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Inmate’s broken jaw draws questions, criticism

Theran Stai

BEMIDJI — The Beltrami County Jail has come under scrutiny for the treatment of a mentally ill inmate in September.

Conflicting reports have been given on how Theran Stai sustained a broken jaw while under the watch of jail staff and why he was released from custody.

Did Stai fall, or was he assaulted?

"Theran Stai is someone everybody is familiar with, an inmate with a long criminal history and chemical issues who was in jail clearly suffering mental issues and he got hurt," said Ninth Judicial District Chief Public Defender Kristine Kolar.

Stai, 45, of Bemidji alerted Sergeant Todd Deshane that he needed medical attention on September 10 at 2:50 p.m., according to a Beltrami County Jail incident report. Stai believed he may have broken his jaw. Deshane observed a large bump on the right side of Stai’s jaw and asked how it happened.

"He stated that it did not matter how it happened," Deshane wrote in the report.

Deshane asked if Stai wanted to press charges against the individual who assaulted him, "he stated that no one did it he slipped and fell on the floor." Kolar said she does not believe Stai fell.

Video surveillance footage is not available for the area where Stai was when the injury occurred. Beltrami County Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel said Stai was in the "day room" which is in direct observation of staff and not under video surveillance. Beitel added the jail is not understaffed.

"There is no crime here," said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp. "We don’t want anyone in our jail to be assaulted."

The investigation

Because of the severity of Stai’s injury, the sheriff’s office requested the Bemidji Police Department investigate the incident.

According to the sheriff’s office, the inmates all indicated they did not know how Stai became injured. The police department’s investigation on September 11 was consistent with Stai reporting a fall may have been how his jaw was broken.

Jail staff later reported Stai told medical staff he had been assaulted but would not report it to the jail.

"He said he fell," Hodapp said. "It was after the fact that he claimed it was by the hands of someone else."

Interviews of the inmates in Beltrami County Jail’s D block by the Bemidji Police Department resulted in reports of Stai being "loud and annoying at times" but 10 of the 12 inmates said they did not see an assault.

Inmate Ryan Dorry stated he had nothing to say and Clinton Zenzius demanded an attorney but would say nothing more, according to the police department’s investigation.

Granted a furlough

Beltrami County has received further criticism for giving Stai a furlough, which is usually requested by the inmate in writing, and for allowing a mentally ill patient to be released from custody.

A jail nurse examined Stai’s jaw on September 10 and determined he needed to be transported to the emergency room for X-rays. It was determined that the scope of Stai’s injuries was beyond what is treatable at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center (SBMC).

In order to treat him properly, Stai would need to leave Beltrami County, which required either a 24-hour law enforcement escort or a furlough.

Beitel called Judge Paul Benshoof who is familiar with Stai’s criminal history and mental state, but was not successful at reaching him after 5:30 p.m. on September 10. Next, Beitel called Judge John G. Melbye who gave Stai an October 14 report date and granted a furlough.

According to a report by the Star Tribune, Melbye admitted that he made the furlough decision based on limited information and that he had not reviewed Stai’s recent court records. Having been jailed on a misdemeanor charge, Melbye didn’t feel Stai posed a public safety risk. However, Stai’s most recent drug possession charge is a felony level offense.

Judges Benshoof and Melbye could not be reached for comment.

Stai was airlifted from Sanford Bemidji Medical Center (SBMC) to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) where he received reconstructive surgery on his jaw.

Lindsay Wangberg, SBMC public information specialist, said SBMC cannot comment on a specific patient’s care in respect of privacy. Wangberg, however, clarified that SBMC is a level four trauma center that does not provide facial reconstructive surgery.

"Based on complexity we do transfer patients to places like HCMC, a level 1 trauma center when care is beyond the scope that we are able to provide," Wangberg said. "Commonly facial reconstructive surgery is a specialty that falls within facial plastic surgery."

A costly mistake

The Star Tribune notes a quickly written email by Benshoof that implied Stai was released so the county wouldn’t have to pay medical bills. Benshoof retracted that statement shortly after it was issued.

"Cost was not and never has been a determining factor," Beitel said.

Kolar believes Stai was furloughed in attempt for the county to skirt paying for his medical bills that she feels the jail is responsible for allowing to happen.

"This man was treated horribly," Kolar said. "He was penniless, homeless, mentally ill and 215 miles away from home [when released in Hennepin County]."

Hodapp agreed that Stai is mentally ill and in need of treatment, but he is not a vulnerable adult.

"Most sheriff’s would agree there are a lot of people in their jails that should be in mental health facilities," Hodapp said.

Stai has been in and out of legal trouble for the past two decades. His charges include: fleeing a peace officer, DWI, escape from custody, disorderly conduct, domestic abuse, assault, theft and most recently possession of methamphetamine.

Stai’s sister Rebecca Cermak said chemical abuse and mental illness has been a lifelong cycle with her brother. Stai has been deemed incompetent by Beltrami County.

"There are a lot of people like Theran out there. We need to take care of them," Cermak said. "They need a place in Bemidji for people who can’t stay sober."

Cermak said she is glad someone has finally placed Stai in a facility where he can get the help that he needs. He is presently in a behavioral health hospital in Bemidji.

Stai has a commitment hearing on Friday to determine whether or not he is mentally fit to stand trial. If he is, Stai’s criminal file will return to active status.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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