Jessica Wade Will Patterson
Editor in Chief Opinion Editor
Three Deaths in Two Years
On Dec. 18, 2017, University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student Gloria Garcia received a phone call just after midnight that her mother had been transported to the Saunders Medical Center.
“My dad called me,” Garcia said. “They had called him and told him that they found her unresponsive, and so they rushed her to the Medical Center and that’s where she was pronounced dead.”
Gloria’s mother, 54-year-old Kelly Berney-Garcia was on the third day of serving a 10 day sentence in the Saunders County Jail when she died. She is one of four inmates who have died in the jail within the past two years. This follows a history of in-custody deaths throughout the past decade.
“My mom was pretty cheerful despite struggling with a lot of stuff in her life and she cared about everyone around her…she was always willing to help me and my siblings if we needed anything,” Garcia said. “She would put us above herself and I wish I could thank her for that.”
Garcia said her mother had a history of alcoholism which had greatly deteriorated her health. The official cause of death was cited as atherosclerotic coronary artery disease.
“She ultimately did die from a heart attack,” Garcia said, “but it was because she was neglected while she was serving a prison sentence…she wasn’t being medicated, she wasn’t being watched like she should have been.”
Berney-Garcia was jailed in connection with a probation violation. According to court records, she was on probation after being convicted in 2016 of intentional child abuse not resulting in injury and third-degree assault.
According to the grand jury transcript, Berney-Garcia was administered four medications daily, three for her heart condition and cholesterol; and Haloperidol, a common antipsychotic medication.
Director of Corrections at the Saunders County Sheriff’s Department Brian Styskal said a lack of information from inmates may have contributed to the recent deaths.
“We have had some unfortunate events here that occurred the middle and latter half of 2017,” Styskal said. “There was reasons why things went down the path they did, unfortunately, and a lot of that was not getting information that would have proved beneficial if we would have had that stuff, that definitely would have changed outcomes.”
During the grand jury trial, coroner Dr. David Jaskierny and Nebraska State Patrol investigator Nicholas Frederick concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing in Berney-Garcia’s death.
During questioning, Jaskierny said that the toxicology report–part of Berny-Garcia’s autopsy–did not check for anti-lipids, which can be essential for preventing heart-related health issues. Some of Berney-Garcia’s medication was classified as anti-lipids.
A grand jury trial on Feb. 15, 2018 found no criminal wrongdoing in Berney-Garcia’s death.
Though her family considered pursuing legal action against the county, Garcia said they ultimately decided against it.
“They have so many lawyers they could keep us in litigation for years,” she said. “We found a law firm and talked about pursuing legal actions, but they said it would take a long time, a lot of money and a lot of effort.”
Berney-Garcia’s death was preceded by the deaths of two other inmates. Robert Imus, 45, died in his cell on July 29, 2017. Gage Mills, 19, was found dead in his cell due to an apparent suicide less than a month later on Aug. 12, 2017.
Once again, a grand jury trial determined in the case of Imus, whose cause of death was cited as methamphetamine toxicity, that there was no criminal wrongdoing by Saunders County Jail.
The Imus family chose to pursue legal action. Imus’ mother, Dawna Imus, filed a tort claim against Saunders County, Dodge County and Fremont Health Medical Center Feb. 9, 2018, alleging Imus should have received earlier medical treatment and that he should have been admitted to the hospital in Fremont.
Imus, an amputee and a diabetic, had been transported to Saunders County Jail after the Fremont Health Medical Center had determined him to be healthy enough for incarceration.
“I feel like we’re left with more questions than answers,” said Dawn Imus, Imus’ sister and legal guardian of his 9-year-old daughter. “It’s kind of ‘what do we think? What do we do?’”
According to the grand jury trial transcript, Imus, who was arrested on charges of possession of a controlled substance, died after experiencing flu-like symptoms for several hours.
Nurse practitioner with the Saunders County Jail Wauneta Kempf had prescribed that Imus be given apple juice and Hydroxyzine, a medication commonly used to treat nausea and vomiting.
Before Imus’ death, the most-recent in-custody death was that of Gloria O’Connor in 2013. Her autopsy pronounced the cause of death to be undetermined and related to heart failure.
Her son, Shane O’Connor, received the phone call from another one of Gloria’s relatives, Janelle Davey. Gloria had been transferred to a medical facility after being found unresponsive in her cell.
At the time, Shane was with his college baseball team in Minnesota and headed back immediately upon receiving word of his mother’s deteriorating health. She was pronounced dead several days after initially being transferred.
“They had her on life support, but I’m pretty sure she was already brain-dead,” Shane said. “They were just waiting for me to get back.”
Shane had not seen his mother frequently in the years leading up to her death. She had developed serious mental illness according to several family members, prompting him to maintain more limited contact. Shane and Davey shared concerns that Saunders County Jail may not have been properly equipped or prepared to house someone with such severe mental illness.
In letters that Gloria would write to her father, she would write statements about not having access to medical care.
“With her mental illness, people would just say, ‘oh, she’s crazy,’” Davey said. “They would always just brush her under the rug.”
A grand jury trial concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing in Gloria’s death.
Styskal said he doesn’t believe the jail is the most appropiate place for those with severe mental illness.
“You end up having to keep people here that you’d rather not because it’s not the best environment for them, but you have to protect society in some way, shape or form until they get to a place where they can get more treatment,” Styskal said.
Denial and Mishandling of Medications
There are recorded cases of inmates being denied medication, including the legal case initiated by John Gillock, who was allegedly denied medication meant to treat a brain tumor.
According to an article published by the Fremont Tribune, Gillock spent 51 days inside Saunders County Jail, starting Dec. 30, 2014. The Kansas City doctor’s office where Gillock was being treated had record of informing Saunders County medical staff about his condition on Jan. 6, 2015.
In June, 2018, Saunders County and Advanced Correctional Healthcare Inc. paid $10,000 to settle the lawsuit without admitting any wrongdoing.
Another inmate, Courtney LoGrande, was granted furlough Oct. 24, 2011. The stipulation for her furlough, states: “Since in jail for two weeks the Defendant has her blood pressure fall to a dangerously low level; she has been taken off her prescribed heart medications by the jail’s nurse, she has suffered a heart arrhythmic attack…she is becoming increasingly ill with every day she is kept incarcerated and denied her prescribed medications.”
The trend of mishandled medications continue with claims such as those made by Cari Gans, who spent 30 hours in Saunders County Jail. She said that during her time in custody, her pain medication was not administered, despite being provided to the jail. Only after spending 24 hours in custody was she given withdrawal medication–long after the symptoms had already set it.
“They just were like, ‘we can’t give them to you. We do what the nurse tells us to do,” Gans said.
Gans recalls flu-like withdrawal symptoms. This included intense shaking, feeling like she was going to vomit and general pain over her entire body.
No official complaints were filed, nor did Gans take any legal action following her release from custody.
Styskal discussed a few of the challenges that come with providing medications, and some inmates will use their medications to supplement substance abuse.
“What we’ll see a great portion of the time is what they say they have a prescription for, when they do bring in medication it’s not accurate,” Styskal said. “You’ll get pill bottles that will be really old or more in there than was prescribed.”
Styskal said he can’t discuss specific cases, but there are two sides to every case.
“We don’t want anybody to adversely be affected while they’re here,” Styskal said. “I mean best case scenario for me is everyone’s as happy as can be when they’re here doing their time, that doesn’t always happen.”