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Death of NYC inmate in overheated cell probed

Veteran Dies From Extreme Heat In Jail Cell

NEW YORK (AP) -- Investigators are probing how a mentally ill, homeless New York City veteran died last month in a jail cell that city officials told The Associated Press had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston said in a statement Wednesday that investigators were looking at the circumstances surrounding Jerome Murdough's "unfortunate death."

"While we cannot comment on the facts surrounding his death while the investigation is underway, preliminary information suggests there were unusually high temperatures in Mr. Murdough's cell," he said.

Four city officials told the AP that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.

"He basically baked to death," said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.

The medical examiner's office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough's exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.

The department said it had addressed two contributing factors an outside consultant identified as causing the excess heat. It also said temperature checks immediately after the death revealed that several cells nearby were over 80 degrees.

Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing building in Harlem and sent to Rikers after being unable to post a $2,500 bail, court records show. He was found dead in his cell in a special unit for inmates with mental illnesses a week later, in the early hours of Feb. 15, the officials said.

Advocates for mentally ill inmates say Murdough's death represents the failure of the city's justice system on almost every level: by arresting him instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.

"He was a very lovely, caring guy," said Murdough's 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, adding that her son had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that she had not seen him in about three years.

"He had beer problems. Drinking beer. That was his downfall. Other than that, he was a very nice guy. He'd give you the shirt off his back."

Alma Murdough said she hadn't learned of her son's death until the AP contacted her last week, nearly a month after he died. His public defender was told of the death three days after the inmate was found, the DOC said.

Family members say Murdough grew up in Queens and joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, doing at least one stint in Okinawa, Japan.

When he returned from the service, his family said, both his mental illness and thirst for alcohol became more pronounced, and he would often disappear for months at a time, finding warmth in hospitals, shelters and on the streets.

"When he wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go," recalled his sister, Cheryl Warner. "He always came back."

Murdough's criminal record included 11 misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, drinking in public and minor drug charges, said Ivan Vogel, a public defender who represented him at his arraignment on the trespassing charge.

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

When Murdough was found and his cell opened, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Those temperatures could have been higher before he was discovered because the cell had been closed for several hours, the officials said.

Dr. Susi Vassallo, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and a national expert on heat-related deaths who monitors heat conditions at Rikers Island, said psychotropic medications can impair the body's ability to cool itself by sweating, making it retain more heat than it should.

Exposure to intense heat for a couple of hours by someone on such medications could be fatal, she said.

Wanda Mehala, another of Murdough's sisters, said the family wants an explanation.

"We want justice for what was done," she said. "He wasn't just some old homeless person on the street. He was loved. He had a life. He had a family. He had feelings."

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Dino/Tammy March 20 2014 at 12:58 PM

Sad story. May God be gracious to this poor soul and may God shine His love down upon the grieving family.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
sbeldner914 March 20 2014 at 1:44 PM

This is so outrageous, it's beyond words. $2,500 bail for sleeping in a stairwell. The judge should have his head examined. Why didn't he refer the guy to the VA or a shelter. Why put him in Riker's which is scary enough? Then the lack of supervision by the authorities at Riker's is criminal. I hope his relative sue the city and that changes are made in the system. Shame on the judge, the cops and Riker's.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
Rogell March 20 2014 at 11:14 AM

If I were a family member, I too would want an explanation of "all the facts." Furthermore, why wasn't this veteran being given medical treatment and close observation?

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Momma March 20 2014 at 1:33 PM

THIS STORY IS MORE COMMON THEN YOU THINK. Prayers for the family.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
1 reply
goldie841 Momma March 21 2014 at 12:02 AM

U r soooooooooooo right. I know everyone in jail say they are innocent--believe it or not some of them are

Flag Reply 0 rate up
muted3 March 20 2014 at 10:26 AM

This is a disgrace. They should be prosecuted.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
kcarthey March 20 2014 at 10:42 AM

Forget for a minute that he was a vet and view him simply as an American Citizen with abuse problems and mental health problems. Because of the importance of Civil Liberties in regard to the freedoms we have as Americans, a person must either go voluntarily to a facility that provides care or have proper judicial procedings for any denial of those civil liberties.

And in terms of his family, without walking in their shoes or having had any type of experieces similar to what they have endured in this situation, I see many of the comments condemning them as very simply shameful.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
gregoryiyageh March 20 2014 at 11:32 AM

My Question is this why was he charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing building in Harlem and sent to Rikers after being unable to post a $2,500 bail.I mean he is homeless,where do you think he will get that kind of money,and beside that arresting him instead of finding him help like sir would you like to go to a shelters. what a shame for the NY police and Department of Correction.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
victorrarecoins March 20 2014 at 12:01 PM

Disgraceful!!! Homeless - Veteran - Mentally ill. Special consideration and attention must be given when police encounter these individuals when a simple misdemeanor occurs. It is shameful how we ignore the needs of veterans after they have served our country.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
bewise817 March 20 2014 at 12:08 PM

This is not a failure of the city it is a statement on the shameful way our government treats returning vets with problems. He should never have been homeless. We need to do more to protect our returning vets.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
jacwirtz March 20 2014 at 12:36 PM

Agreed, he should of never been homeless. But he was. Cannot believe how high his bail was, and arrested for sleeping in a stairwell of a public building, that is BS. The jail is to blame, they were suppose to check in on him every 15 minutes and they failed to do so. The jail will be sued. Such a disgust in the way they treat human beings. They should be totally ashamed of themselves. Horrible horrible people.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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