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Inmate in jail's medical unit dies

The 46-year-old man, who suffered a seizure, became agitated and was strapped face down to a bed. He is the sixth inmate to die at the Pinellas County Jail since 1991.

By MAUREEN BYRNE and JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


For nearly 20 years, John L. Preston lived on the street, drinking up to a case of beer a day and getting arrested so many times that officers in Clearwater and Largo knew him by his first name.

The 46-year-old man told a close friend less than a week ago that he wanted to give up drinking.

He never got around to it.

Preston was arrested Sunday on a trespassing charge and booked into Pinellas County Jail. Three days later, as Preston became agitated and aggressive, two deputies strapped him face-down to a bed for 25 minutes. He began vomiting and suffered a seizure. Soon after, he quit breathing and his heart stopped.

Preston was pronounced dead about an hour later.

Sheriff Everett Rice said preliminary information indicates that the restraints and the deputies' actions were within guidelines.

But Preston's death once again puts the Sheriff's Office in the spotlight over the medical care it provides to its inmates. At least five other inmates have died at the jail since 1991. In the early 1990s, the jail began using a series of medical providers before the Sheriff's Office took control of medical services in November.

The move was sparked, in part, by the death of Daniel Cory, a mentally challenged inmate who died in October after being denied medication. An investigation into that death continues.

In the case of Preston, the Sheriff's Office won't say what medical care employees gave him. Preston told jailers he had suffered severe seizures in the past whenever he had been incarcerated and without alcohol.

Alcohol withdrawal often is characterized by convulsions and even death in severe cases, said Allan Collins, a University of Colorado professor specializing in alcohol and drug addiction.

Collins said anti-seizure drugs and tranquilizers are often prescribed to help people through alcohol withdrawal.

"You never, never let an alcoholic go through withdrawal without medication because it's life-threatening," Collins said.

Preston was arrested Sunday at the PSTA bus terminal in Clearwater, with three beers left in a 12-pack, police said. Preston was sentenced Monday to five days in jail.

Preston was put on the jail's medical wing because of his history of alcoholism, sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie said. Preston told officials he previously had been through seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal, known as delirium tremens, or DTs.

"He made a statement to the jail staff that he drank one to two cases of beer a day and that he goes through the DTs every time he's in jail," Dennie said.

A jail physician ordered Preston to be placed in restraints Wednesday when he became agitated, Dennie said. Preston was moved from a pod to a single-person cell on the medical wing at 12:15 p.m. At least two detention deputies put him face-down on a cell bunk with his wrists and ankles tied with elastic straps, a technique called "a four-point stance."

Deputies checked Preston every 10 minutes, according to Dennie. At 12:40 p.m., deputies noticed he was vomiting and having a seizure. Preston was released from restraints, taken from the cell and placed in a chair.

A nurse checked Preston at 12:43 p.m. while he was in the chair. His lungs were clear and he was breathing properly, Dennie said.

"All this time he was kicking and fighting," he said. "He was doing that while the nurse was checking him."

Deputies restrained him by strapping his wrists and ankles to the chair, then carried him in the chair back to the cell, which had been cleaned, Dennie said.

As they moved the chair into the cell at 12:54 p.m., Preston began having "respiratory distress" and quit breathing, he said. Deputies and medical personnel checked for a pulse, found none and administered CPR until paramedics arrived.

Preston was taken to Northside Hospital and Heart Institute, where he was pronounced dead at 1:54 p.m. An autopsy will be conducted, and an investigation is under way to determine if procedures were followed.

His death is at least the sixth inmate death in the jail since 1991, when John Brundage, 52, died from a punctured intestine after pleading with the medical staff for help for hours. In 1996, inmate Melony Bird died of heart failure after the jail medical staff waited too long to call 911.

Cory, a 25-year-old Safety Harbor man who was developmentally disabled and had Addison's disease, was found unconscious in his medical wing cell and died at a hospital. He was not given required medication, according to Rice. Also, two inmates have committed suicide by hanging in recent years.

Court records show Preston has been arrested more than 60 times since 1983, mostly for alcohol-related charges and disorderly conduct.

"He was an alcoholic," said Sharon Devore, a friend. "Everybody knew that, but he wasn't an aggressive alcoholic."

Devore met Preston in 1981 while she worked at a convenience store in downtown Clearwater. She paid him for doing odd jobs around the store.

"John was a very private person," she said. "He would not tell a lot of people about his life."

Devore frequently asked Preston about his life because she wanted to know how to reach relatives if anything ever happened to him. He never told her anything.

She and her husband, Richard, became Preston's closest friends. He often spent nights at their home after a drinking binge or when the weather turned cold.

His most recent home was a green pup tent behind Art's Auto Repair on Drew Street in Clearwater. A navy blue blanket, a shabby duffel bag and a pair of tan suede shoes were inside the tent Thursday. A pair of dirty jeans hung on a nearby branch.

A green and white lawn chair sat a few yards away. A blue Thermos, a yellow Tupperware bowl and a roll of toilet paper were stashed underneath.

Preston was drunk when he went to his probation meeting March 31 at the Salvation Army's corrections center on N Fort Harrison Avenue. Program administrator Connie Dugan told him he would have to reschedule when he was sober. His appointment was set at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Devore took Preston to a bus stop Sunday in downtown Largo. It was the last time she saw him.

"He said he was ready to give up the drinking," she said. "He's been a survivor of the streets. He's lived in cars, abandoned buses, abandoned buildings."

"If you needed to find John, he was somewhere in downtown (Clearwater) by the railroad." she said.

Mike Wilfer owns a wood shop by the tracks. For the past nine years, Preston has hung out around his business. Sometimes they would share some beers.

Wilfer said Thursday he was sorry to hear about Preston's death, but he wasn't surprised. He said he didn't know how "anybody could live that rough with that drinking and still be alive."

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