A few days after arriving at a small county jail in northern Minnesota last year, 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell began experiencing chest pain and difficulty moving his limbs. A little over a week into his time at the jail, he would be dead.
His mother says jail officials and medical staff ignored his symptoms for days.
“He called me and said, ‘Mama, they think I’m lying. They think I’m faking it,” his mother, Del Shea Perry, told The Appeal. “When he called me in tears to tell me how much pain he was in, I knew it was serious. He said, ‘I’d rather just roll over and die.’ His exact words.”
The Bemidji Police Department said in a statement that the Ramsey County medical examiner determined he died of pneumonia, but, according to the complaint, an independent autopsy later found that he suffered from untreated Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a form of paralysis caused by an immune system attack on the nervous system. The condition is rare but treatable with proper medical attention.
In late September, Perry filed a federal lawsuit against Beltrami County, corrections officers in the county jail, MEnD Correctional Care, Sanford Health, and the medical officials who saw and treated her son, accusing them of ignoring his pain and contributing to his death through medical negligence.
“I’ve got to do whatever I can do to stop this from happening again because no mother should have to see this kind of abuse and neglect,” Perry said about her only child. “They murdered my son. They watched him suffer helplessly and they did nothing to help him. Day after day after agonizing day, they watched him die.”
A representative for Sanford Health said that federal rules prohibit them from commenting on specific patients, but added that “the safety of all patients and the quality of care they receive is our top priority.”
Representatives for the county declined to comment on pending litigation, but pointed to their response to the complaint filed in court on Nov. 14. Beltrami County, jail administrator Calandra Allen, and the corrections officers named in the complaint deny that they were deliberately indifferent toward Sherrell, or that they violated his civil rights.
“They were performing discretionary acts in the scope of their duties with a good faith belief their conduct was lawful, constitutional, and proper,” the answer to the complaint states.
The county’s answer also disputes a number of the factual allegations in the complaint, including that an independent autopsy found that Sherrell suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The county also denies that Sherrell fell off his top bunk. “The video clearly shows Sherrell very slowly slide out of bed, walk to the restroom, return to stand next to his bed, and then lie down on the floor next to his bed,” the county says.
Sherrell was charged with possession of a firearm by an ineligible person, and booked into Beltrami County Jail on Aug. 24, 2018. He developed a headache two days later and requested that his blood pressure be checked, according to the lawsuit; the next day, he complained of chest pain. On Aug. 28, he fell from his bunk and said he was unable to move his legs.
The next morning, his paralysis appeared to have worsened, and he fell from his wheelchair. A nurse said in her notes that his blood pressure was elevated, but she believed he faked the fall, according to the complaint. Later that day, he said he had trouble swallowing and couldn’t feel his hands and arms.
Perry described Sherrell as having a big heart. He excelled at athletics and liked to make his friends and family laugh, including his girlfriend and three young daughters. He aspired to become a barber and wanted to open his own barbershop where he could talk to troubled teens in his chair and talk them out of making the same mistakes he did that got him caught up in the legal system, Perry said.
He also treated authority with respect, especially because he knew the trouble he could cause if he did not. Because of that, Perry said she was shocked to learn that multiple jail officials and medical practitioners thought that her son would be faking his symptoms.
“How do you fake high blood pressure?” Perry said. “How do you fake facial drooping? How do you fake weakness? You can see he can’t even hold his head up.”
Even when a doctor did observe Sherrell’s state and ordered him to be taken to the hospital, Allen refused, claiming she had information that he might be trying to escape, according to the complaint.
“Get out of here with that,” Perry said in an interview this week. “How is a man going to run if he can’t even walk?”
On Aug. 31, a different nurse practitioner noticed that the right side of Sherrell’s face was drooping and he was slurring his words, according to the complaint, and he was taken to the emergency room at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, North Dakota.
But when Dr. Dustin G. Leigh examined him, he ignored symptoms like facial drooping and loss of sensation, according to the complaint. Leigh conducted a CT scan and an MRI and found no abnormalities. Medical staff did not find any condition that warranted continued hospitalization. According to the complaint, Leigh then spoke with a corrections officer who told him Sherrell had been seen moving his extremities without difficulty during the night, and determined that he was faking his weakness.
Leigh discharged Sherrell with a primary diagnosis of “malingering”—the fabrication of physical problems—and “weakness.” His discharge papers did include instructions that corrections officers seek medical treatment if he suffered from any of a number of symptoms in the future.
Surveillance video from the jail shows that when Sherrell returned, jail officials allowed him to fall to the ground outside the car and did not pick him up for several minutes. When they did bring him into the jail, his head flopped back. In the video, an officer can be seen shoving his head forward. The complaint noted that Sherrell appeared to be crying.
By the next morning, officials found him paralyzed in his cell but ignored all of his worsened symptoms, including numerous seizures, and did not assist him with eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. Despite the discharge instructions, Sherrell never returned to the hospital.
“Three separate entities could have taken very simple steps to save this man’s life,” Zorislav Leyderman, an attorney representing Perry, told The Appeal. “This is just a pure example of complete carelessness. This wasn’t a heart attack where someone just collapses and dies without any notice. This wasn’t any kind of acute injury. This is a person who suffered and slowly deteriorated over a matter of days.”
Sherrell’s death wasn’t the only one to occur in the Beltrami County Jail, which houses 126 individuals, and Perry isn’t the only mother accusing the facility of unlawful conduct. In April, Aldene Morrison filed a lawsuit over the death of her son, 26-year-old Tony May Jr., in the jail in 2016. May had a heart defect known as myocardial bridging, and an autopsy report provided by his family lists “possible sudden cardiac death” as the cause. After his death, the state Department of Corrections found that the jail violated rules that require staff to check on all prisoners every 30 minutes. Former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp has disputed that the jail conducted checks significantly later than necessary.
Hodapp told a local reporter in 2017 that the county has “to consider the fact that we’re understaffed in our jail, and that’s a problem that we’ve had in our jail for quite some time.” On the night of May’s death, he said, five corrections officers were supervising 104 people detained in the jail.
And in 2017, a 39-year-old woman was found hanging from a bed sheet in her cell and died several days later. After that incident, the Department of Corrections found that the jail had violated state rules on prisoner checks, but Hodapp again said none of the checks were conducted late.
“The DOC was wrong about their conclusion regarding the assessment that was being made inside the jail,” Hodapp told a local reporter. “I really can’t expand upon that because it involved medical information.”
Perry questioned the jail’s policies and the numerous deaths in recent years.
“This is their norm,” she said. “This is how they treat people up there all the time. And now they’re being exposed.”