Jailers mocked dying man as he begged for help, video shows
From an isolation cell in the Ottawa County Jail, Terral Ellis begged for someone to help him.
He could not feel his legs and he could not breathe, the 26-year-old told jail staff and the on-site nurse at the Miami, Oklahoma, facility. It felt, he said, like his back was broken and he was bleeding internally.
"I think I'm dying," he said just after 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2015.
Staff mocked him, laughed at a joke about the "boy who cried wolf," and ignored him as he moaned. When nurse Theresa Horn arrived later that morning, she did not help either - instead threatening to chain Ellis to the ground if he continued to complain.
"I'm sick and tired of (expletive) dealing with your ass!" she yelled. "Ain't a damn thing nothing wrong with you!"
Hours later, Ellis was dead.
Video surveillance footage of Ellis's 12 days in jail in 2015 became public for the first time last week as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit. The 18 clips taken from 16 cameras - which were edited down from the hundreds of hours of footage given to the Ellis family's lawyers - show how jail staff repeatedly mocked Ellis and refused him adequate medical treatment.
On Oct. 10, 2015, Ellis took the advice of his grandfather and turned himself into the county jail on an outstanding warrant for an old DUI. On Oct. 22, he was rolled out on a paramedic's stretcher — cold and unresponsive from septic shock brought on by pneumonia, a medical examiner later ruled.
Unlike most jail surveillance video from high-profile inmate death cases, these clips have audio. The attorneys representing the Ellis family in the suit said the videos show not just what was done, but what was said, throughout Ellis's rapid decline.
"If you don't have everything I have, this is just some kid who died in jail because he got sick," said attorney Dan Smolen, who specializes in jail death cases across the country. "I want people to understand this is happening, every day, all day long, in jails across the United States. I think it has just been captured [here] in a really awful way."
Immediately after Ellis's death, his fellow inmates spoke out about his treatment, and in 2017 the man's family filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma against the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office, the emergency medical service, Horn and other jail staff, claiming their negligence and gross indifference led to his death.
Smolen's legal team has pieced together witness accounts, staff reports, deposition interviews and now, the hundreds of hours of surveillance video from inside the Ottawa County Jail that show how a healthy young man trying to get right with the law died in government custody, court documents allege.
As of this week, nobody who interacted with Ellis during his time in jail has been criminally charged, nor was anyone formally disciplined, Smolen said, citing their investigation and depositions of those involved. The Ottawa County Sheriff, Jeremy Floyd, confirmed to The Washington Post that the two named detention officers in the suit, as well as Horn, were not disciplined or charged at the time. In the four years since Ellis's death, all three have left as employees of the jail, Floyd said.
Floyd became sheriff more than a year after Ellis died. He is named in the suit in his official capacity, which is essentially the same thing as suing the sheriff's office. Had he been in charge in 2015, Floyd said he would have asked the state to conduct an investigation of Ellis's death and not allowed it to be done internally.
The video footage was entered into the public record by Smolen's team as part of the Ellis family's response in opposition to defendants' motion for summary judgment in the case. All seven named defendants have asked the judge to dismiss the suit for various reasons.
Ambre Gooch, lead attorney for the sheriff's office, said in a statement that while Ellis's death is "of course sad and unfortunate, it was not caused by any action or inaction of the Sheriff in his official capacity." Gooch said the recently released video "depicts behavior by Jail staff that had never before been seen, heard, or reported up the chain in the Sheriff's Office" before Ellis's death. Jail staff's behavior was "contrary to their training and to Jail policies and procedures," Gooch said, and "does not accurately depict the Sheriff's Office's policies, procedures, standards, or expectations of Jail staff."
Ellis's family is seeking unspecified damages.
In a 2017 case waged by Smolen, a jury awarded $10.25 million in a verdict for the family of Elliott Williams, who died after suffering for days with a broken neck in a Tulsa County jail cell. The same judge who heard that case, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell, is also presiding over the Ellis lawsuit.
"We as parents spend our lives teaching our children how to walk, talk, ride a bike and survive in this world," Ellis's father, Terral Ellis Sr., said in a statement. "Nobody looked at my 26-year investment the way I did. He was a kindhearted, loving boy that became a man for a very short time when strangers decided to erase something that was not theirs to erase."
Smolen said he has handled many "horrific jail death cases," but this one has been the hardest.
"It's a complete dehumanization of people in custody," he said. "This video, this audio, really captures that."
The first clip in the court filing is one of Ellis walking with his grandfather into the Sheriff's Office, seemingly strong and healthy. The men shake hands, then say goodbye. At intake, a booking officer filled out a medical form that said Ellis had asthma and had been prescribed albuterol, according to court documents.
Ellis made quick friends with his cellmates in the general population part of the jail, where bunk beds are lined up dormitory-style. One man named Michael Harrington wrote in a letter that Ellis talked about wanting to get his life together for his toddler son and his desire to make his family proud. The letter was attached to the plaintiff's federal response pleading.
Ellis's health seemed normal, Harrington said. The two men developed a daily exercise routine. Then Harrington was removed from the general population area for six days after arguing with jail staff. When Harrington returned to the general population area, he said Ellis was sick and in bed with a pain in his back and no appetite.
Surveillance video shows Ellis lying in bed for eight days, according to the court filing. During this time, Harrington said in the letter, he was concerned that his new friend was growing severely dehydrated because he was sweating profusely.
"I literally had to hand-feed and water him," Harrington wrote. "It got so bad that I had to give him cups to urinate in and then dump them out for him."
Harrington said their requests for medical attention were denied. Eventually, according to court documents, Horn diagnosed Ellis with a "displaced rib" on Oct. 19 and directed him to stay in bed, according to court documents and her own medical notes filed as an exhibit in the case.
