Family, sheriff at odds over death in jail of accused Minnesota courthouse shooterThe family of accused Cook County Courthouse shooter Daniel Schlienz is critical of the medical treatment he received in custody, but the sheriff says there was nothing they could have done better to prevent Schlienz's death.
About 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 26, the face of 42-year-old Daniel Schlienz had turned purple. A half-hour later he was taken by ambulance from the St. Louis County Jail to Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center, and about 12 hours later, he died.
The sudden death of the man who made national news for allegedly shooting two people at the Cook County Courthouse on Dec. 15 caused Schlienz’s family to question his care and say they are pursuing a lawsuit against the county.
“You don’t just turn purple,” said Schlienz’s sister, Bev Wolke. “It takes your body some time to get to that state.”
However, Sheriff Ross Litman has consistently stood by his staff, saying reviews of jail records led him to conclude that his staff did all they could for Schlienz.
“(From) everything we’re looking at, then and now,” Litman said, “staff, in my opinion, did their jobs and did it very well.”
A News Tribune review of many of those written records, recordings of calls Schlienz made to friends and family, plus interviews with his jail mates, do not reveal evidence to contradict Litman. The documents and recordings were provided by authorities to the News Tribune following an open records request.
Video, audio and written jail records show that staff members checked on Schlienz at regular intervals the day before he died and, while they noted signs that he was ill with the flu, there weren’t clear indications that a doctor should have been called or that he should have been taken to a hospital sooner.
But his sister said those same records — along with Schlienz telling friends two days before he died that he was denied medical care — still leave family members critical of the quality of care her brother received.
“We think St. Louis County screwed up. We do,” Wolke said. “They did not take care of Dan the way he should have been treated; he is still a human being. He still has his constitutional rights, and if he needed medical attention, he should have gotten it and been brought to the hospital way sooner.”
Schlienz ‘alert and oriented’
Because of the crimes he was accused of, Schlienz was put on frequent “well-being checks” upon his arrival at the St. Louis County Jail on Dec. 16. That meant staff would observe him at least once every 15 minutes and record his activities, no matter how mundane, such as when he was playing cards or when he switched positions while sleeping.
Schlienz was given a standard medical evaluation and a clean bill of health after answering “no” to a list of questions: Was he taking any medications? Had he been seen by a doctor that year? Did he have any allergies, or medical problems the jail staff should be aware of?
He didn’t say that he had a persistent, quick dry cough, which became more frequent over his time at the jail.
Wolke said Schlienz had the cough off and on for about two years but that it disappeared over the summer. She said it returned after law enforcement officers subdued him with a chemical spray following the shootings.
That cough could be heard clearly on the recorded phone calls Schlienz made from jail to friends and family, but he rarely mentioned it. On a few calls, he complained that his cough was returning. Jail records give no indication that staff members were concerned about the cough, either.
A jail mate of Schlienz’s said he noticed it clearly and was concerned for him.
While Schlienz was kept in a special unit of the jail away from the general population, he was allowed out into a small room during the day and could visit with an inmate living in the cell next to his — Steven Oppel, who is still at the jail awaiting sentencing on first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct convictions.
From the first time he met Schlienz, Oppel told the News Tribune, he had a cough.
“He constantly complained about his chest,” said Oppel. “He would hit his chest with his fist. I asked, ‘Why are you doing that?’ He said it was like something inside that he couldn’t get cleared out.”
Schlienz was seen by a psychiatrist on Dec. 23, who noted nothing about Schlienz’s cough. The psychiatrist said Schlienz was “alert and oriented” and had normal movements and speech. That same day, Schlienz asked for dental floss, the only time before Dec. 26 he made a formal medical request to jail staff.
Oppel said Schlienz’s cough got worse and his health went downhill as the days went on. On late Saturday night, Dec. 24, Oppel said Schlienz became seriously ill.
“He was violently ill,” Oppel said. “He kept puking and throwing up, and he wasn’t feeling well, and I asked Dan, ‘Are you going to be OK?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, man.’”
On Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Oppel said Schlienz was so sick that he had trouble moving and talking, and had the dry heaves. Oppel said he asked jail staff that morning to seek medical attention for Schlienz but was denied.
But the jail’s records, along with audio and video recordings, don’t support those claims. There is no record of Oppel asking for medical attention for Schlienz. The facility’s inmate tracking reports indicate that Oppel and Schlienz “played cards … all afternoon/evening” on Dec. 25 and note no problems with his health.
A video taken of Schlienz going to a vending machine on Dec. 25, two days before he died, showed he was able to walk normally, had normal skin color, conversed with officers and carried his purchases back to his cell.
That day, Christmas Day, he received a visit from two friends, Jay and Sheila Wilson, about 1:45 p.m.
“(Schlienz) was coughing pretty bad at that point and at times couldn’t talk much,” Jay Wilson told the News Tribune in January, noting that Schlienz had been pressing down on his chest to stop the coughing. “He definitely had some serious issues going on. I was very concerned for him.”
Schlienz told Wilson that his chest hurt, Wilson said, and that he had asked jail staff for cough drops or medicine on Sunday morning to help with his cough, but that “he could not get anything.”
Schlienz also made four phone calls that day to his family, and though he coughed frequently in each, recordings reveal they did not express concern for his health, and Schlienz never told them he was sick.
Another inmate, John Newenhouse, told the News Tribune he could observe Schlienz from a common area in the jail beginning on Dec. 25, and he said Schlienz was visibly ill.
“I watched that man walk around that cell for three days and die,” said Newenhouse, a Hermantown resident who was in the jail facing assault charges and has since been released. “Picture somebody walking around and slowly dying in front of your face, and standing there and watching it.”
