Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 21, 2012

Newsmakers: Jail policies unchanged since overdose death


Editor’s note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.

TRAVERSE CITY — More than nine months have passed since Danny Whitney Jr., died at age 21 in the Grand Traverse County Jail from a methadone overdose.

The jail has not changed any of its policies toward inmates since then, but Brenda Strait, Whitney’s mother, hopes a lawsuit will persuade them to reconsider.

“The reason I got an attorney is this should never, ever happen again. If they are under observation, they should be under observation,” she said.

Whitney died in an observation cell about seven hours after being booked into jail on March 2.

Whitney told jail staff he had taken four tablets of methadone and one Xanax prior to his arrest. Yet Dr. Stephen Cohle, a forensic pathologist, reported it would have taken 20 to 40 tablets to reach the level of methadone found in Whitney’s system.

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said it’s hard to help people when they’re not truthful.

“On three separate occasions, he told three different people that he had taken four methadone pills. He was not real honest,” Bensley said. “We followed our policies and procedures. We did the right thing; we had the odds stacked against us.”

Bensley added that the jail staff follows the recommendations of the medical staff, which are contract employees.

Strait believes that the potentially fatal combination of Xanax and methadone should have prompted the jail staff to have taken her son to the hospital or at least monitored him much more closely.

“As a nurse wouldn’t you wake him up every hour to see if he was breathing?” she said.

She contends a share of the responsibility also lies with Dr. James Leete, who prescribed methadone and alprazolam (Xanax) to Whitney, who had battled drug addiction.

“Shame on that doctor. He should never have given it to him with his addiction history,” said Strait.

Two unrelated allegations were filed against Leete in July with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs’ Bureau of Health Care, said Carole Engle, bureau director.

Engle said the investigation is ongoing and declined to release details of the allegations.

Leete is no longer practicing at his former office, but Engle said he still retains his license. Leete couldn’t be reached for comment.

Whitney, who had been living in a transition house and was due for release the next day, arrived at the jail at about 4 p.m. for a community corrections violation. He was found dead at about 11 p.m.

Bensley said a nurse physically evaluated him and a corrections officer observed him through the cell’s glass window.

A jail nurse relayed Whitney’s vital signs, behavior and consumption of methadone to an off-site doctor, who told her to let him “sleep it off.” The medical staff is contracted through Correctional Healthcare Companies.

An inmate who shared the cell said Whitney was “snoring very loudly and all the time when all of a sudden he stopped snoring.”

Strait said she assumed her son was using methadone to help reduce his drug addiction.

Although an effective pain medication, methadone doesn’t flush out of the body quickly or predictably, said Terry Baumann, manager of pharmacy at Munson Medical Center and a specialist in pain control. 

Using Xanax with methadone increases the potential to cause more sedation or to stop breathing completely, he said.

“And yes, it would increase the potential for dying,” Baumann said.

Soon after her son’s death, Strait contacted Andrew Abood, a Lansing-based attorney, to file a lawsuit. Abood sent a letter to sheriff’s officials in September, followed by an extensive Freedom of Information Act request in November, said Undersheriff Nate Alger.

Abood said his firm is considering a civil rights suit against the sheriff’s office, and a negligence or malpractice case against the jail’s advising doctor.

Meanwhile, Strait deeply mourns her son.

“Do you know the saddest part? I’ll never see him get married, I didn’t get a grandchild. It’s very sad. He would have been a great father someday,” she said.