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Mother of former inmate sues Beltrami County, jail staff

Aldene Morrison, left, and Elaine Clark, the mother and aunt of Tony May Jr., lead a protest in September outside the Beltrami County Jail. May died in the jail in 2016. (Pioneer file photo)

BEMIDJI—The mother of a former county jail inmate is holding Beltrami County responsible for the death of her son.

Tony Edward May Jr. with his sister Tara May. Tony died in the Beltrami County Jail in Aug. 2016. Submitted photo.Aldene Morrison filed a civil lawsuit against the county on April 24, more than two years after her son, Tony May Jr., 26, died in the Beltrami County jail from a sudden cardiac arrest. She's arguing the county violated her son's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when it neglected to handle his medical needs properly.

In addition to the county itself, the lawsuit names former Sheriff Phil Hodapp, as well as correctional officers Andrew Richards, Saul Garza, Adam Olson and Katherine O'Bryan as complicit in the death.

The Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust will represent both the county as well as all the individual defendants listed in the lawsuit.

"We intend to defend the case," said Jason Hiveley, the attorney who's representing the county and the jail staff. "At this time, we are not planning to offer anything to settle."

Vincent Moccio of Bennerotte and Associates, Morrison's representation, couldn't be reached for comment.

According to initial reports, inmates alerted the jail's staff around 6:50 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2016, when they found May unresponsive. Although medical personnel attempted life-saving procedures, they later pronounced May dead at the scene. May had a heart defect referred to as myocardial bridging.

According to media reports, May was in jail for a DWI and fleeing an officer.

Jail policy required staff to personally observe all inmates every 30 minutes. The lawsuit, however, quotes a report from the Minnesota Department of Corrections that said many of the inmate checks were completed quickly, making it difficult to detect signs of life.

"The quick pace of these checks made the checks fundamentally useless," the lawsuit says. It also says that the jailers' actions and omissions in response to May's needs "were so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."

The lawsuit says the jail staff's "deliberate indifference to an inmate's serious medical needs" violated May's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and fines as well as "cruel and unusual punishment." The Fourteenth Amendment partially deals with due process.

"The failure to train its employees by Beltrami County in these ways amounted to deliberate indifference to Mr. May's constitutional rights," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims May's family suffered a loss from his death "well in excess of" $75,000."

While the lawsuit only references May's death, there were two other inmate deaths in the Beltrami County Jail in recent years.

In 2017, jail staff found 39-year-old Stephanie Bunker hanging with a bed sheet around her neck. In September 2018, 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell collapsed from an "unknown medical condition." Officials later determined that Sherrell died of pneumonia.

In the cases of both Bunker and May, the Department of Corrections found the jail violated state rules. In Bunker's case, the county erred when it allowed her to refuse to wear an anti-suicide smock, the report said. It also alleged that some of the checks on Bunker were late.

Hodapp later challenged the department of correction's findings regarding the jail's care for Bunker.

In the case of Sherrell, the department of corrections informed Hodapp that "there were no violations" of the Minnesota administrative rules related to jails.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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