I-TEAM: Deadly decision, an investigation into missteps inside a Richmond County jail

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 6:35 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - At the time, Lendon Stephen’s homicide at the Charles Webster Detention Center didn’t get much attention, but after fighting for months to get his case file, we found maybe it should have. That’s because it could expose fatal flaws in how those waiting to go to trial are treated in the Richmond County Jail.

Lendon Stephens was presumed innocent when he died in jail in February of 2018. His death was ruled a homicide, and for more than three years, his family has been waiting for answers about what happened. There were no arrests and no closure, so the family called the I-Team. We went to work, and what we uncovered raises some serious questions.

Stephens made more than 40 phone calls during his 18 days at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center after his arrest on aggravated assault charges. Our I-Team was able to get the audio recordings:

Stephen’s mother, Rebecca: “Hello?”

Stephens: “What’s up, mama?”

Mother: “Oh baby I just I hope you go to court this week.”

Stephens was going to ask a judge for bond so he could go back to work cutting grass for a local landscaper. He also wanted to get back to the most important thing in his life: his 6-year-old son.

The son: “Daddy, where you at?”

Stephens: “Daddy got into some trouble. Daddy, daddy is in jail right now.”

The son: “Alright.”

Stephens: “So you gotta be good, ok?”

The son: “Ok”

Stephens: “I love you. "

The son: “I love you, too.”

This was the call of the last time Lendon Stephens, Jr. spoke to his father. Five days after that phone call, Stephens was found lifeless in his cell.

“They should have never treated him like a dog. No – they shouldn’t have done that,” Rebecca said

Stephen’s mother, Rebecca, first sat down the I-Team in February. She was frustrated after not getting answers from the GBI, the district attorney, or the jail for three long years.

“We got unanswered questions. We just want to know,” she said. “It’s not about no money. It’s not about nothing. It’s about peace. My daughter needs peace. I need peace. He needs peace. All of us need peace! They thinking it was about money. It’s not about money. That’s my baby boy.”

During all that time, Rebecca believed her son, who friends and family called L-Jay, died as the result of a fight in jail. When the I-Team finally got a hold of the case file, she discovered something shocking. 18 hours before Stephens died, records show deputies were aware there was a problem, but they didn’t believe Lendon needed medical help. They believed he needed to be punished.

The I-Team uncovered a disciplinary report from the day he died, claiming he faked a seizure.

Our I-Team then spent weeks combing through records and discovered other possible critical warning signs. He complained of headaches often, and made nine phone calls about it.

He made a call three days, 18 hours, and 34 minutes before he was pronounced dead. He even ends a phone call early to see if he can get some headache medicine:

“Let me get off this phone, I’ma go see if I can get some medicine. Cause’ this shit here banging and I don’t think I can take this shit,” he said on the phone.

Days passed. Stephens felt no relief.

One day, 10 hours, and 20 minutes before death, he made another call:

“Boy, I ain’t been to sleep, bro. I’ve been up. Headache. Walking around. Trying to lay down. Lay down, my head pumping. They told me they can’t give me no medicine and (expletive),” he had said.

Two hours after that call, he made another:

“My whole left side of my body went numb,” Stephens told the caller.

Then 18 hours before death, he possibly suffered a seizure in his cell around 1 a.m.

According to the jail’s activity log, Sgt. Weatherspoon was first notified about all of this at 1:15 a.m. At 1:18, the log shows Sgt. Weatherspoon moving Lendon Stephens for Faking a seizure and kicking the cell door.” If this really was a life or death decision, it appears Sgt. Weatherspoon only took three minutes to make it.

Just three minutes.

Our I-Team obtained audio recordings of GBI interviews with other inmates. This is what Stephens’ cellmate, Eric Wiley, told agents:

“He kept saying – ‘Help me bro. Help me. Please. Please... help me bro.’ He started sweating real bad. That’s when I noticed he had doo-dooed on himself, so I’m like, ‘Oh this is badder than what we think.’ – it feels like y’all – y’all help me – everybody kickin’ they door – they kickin’ the door,” Wiley said.

“He’s, (Weather)Spoon like, ‘He ain’t having no seizure. Y’all fixin’ to go on lockdown. Y’all fixing to go for 30 days - we’re gonna take y’all to the hole,’” Wiley said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the hole. Like, I’ll go to the hole about this situation.’ I was like, ‘Spoon, look at him. Your man is turning purple bro. Like, please help that man.’”

A video from inside the jail shows Stephens struggling to walk after he’s taken out of his cell. Stephens is cuffed and shuffled from one cell to another.

The clips are difficult for his family to watch, especially for his mother Rebecca. She eventually had to leave the room.

“He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve this,” she said.

It’s a painful punch to the family’s stomach to realize he could have died because no one with authority believed him.

The autopsy report lists his death as a homicide due to subdural hemorrhage – or bleeding on the brain because of a head injury. The I-Team checked a number of medical sources, and all of them, from the MAYO Clinic to UCLA, confirmed headaches and seizures are symptoms of a subdural hemorrhage.

Stephen’s family tells the I-Team, they’ve had three long years of sleepless nights waiting to find out what happened to him. After all this time, they finally have answers, but also a lot more questions.

The I-Team found it appears no one – not a single member of the jail staff the day Stephens died, not a single GBI agent, or the district attorney handling the case -considered the possibility Stephens wasn’t faking a seizure.

Instead, he was strapped to a chair, labeled as mentally ill, and left in a cell alone to die.

This Thursday, the I-Team takes you through the last 18 hours of Lendon Stephens’ life. Our Meredith Anderson will examine how many people might have missed critical warning signs and why no one was ever held accountable.

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