago, she’d moved to Piedmont, transferring to the town’s high school as a junior. And before long, she met John Snider, a senior, the cousin of one of the first friends she’d made there.
Even now, years and tears later, Dixon takes a long pause before recalling the first time she met John. When she speaks, her voice quivers and quakes with the pain of loss.
“Everybody loved him,” she said. “He got along with everybody. He was very likable, very outgoing. He had a lot of friends and everybody that met him liked him.”
Snider liked to hunt. He listened to all kinds of music. He loved to hang out with family and friends.
She remembers going into Walmart to buy the pregnancy test that would change their lives forever. She stopped at the Wendy’s bathroom on the way home to take the test. It was positive. Snider was ecstatic.
“He was very supportive,” she said. “It was a crazy thing for both of us: our whole world kind of flipped upside down. But it was never a stressful thing, only because of him.”
Britney wanted a girl. John wanted a boy. Their son was born before they knew it.
After his birth, everything went well for a while, Dixon said.
“He was very family-oriented,” she said. “Completely focused on his family. We were his top priority.”
However, things would soon change for them.
The accident happened just a couple of miles from Britney and John’s house. It had been snowing the day before, and the roads were still covered. John lost control of his car. He hit a tree. His injuries were severe, including broken legs and ankles.
“He was basically completely physically disabled at that point, for probably three or four months of our life,” Dixon said. “There wasn’t really anything that he could do for himself.”
With the accident and its recovery came pain medications, Dixon said, and the downward spiral that can sometimes accompany them.
“Then he was a totally different person,” she said. He’d become addicted to the pain medication. It was a struggle he’d deal with for the rest of his life. Eventually, the addiction would contribute to the end of his romantic relationship with Britney Dixon.
“We made it pretty far,” she said. “But he was struggling with so much he had to deal with.”
After their relationship ended, Dixon continued to offer help, but Snider continued to struggle. As his addiction worsened, Snider racked up traffic tickets and minor charges in local courts – speeding, marijuana possession, public intoxication. Whether unable, unwilling, or some combination, Dixon also failed to appear in court when tickets weren’t paid on time, according to state records.
But nothing John Snider ever did, Dixon said, meant he deserved what would soon come.
Dying of neglect
During his time at the Piedmont city jail, John Wayne Snider wouldn’t eat, Dixon’s lawsuit alleges. He was experiencing chest pain. His heart was racing. He felt chilled and just lay in his cell, vomiting again and again. Those were symptoms, Britney Dixon said, that should have never been ignored.
In a federal lawsuit, Dixon claims that after his Aug. 9, 2020 arrest for an unpaid fine, John Snider showed clear symptoms of withdrawal during his week-long period of incarceration, which culminated in his death.
“Within a few days, Snider’s condition was so bad that it was obvious to all Piedmont police officers, including Norton and Johnson, that Snider needed to go to the hospital,” the lawsuit said. “He just lay in the cell, not eating and barely drinking.”
Norton and Johnson had seen Snider in person, the lawsuit claims, and were being updated on Snider’s condition by inmates and by EMS, who were called to check on the inmate on multiple occasions.
On Aug. 15, EMS checked Snider for the final time, according to the lawsuit, and recommended that Norton and Johnson have the inmate evaluated and treated at a hospital.
“Norton and Johnson refused to send Snider to the hospital,” the lawsuit claims. “Snider suffered from a severe electrolyte imbalance caused in whole or in part by his dehydration and failure to take in food. This in turn caused a cardiac event that resulted in Snider’s death.”
If Norton and Johnson had heeded the paramedics’ warning, the lawsuit argues, Snider would have lived.
“By his own actions”
In a 16-page response to Dixon’s lawsuit, Piedmont and its former and current police chiefs claim they are not responsible for the death of John Snider.
“These Defendants did not have a policy or custom of providing inadequate medical care to those at the Piedmont, Alabama city jail,” the city’s response said.
The city and the chiefs said that they did not know Snider required any medical care “other than what had been provided” and did not know that Snider was in danger of dying while incarcerated in their custody.
“Any injuries and damages suffered by [Snider] were caused by his own actions,” the city and chiefs’ legal response said.
“No one deserves to die”
When Britney Dixon picked up her phone that day in August, John Snider’s grandmother was on the other end of the line.
“He’s dead,” his grandmother wailed. “He’s dead.”
“Everything was happening so fast,” Dixon said of that day. “I was in a dream.”
Her family is still feeling the impact of his loss. Snider’s death has been difficult for their son, who’s 13 now.
“He keeps on his tough face, he keeps it bottled up, but he makes it every day,” Britney said of their son. “I don’t think there’s a day that either one of us go that we don’t think about him, of course.”
John Wayne Snider didn’t deserve to die over an unpaid fine, Dixon said.
“The town we live in, you know, there are a lot of poor people,” Dixon said. “And I understand that there’s consequences for everything. But I think that when it’s not something so serious, there should be a little bit more understanding, a little bit more of a compromise.”
Compassion, not cruelty, should win the day, she said.
“Nobody deserves to die in a city jail no matter what they’re there for,” she said. “But certainly not for something like that. I don’t think anyone deserved to be let to lay somewhere and just die.”
Dixon said that she hopes her lawsuit causes the city and its police chiefs, current and former, to think more deeply about the consequences of the actions they take every single day.
“I want them to realize what a huge impact came from such a thoughtless decision that was made,” she said.
Until then, and after, she and her son will remember John Wayne Snider every single day.
As of Monday, attempts to reach the city of Piedmont, Norton and Johnson for comment were not successful. In addition, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences has not responded to requests to view Snider’s autopsy.