Newenhouse said Schlienz passed numerous request slips to corrections officers on Dec. 25 and Dec. 26, but the jail’s records of Schlienz make no note of him complaining about being ill on the 25th, and there are no records that he made any other request other than for a nurse on the morning of Dec. 26.
Litman scoffed at the two former inmates’ claims, calling it “B.S.” and the men “clowns.”
‘He does not look good’
On Schlienz’s request for medical attention on Dec. 26, he asked to see someone from the jail’s health services department for what he wrote was “sick flu like.” He told an officer that he wasn’t feeling good and “made his way to the toilet to vomit.”
“He was just dry heaving at that point,” the officer wrote.
When a nurse visited with him a few hours later in the early afternoon, he was noted to be “laying on his bunk moaning,” complaining of body aches and hot and cold sweats.
He was diagnosed with the flu after having a slightly above-normal blood pressure and pulse and a fever of 101.1. He was encouraged to increase his fluid intake, take Tylenol for discomfort and rest.
The nurse made no recommendations to the jail staff that Schlienz be monitored more frequently than he already was — at that point, every half-hour.
“We didn’t get any indication from the nurse that she thought he should be on frequent (monitoring) or moved to a different area, other than she communicated with her fellow co-workers, ‘Let’s make sure this person is checked on tomorrow,’” said Jail Administrator Robyn Wojciechowski.“I’ve said it before,” Litman said. “Even after he was seen by the nurse, we continued to monitor his condition. … What, if anything, could have been done differently? I’m not seeing anything.”
Over the next several hours, officers noted that Schlienz continued to exhibit flu-like symptoms, was pale, dizzy, kneeling near and hugging the toilet, complained of chills and was sitting with his feet in the shower. Officers continued to tell him to drink fluids.
About 7:15, Schlienz asked an officer to get him a bottle of water from a vending machine. It wasn’t until about 7:30 p.m. — when the officer came back with the water and saw that Schlienz’s face had turned purple — that someone realized he was suffering from something far worse than the flu.
After his skin condition was discovered, an officer asked Schlienz how he was doing. He responded that his feet were cold, “like frostbite.” His sock was removed and his foot had normal coloration.
He told other jailers that he had trouble breathing “when I was throwing up.” One officer said Schlienz sounded like he was out of breath.
“He does not look good,” another officer said.
About 10 to 20 minutes later Schlienz was able to get into a wheelchair with minimal assistance: “Just a little unsteady and nothing more than my lightly holding onto his upper arm was needed,” an officer wrote. He was taken to the intake area of the jail, where he could be prepped for transport to a hospital. He was conscious, still talking and able to answer questions.
Officers checked his room for any poisons he might have ingested, but found nothing.
Back at the intake, Schlienz sat up on a mattress and leaned against a wall, where an officer noticed that his hands were turning purple. The same officer noticed sweat on his forehead and got a wet washcloth and wiped his forehead. He was moaning.
First responders from the Duluth Fire Department arrived at 8:03, and paramedics from Gold Cross arrived about 8:10. Paramedics found Schlienz was in respiratory distress, had a weak pulse, and his skin was turning purple due to cyanosis — a lack of oxygen in the blood, which can be caused by a number of conditions.
He was given oxygen and asked if it was helping.
“A little,” Schlienz said.
He was taken to the hospital at 8:20 — about 50 minutes after the cyanosis was discovered. Along the way, a wheezing could be heard in Schlienz’s left lung and a rash was found on his abdomen.
He couldn’t sign the paramedic’s release form “due to weakness.”
‘Time will tell’
At Essentia Health, Schlienz quickly went downhill. Though he was initially conversant, tests determined that there was too much acid in his body fluids. He went into shock. He was given an emergency intubation to breathe, started on IV fluids and medications, and had a central line put into his right femoral artery, the records state, in an effort to elevate his low blood pressure.
About 1 a.m., his heart rate began dropping. At 1:30 a.m., his heart and lungs failed, and he went into cardiac arrest. He was stabilized with CPR and drugs but continued to have low blood pressure. His restraints were removed at the request of medical staff. A corrections officer wrote “Still alive,” in the shift log, but noted the doctor “states time will tell.”
Schlienz’s restraints were reapplied at 2:35 a.m. His family was called about 3 a.m., and they arrived at the hospital about 6:15 a.m., when they were given a grim prognosis. Doctors told them they did everything they could for him, but because of Schlienz’s continued low blood pressure and severe cyanosis, nothing more could be done. A chaplain was called to Schlienz’s bedside. His medications were stopped at 7:40, life support was stopped at 7:45, and he died at 7:56.
Essentia determined that he died because of an infection that shut down all of his organs.
Schlienz’s family members said they were later told by the St. Louis County medical examiner that he contracted an infection from a bacterium that triggered a rare disorder called disseminated intravascular coagulation, which caused his death.
DIC is an often-fatal disorder that causes the body’s proteins that control blood clotting to become abnormally active and eventually consumes the body’s blood platelets, causing excessive bleeding throughout the body.
Dr. Howard Mell, director of the emergency department at TriPoint Medical Center in suburban Cleveland and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, has told the News Tribune that it’s not likely anything could have been done to save Schlienz.
“It’s impossible to know if by the time he showed symptoms, he was already too far gone to save,” Mell told the News Tribune on Jan. 20. He could not be reached for this article.
The attorney who has been hired by the Schlienz family, Gordon Pineo, did not return a call for comment.
Litman said he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to make any changes in the jail’s procedures on what to do when an inmate gets sick.
“If we’d have found something that led me to believe that, you know what, we missed something here, we should have done this differently, we need to change our policies and procedures to avoid something like this happening again, we would have instituted that,” Litman said. “I’m not seeing that.”
On Monday: Daniel Schlienz talks about the courthouse shootings in a recorded phone conversation.