I-TEAM: Presumed innocent, but jail could have been his death sentence

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 6:28 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team continues its investigation into serious system failures at the Richmond County Jail. Monday, we introduced you to Lendon Stephens. He died just before his bond hearing. His death was ruled a homicide, and for more than three years, his family was in the dark about what happened.

Our I-Team went to work, and what we found could expose a system breakdown.

Again, this is the county jail. It is not a prison.

On a typical day, it houses about 1,000 people. Around 60 percent are considered non-violent. You might even know someone who’s been there for something minor, but our I-Team uncovered a major problem. More than a dozen people missed what even the CDC calls “classic warning signs of a health crisis.”

As Lendon Stephens was preparing to defend himself in court, he told friends and family he was also defending himself in jail.

Caller: “You been fighting in there?”

Lendon Stephens: “Yeah.”

Caller: “Who you fighting in there?”

Lendon Stephens: “Nobody major. You have to protect yourself.”

The day after he made that very call, Lendon was found dead in his cell.

The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, specifically “head trauma” after a “physical altercation.” For the last five days of his life, maybe even 20, records show the 26-year-old father had been slowly dying from a bran bleed that no one with authority to help him ever caught.

The autopsy specifically references a fight in jail 13 days before he died. The I-Team obtained a video that shows Lendon by a jail phone. He is hit repeatedly and falls to the ground. Then, he sustains even more blows to the head. Lendon never throws a single punch.

The I-Team spent weeks combing through the case and found warning signs of a brain injury throughout the file. We pieced together a timeline of the last 18 hours of his life and find the first failure at 1 a.m. on February 22, 2018. Documents show one person made one decision about his health.

Not a doctor.

Not a nurse.

A deputy.

A deputy decided Lendon Stephens was “faking a seizure.” Cellmates later told the GBI they cried out for help. Our I-Team listened to recordings of interviews where witnesses say they knew something was very wrong with Stephens.

Cellmate: “He’s turning purple, bro!”

Instead of getting him medical attention, the jailer cuffed him and took him to another cell to await a disciplinary hearing.

1:15 p.m. -- Six and a half hours before he’s found dead, a different deputy reports Lendon is “responsive but acting strange.”

15 minutes later at 1:30 p.m., documents show he’s “unresponsive. Nurses arrive with oxygen and an AED, but staff is able to help him sit up. He doesn’t have any clothes on.

A different deputy reports he’s “picking at imaginary things on the ground and pretending to eat them.”

1:47 p.m. -- A nurse notes he “had his eyes closed and he was bouncing on the table as if he were listening to music. Patient looked disheveled. I state there is a knot on his head.” She tells two others in the room, “there is not a referral for mental health, and he had no history.” Despite her concerns the DON, or director of nursing, determined “mental health should take over.”

1:53 p.m. -- Six minutes after being brought in for medical care, he’s restrained in this chair. There is also video of this. Minutes later, he is moved to a cell for observation.

4 p.m. -- In his final few hours a deputy checks on him and finds him “Sitting on the floor leaning back simulating driving a car. One hand looked as if it was on a steering wheel.”

His family is hearing about this bizarre behavior for the very first time as the I-Team opens Stephens’ case file. “Ok, you read the file and see that there’s no history,” said Tanequa Rhodes. She and Stephens have a son together. “Something’s wrong,” she said.

While Lendon was pretending to drive an imaginary car, documents show the deputy asked if he was ok. He didn’t say anything but raised his hand “as if to signal yes.” His eyes were closed as he kept “driving.”

“That’s not normal,” said Tanequa.

6 p.m. -- A different deputy begins his shift and finds Lendon Stephens laying on his stomach in his cell. Stephens is unresponsive. Nurses start CPR. They try the AED. He never regained consciousness.

7:40 p.m. -- The coroner officially pronounces him dead.

Toxicology reports show Lendon Stephens had no drugs or alcohol in his system.

Back in 2019, a former medical employee of the jail warned the I-Team specifically about inmates at the Charles Webster Detention Center with head injuries. “If you have somebody whose sustained a major head injury, and you’re not monitoring or following them throughout your shift, there is that potential that they’re found dead,” the whistleblower told the I-Team. The employee asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

In all, the I-Team counted 17 people, 10 deputies and 7 nurses, who came in contact with Lendon Stephens and could have helped him. What’s more, the I-Team analyzed a report from the CDC calling traumatic brain injuries an “unrecognized problem” in jails and prisons, noting 25 to 87 percent of inmates report experiencing one. Head injuries can make it difficult for some to “follow directions given by a correctional officer,” making them seem defiant. Slow responses make them seem “uncooperative.” The CDC also warns of anger and behavioral problems. For example, Lendon Stephens’ brain injury likely explains why deputies asked Lendon  to “put his clothes back on, but he would not.”

For his mother, what feels like a lack of compassion toward her son in his final hours is the crushing blow.

“I think other people are going through the same thing, but they just don’t have a person like you, a person that…I thank you so much,” Rebecca Stephens said. “It’s a start.”

The GBI closed Lendon Stephens’ case, and the DA declined to prosecute because investigators could never determine what fight led to his death.

We didn’t find anything in the case file about any nurse or deputy being reprimanded for missing the warning signs of a brain bleed for hours.

Just this week, we told you the Justice Department is launching a state-wide investigation into civil rights violations in Georgia prisons. We can confirm Senator John Ossoff’s team is aware of our I-Team investigation as is the Augusta Interfaith Coalition.

We will keep you posted.

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