Hardel Sherrell

Hardel Sherrell died while incarcerated in the Beltrami County Jail in 2018. Submitted photo.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — The mother of a former inmate who died in 2018 in the Beltrami County Jail is suing the county and a host of other defendants over the death of her son.

Del Shea Perry, of St. Paul, the mother of Hardel Sherrell, filed the lawsuit in late September. The litigation means there are two active lawsuits accusing the county of contributing to the deaths of inmates. Aldene Morrison filed the first lawsuit in May in the case of her son Tony May Jr., 26, who died in the jail in 2016.

Perry's lawsuit asks for a judgement “in excess of $75,000.” Perry, however, has her sights set on larger goals. She’s set on making sure there are fundamental changes for the local county jail, saying they either need to completely overhaul the personnel or shut the jail down indefinitely.

“Licenses need to be lost. Jobs need to be lost. Charges need to be brought,” Perry said about the people she believes are responsible for her son’s death. “My goal is to shut Beltrami County Jail down.”

There are nearly 30 people and several entities named in Perry's lawsuit. The entities include Beltrami County, Sanford Health and MEnD Correctional Care, which is located in Sartell, Minn. MEnD Correctional Care contracts with counties to provide medical care for inmates.

The medical personnel named in the lawsuit include Dr. Dustin Leigh of Sanford Health Medical Center Fargo.

The attorney representing the county defendants, Jason Hiveley, said they deny the allegations. On Thursday, he released a response to the lawsuit. Hiveley is also the attorney representing Beltrami County in the Tony May Jr. lawsuit.

“Our position is that the allegations in the complaint are not true,” Hiveley said.

Deteriorating health

Sherrell, 27, was originally charged with possession of a firearm by an ineligible person in Beltrami County. He was later arrested in Dakota County in summer 2018. He was then transferred from Dakota County to Beltrami County on Aug. 24, 2018.

Two days after he arrived, Sherrell complained of a headache. The day after that, he complained of chest pains. Throughout the course of the next few days, his blood pressure would be continually high, and his physical abilities would continue to decrease, according to the complaint filed as part of the lawsuit.

On Aug. 28, Sherrell fell from his top bunk and remained on the floor for nearly 30 minutes. His cellmates eventually helped him back to his bed since the jailers believed he put himself on the floor and refused to help him, the complaint said.

Part of the issue between Sherrell and the jail personnel, according to the complaint, was that they did not believe he was telling the truth. Sherrell began complaining of not being able to feel his legs. At one point he was sitting in a wheelchair with his legs up on the lower bunk. He tried transitioning and fell out of the wheelchair. It was allegedly a half hour before the jailers helped him up. One of the jailers said in a report that she thought Sherrell “faked” the fall, the complaint states.

Sherrell also began complaining of “having little to no feeling in his hands and arms.”

On Aug. 30, Sherrell complained he couldn’t feel anything below his waist. His blood pressure registered at 168/109. Dr. Todd Leonard, one of the doctors named as a defendant, ordered that Sherrell be taken to the emergency room. Jail Administrator Calandra Allen allegedly denied the directive to take Sherrell to the emergency room since she “was given information that Mr. Sherrell may be trying to escape” according to the complaint.

In spite of that, Sherrell was taken to the emergency room at Sanford Bemidji the next day. From there he was taken to Sanford Medical Center Fargo for an MRI, which turned out to be inconclusive. During the Fargo visit, Leigh allegedly observed “lower extremity weakness and loss of sensation,” as well as upper extremity weakness and “complete left upper and lower facial droop,” the complaint says.

Leigh allegedly ignored those symptoms. Instead, he spoke to the correctional officer, the complaint stated, who described how Sherrell was able to move his extremities the night before. Leigh determined Sherrell was "faking/lying," the complaint said. Nonetheless, Leigh issued a list of symptoms and said the jail should bring Sherrell back if he exhibited any of the symptoms.

Despite the fact Sherrell was displaying those symptoms after he returned to the jail, the personnel did not take him back to the hospital, the complaint said.

Sherrell's condition continued to deteriorate. He lost control of his urine and bowels. He was unable to swallow and complained that he was choking. He died Sept. 2.

Aftermath and response

When the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office originally announced the death of Sherrell, they said he collapsed from an “unknown medical condition.” Some time thereafter, the Bemidji Police Department released a statement saying the Ramsey County medical examiner determined he died of pneumonia.

The complaint from the lawsuit, however, contradicts that statement. The lawsuit cited an independent autopsy review and said Sherrell died from “untreated Guillian-Barre Syndrome.” According to the Mayo Clinic, Guillian-Barre Syndrome is a disorder where a person’s immune system attacks their nerves.

The complaint acknowledges that the disorder is “fairly rare,” but also indicated it should be recognizable to primary care and emergency care physicians and nurses “because it occurs after common viral infections,” the complaint said.

Hiveley, the attorney for the county defendants, filed a response to the complaint Thursday. Among other disputed points, he took issue with the finding that Sherrell died of Guillian-Barre Syndrome.

“Ramsey County Medical examiner, Dr. Michael B. McGee, conducted the only official and truly independent autopsy, found no anatomic cause of Sherrell’s death, and did not find Sherrell died from Guillian-Barre Syndrome,” the response from Hiveley said.

The response also denies other accusations of wrongdoing, saying the county employees were “performing discretionary acts in the scope of their duties” with the belief that they were doing things correctly.

Sanford Health released a brief statement, saying it can’t comment on patients due to federal and state laws.

“The safety of all patients and the quality of care they receive is our top priority,” the release from Sanford said.

Multiple deaths

Although the county is facing lawsuits in regard to the deaths of Sherrell and May Jr., those are not the only recent deaths that have been associated with the county jail. In 2017, 39-year-old Stephanie Bunker was found hanging with a bed sheet around her neck in her cell and died several days later at the hospital.

After each inmate’s death, the Minnesota Department of Corrections conducted a review of the factors leading up to the death. In the case of Sherrell, Greg Croucher, the senior detention facility inspector with the DOC, wrote a memo to then-Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp, saying he found “no violations” of the rules that oversee procedures in Minnesota jails.

If there is any shred of a silver lining for Perry about the death of her son, she said it’s the chance to put an end to the circumstances that resulted in his death in the first place.

"They treated my son worse than a dog," Perry said. “They didn’t want to listen to my son in jail crying out — they’re going to have to listen to his momma now because I am my son’s voice. And, I will fight this to the very end.”