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The Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Donna J. Miller, The Plain Dealer cleveland.com
on November 11, 2008 at 11:07 PM
UPDATED: CLEVELAND — R&B singer Sean Levert entered the Cuyahoga County Jail on March 24 clutching the prescribed medication he took regularly for anxiety.
Jail staff took the bottle of Xanax away from him and failed to give him a single pill during the six days he was there, investigators said. Even when he began suffering horrifying delusions, he wasn’t given his medication and never saw a doctor.
Instead, on March 30, jailers strapped Levert into a restraint chair, still fighting the monstrous visions in his head caused by withdrawal from the medication. Minutes later, the 39-year-old son of O’Jays star Eddie Levert stopped breathing. His heart then stopped and doctors couldn’t save him.
Recently released Cuyahoga County investigators’ reports, interviews and the Cuyahoga County coroner’s report together reveal the details of Sean E. Levert Sr.’s final days in the overcrowded jail, run by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office.
Updates on the Sean Levert case
- Sean Levert’s wife files lawsuit
- Prosecutor clears jailers in Sean Levert’s death
- Sean Levert’s last performance haunts fellow inmate
- Cuyahoga jail lacks rules on prescriptions for inmates
- Cuyahoga jail has new medical policy for inmate prescriptions
- County approves $3.375 million payment to settle suit over Sean Levert’s death
Levert was sentenced March 24 to 22 months in prison for owing $90,988.96 to three children he fathered before marrying 13 years ago. Deputies brought him from a Cuyahoga County courtroom to the jail in the same building. During the booking process, Levert surrendered a bottle of Xanax that contained 37 pills. He began taking the 2-milligram pills three times a day in November 2007. The prescription for 90 pills was refilled on March 12.
The first few days, Levert and another inmate shared a cell built for one person. Levert was supposed to sleep on a mattress on the floor. He couldn’t sleep that way, he said, so for three nights he tried to sleep sitting with his back against a wall, according to the reports.
Levert told his cellmate that he was supposed be taking medication, but it had been taken away from him. At 8:30 a.m. March 27, Levert told a corrections officer that he needed his medication. The officer contacted a nurse who said Levert would have to “wait like everyone else” to see a doctor. He was scheduled to be seen on April 8. (Ohio law gives jails up to two weeks to have new inmates medically evaluated.)
The jail’s manager of health care services, Christine Dubber, told investigators after the death that Levert’s Xanax was taken because anxiety was not considered an urgent problem, like psychosis, schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts.
The evening of March 29, Levert told his cellmate he heard a woman screaming outside of the jail. He said she was threatening to kill a corrections officer. The cellmate told Levert he couldn’t hear a woman screaming.
About 3:30 a.m. March 30, Levert told the cellmate he could hear his wife. She was telling him that their son just fell into the pool. Levert became fearful and pushed a call button to summon a corrections officer. He told the officer that his wife said his son fell into the pool. He wanted to know if his son was OK. A short time later, a corrections officer and a nurse came to Levert’s cell. He was crying. They took him to a pod of cells reserved for inmates with mental health problems. He was not given his medication.
At 7:45 p.m. March 30, Levert told a sergeant that he had just seen a bad car crash. The sergeant reported the “hallucinative and delusional behavior” to a nurse who took no action. Levert was pacing in his cell, “acting bizarre” and yelling that his mother and his son were being killed. Jail supervisor Michael McClelland was called to the cell. He allowed Levert to call his mother, but she didn’t answer the phone. McClelland wrote in a report that a doctor would see Levert the next day.
At 10:46 p.m., Levert began shouting and pounding on the cell floor “for no reason.” McClelland was summoned again. He said Levert sounded like “there were three pitbulls in the room and he was fighting them off.” McClelland opened the cell door. Levert “shot into my arms. He didn’t put up a fight,” McClelland said. They both slid to the floor, where Levert was handcuffed. At 10:52 p.m., McClelland and other officers begin strapping Levert into a restraint chair “to prevent him from injuring himself.”
Kai Pedizisai/SurroundBYSoundR&B group LeVert, back on tour in November 2007, with a new lineup after Gerald Levert’s death: Dwight Thompson, Sean Levert and Marc Gordon.
In a videotape of Levert being placed in the chair, he repeatedly shouts, “No, no, no” and strains against the straps, but he doesn’t fight the jailers. His breathing is labored. With his eyes squeezed shut, he wails, “No, no, no” for four minutes. At 10:56 p.m., he shouts, “She did it. She did it. She killed my mother. Andy, your mother killed her. She did it. She did it. She’s gonna pay. You did it.” He stops shouting at 10:57 p.m., seemingly out of breath. The video camera is turned off.
Nurse Jane Lawrence checked to make sure the restraint straps around Levert’s wrists, ankles and shoulders weren’t too tight. The nurse called the jail’s psychiatrist, described Levert’s condition and told the doctor that Levert had been taking Xanax. She was told to give Levert an injection that contained three drugs, Benadryl, Ativan and Haldol, to calm him. The nurse told McClelland she wanted to know more about Levert’s medical history before she gave him the shot. She called Levert’s mother.
The reports show she and McClelland spoke to Levert’s mother for five to seven minutes. McClelland assured Martha, “Your son is fine. He’s not in any danger of hurting himself or anybody else. Yes, we have him restrained right now because he lost his cool in that cell quite a bit. He just went a little wild. We can’t allow him to hurt himself, but he’s safe right now and we’ll be watching him very closely tonight.”
McClelland hung up the phone and went to check on Levert, who he could hear was no longer shouting. It was 11:17 p.m. when he found Levert in a “distressed state,” not breathing. He called to the nurse and they put Levert on the floor to begin CPR. Paramedics already entering the jail to treat a woman having difficulty breathing were instead sent to Levert. His heart was beating erratically and stopped beating on the way to St. Vincent Charity Hospital. He arrived at 11:42 p.m. Doctors tried for fifteen minutes to restart his heart. They pronounced him dead at 11:57 p.m. March 30.
Cuyahoga County Coroner Frank Miller ruled that Levert died of complications of sarcoidosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and withdrawal from Xanax. Miller said withdrawal from Xanax is severe and can cause biological symptoms as well as panic, anxiety, emotional instability and hallucinations.
In a taped interview , McClelland told investigators, “The guilt has just been overwhelming. I want to tell [Levert’s mother] how sorry I am that that happened.” McClelland said several corrections officers were shook up after “seeing someone about to expire in that room.” The officer assigned to the psychiatric pod that night didn’t report to work the next day.
The Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office reviewed the case and found that no laws had been broken. The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment because of pending litigation.
On June 3, Levert’s wife, Angela Lowe of Streetsboro, filed a wrongful death suit in federal court against Cuyahoga County officials and corrections officers. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 12.
UPDATE: Michael Baskin, the director of the Greater Cleveland chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness issued this statement.
“NAMI believes that individuals have a right to a medical evaluation, including a mental health assessment, prior to jailing. This ensures continuous care and safety for the person being treated/incarcerated, and protection for corrections personnel as well as those they will share a cell with. While incarcated, accurate diagnosis, treatment, including medication, and monitoring are essential.
We believe that the county needs to immediately invest in coordination of the criminal justice system, the medical community and the community mental health system and take action to ensure policies will prevent what happened at the jail. Not only is the safety of the individual at risk, public safety is jeopardized when adequate procedures and funding do not allow for assessment, treatment and monitoring of those with severe and persistent mental illnesses.”