Ellis complained that he felt his condition was worsening, Harrington said in his letter. At one point, Harrington said in his letter that he and Ellis pleaded for help from detention officer Johnny Bray, who accused Ellis of faking his illness in a ploy to get out of jail. According to Harrington's letter, Ellis later said: "They're not going to help me, are they? I think I'm going to die."
Bray's attorney, who also represents Assistant Jail Administrator Charles Shoemaker in the suit, said he cannot comment on the case while litigation is pending. In the motion for summary judgment, Bray's attorneys argued there was "no evidence" that he "deliberately intended to cause Ellis any harm."
On Oct. 21, in the late afternoon, video shows Ellis appearing to have a seizure. The other inmates "started raising a hundred kinds of hell" to get Ellis medical help, Harrington wrote in his letter. Eventually the officers on duty responded and staff called Horn, who was off-site, according to court documents. She instructed them to call paramedics.
Bray and another officer can be heard on video mocking Ellis, implying again he was faking the seizure because he had no medical history of them. Bray later told Smolen's team in a deposition that his remarks were "regrettable" and "inappropriate," according to court documents.
When the paramedics arrived, though, they did not take all of Ellis's vital signs, according to court documents. Harrington said in his letter that he heard jail staff tell the medics that Ellis was faking his illness, and that unless his condition was life-threatening, they should not take him to the hospital.
Soon after, Ellis was transferred to an isolation cell with no toilet, no sink, no bed and no longer any cellmates to advocate for him. Shoemaker testified in a deposition that he placed Ellis in the isolation cell because he needed some "cool-down time," according to court documents.
Jail staff was supposed to check on Ellis every 15 minutes according to jail protocol, but video shows they did not - contradicting jail staff reports, the lawsuit alleges. Ellis can be seen on video several times walking to the bathroom on his own, according to court documents.
Ellis's time in isolation lasted 20 hours. Video shows him pleading for help, screaming in agony and repeatedly listing his symptoms to jail staff. When Ellis asked Bray to call an ambulance, the officer sarcastically responded that he would but did not.
In the early morning of Oct. 22, video shows Ellis asking for help getting water. Another officer refused, telling Ellis that if he wants water, he can get it himself.
Between about 8:18 a.m. and 8:40 a.m., Ellis again asks for help and is met with mocking remarks and denials from jail staff.
"My legs! Please! Please don't go anywhere!" Ellis said.
"Please, dude. Wait, dude. I can't believe y'all are doing this! Help! Help! Help! Somebody Help! Help! Help!" Ellis said.
"Help! Help me! Help!" Ellis said.
As Ellis begged, Shoemaker can be heard on the video refusing to call for emergency medical help.
Shoemaker's attorneys argued in the motion for summary judgment that he was not aware Ellis was ill and, "as expected and instructed," relied on medical personnel to treat the man.
Court documents allege that Horn falsified reports when she claimed that she checked on Ellis at 9:45 a.m. In fact, she did not arrive at the jail until later that morning, according to the video.
At 10 a.m., Ellis yelled for an officer about his asthma and soon after requested his albuterol. He told them he thought he was dying. When Horn arrived, Ellis begged her and jail staff to look at his legs because they were turning "black." Mottling, or discoloration of the legs, is a sign of early sepsis, according to court documents.
"Listen to me and shut up!" Horn screamed at Ellis.
Later, the nurse said: "I'm tired of dealing with your dumb ass, you hear me?"
Horn threatened Ellis, telling him that if he kept complaining she would chain him to the "D-ring," a restraining hook on the ground of his cell.
At 1:38 p.m., jail staff went to Ellis's cell and found him unresponsive. They observed, according to court documents, that his feet and hands were discolored and cold. Three minutes later, Ellis is heard moaning in surveillance video. Horn called paramedics, and before they arrived she instructed other inmates to clean Ellis's "piss mat" where he had been sleeping, according to video and court documents.
Video shows paramedics carrying Ellis out of his cell and lifting him onto a gurney at 2:03 p.m. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
At the jail, after the paramedics had left, Horn can be heard suggesting to Shoemaker that Ellis may have died by suicide. The medical examiner later determined the cause was septic shock and also noted that Ellis was allegedly found with "a bedsheet tied loosely around his neck," according to court documents, but that there were also no marks on his neck.
Horn, Bray and Shoemaker are all named in the lawsuit, alongside paramedics Jennifer Grimes and Kent Williams, the Office of the Ottawa County Sheriff and Baptist Healthcare of Oklahoma LLC on behalf of Integris Miami EMS.
In court documents, attorneys for the sheriff's office argued that the institution cannot be held liable because Ellis's death was not caused by insufficient policy or training of jail staff.
Attorneys for Horn did not respond to a request for comment, and efforts to reach Horn directly were not successful.
A lawyer representing Grimes, Williams and Baptist Healthcare said he cannot comment on pending litigation. Their attorneys argued in the motion for summary judgment that the paramedics and their employer could not be held liable for what happened to Ellis after they left the jail.
In his court filing, Smolen argues that the video evidence shows why the judge should allow the case to proceed to a jury trial. There is no clear timeline for when that might happen, Smolen said.
Most striking for Smolen about this case is the way the video supported much of what Ellis's cellmates had been saying since 2015. Sixteen men, including Harrington, signed a document two days after Ellis's death promising to testify on his behalf. One cellmate, Justin Barrera, wrote in a letter that he could not sleep at night because a loop of Ellis's scared voice was playing in his head.
"Everything they said in that letter was true," Smolen said. "It just took us years to corroborate it."
In his letter, Harrington — the inmate who tried to help — said that he learned from an orderly that Ellis died.
"If it weren't for the negligence and total disregard to human life, Terral would still be with us today," Harrington wrote. "No one deserves to be treated like that. Something needs to be done."