Addicted to pain pills and pregnant, Jen McCormack landed in jail. 21 days later, she was dead.
by Jordan Green
High spirited, loud and full of caustic wit, Jen McCormack commanded the room at a party.
She was the person most likely to be dancing or singing along with Of Montreal at one of LaToya Winslow’s frequent gatherings on South Mendenhall Street near the campus of UNCG in Greensboro.
Jen was the ringleader, the one who made introductions in a circle of open-minded, artistically inclined friends that remains intact to this day, even as its members have graduated and spread afield to Raleigh, Fayetteville and San Francisco. An agnostic who majored in religious and classical studies at UNCG, she was considered among her friends to be the smartest, and the most likely to live an illustrious life.
But at some point, Jen began to go off track. There was an unsuccessful marriage that contrasted painfully with the contented pairings of some of her friends. Jen kept her ex-husband’s last name because she couldn’t afford the legal costs of changing it back. And while she found a new circle of loyal friends among coworkers at the Apple Store in Charlotte, Jen was plagued with health problems, including knees that required surgery. She started abusing prescription pain pills, a habit that began with a legitimate effort at pain management. Through all her ordeals, she still managed to earn a master’s degree in digital libraries from the University of South Carolina.
Jen had found a boyfriend, a guy her friends considered to be kind and supportive, but he left her after he discovered that she lied to him about her opiate habit. In early 2014, she became pregnant through a liaison with different man. Unable to continue at the Apple Store because of her health problems, she moved back to Winston-Salem to live with her mother in the summer of 2014. With her mother’s support, Jen made the decision to keep her baby.
By then, Jen had largely cut off her friends in the old Mendenhall crew. Over the course of several weeks in the late summer Jen resorted calling in fraudulent prescriptions for hydrocodone by impersonating nurses and physician assistants in Winston-Salem and High Point. She was arrested by a Winston-Salem police officer at the Walgreens across from Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem on Aug. 20.
The police report indicates that Jen attempted to hang herself in the bathroom at the pharmacy. As a result, she was taken to Forsyth Medical Center for a mental health evaluation. She also received treatment for her addiction — Suboxone, a relatively new opiate-substitute drug on the US market — during her eight-day stay. Medication-assisted treatment, whether with Suboxone or Methadone, is considering the standard of care for pregnant women struggling with opiate dependence.
The day she was released from Forsyth Medical Center, a Winston-Salem police detective charged Jen with 10 counts of drug fraud and a magistrate signed off on a $25,000 bond — an amount far beyond her family’s means that ensured she wouldn’t make bail.
In 21 days Jen would be dead.
Here’s where I make a personal admission.
I knew Jen well enough to call her a friend. But looking back, I didn’t come through as a friend when she most needed one. And to be honest, we were never especially close.
I came into the Mendenhall circle in early 2008, shortly after meeting my future wife, which was also around the same time Jen was moving to Charlotte. We saw each other at parties and weddings, but I don’t particularly remember any personal conversations that would have allowed us to really get to know one another.
Over the past seven years, my wife and I have grown increasingly close with LaToya, and Sarah, along with her husband Adam. We named LaToya the godmother of our daughter, who was born in 2013. All that is to say that, not knowing Jen very well, her death registered with me primarily as sadness for LaToya and Sarah, along with my wife.
Jen’s arrest “made the news,” to use an unsentimental phrase common among those who don’t necessarily appreciate media attention. The hideous booking photograph and story ripped straight from the police press release in the Winston-Salem Journal rattled me, although I too have recycled plenty of press releases about low-level offenders, often adding a dose of mockery and belittlement. Now I know how it feels to be on the other side.
When my wife told me that Jen had died, I felt shock and sadness, but I was preoccupied with family and professional matters. And if I thought Jen’s death was newsworthy at all, I’m sure I concluded that my personal connection to her ruled me out as the reporter for the assignment. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible.
It took writing about addiction four months later for me to realize that I had a personal connection to a story as harrowing, sad and unjust as any I had covered as a reporter. After all, here was a woman with an unborn child who had suffered an apparent heart attack in jail, and later died as a result of it. Considering my personal entanglements, I felt that I needed permission from Jen’s closest friends to write the story. They agreed that it was important to hold the jail accountable, but wanted to make sure it was alright with Janis McCormack, Jen’s mother. Janis eventually gave her blessing.
Was Jen’s death avoidable? What might have been done to protect her? Where exactly did the system fail her? Have we as a society abandoned the most vulnerable of our citizens and failed to allocate adequate resources to ensure their protection?
These are questions that need to be asked on behalf of any friend — or, for that matter, any stranger.
If we don’t care what happened to Jen, maybe that means we don’t care that much about our own health and safety. Do we want a healthcare system in our jail that truly protects people, or should we just hope for the best and accept that the worst is in the realm of possibility if we or someone we love ends up there?
Sarah Sellers and Jen McCormack met each other in high school, but became friends, oddly enough, when they worked together at a pharmacy in Kernersville. Sarah was 20, Jen a little older.
“I worked in the front and she worked in the back,” Sellers recalled. “We bonded over Aimee Mann. I convinced the manager to let me play my music. She said, ‘Hey, you’re into Aimee Mann?’ I said, ‘I love Aimee Mann!’ She said, ‘Have you seen Magnolia?’ And then she said, ‘We have to hang out after work.’”
The high school-aged Jen working behind the counter at the pharmacy probably never imagined that one day her 31-year-old self would wind up passing fraudulent scrips for drugs. Jen and Sarah would talk about the customers who came in to fill prescriptions who were obviously addicted to painkillers.
“I can’t believe people would let their lives become this,” Jen once told Sarah.
After high school, Sarah continued to live with her parents in Kernersville while studying the science of gemstones; Jen moved to Greensboro to attend UNCG.
Randi Pace, a UNCG student pursuing a degree in deaf education, became fast friends with Jen based on their shared love of indie rock and movies. They soon became inseparable and moved together into a little apartment on South Mendenhall Street near campus. Jen introduced Randi to Sarah soon afterwards.
The three young women went to a Death Cab for Cutie concert at Disco Rodeo in Raleigh.
“Jen and I were both like, ‘You need to move in with us,’” Randi recalled. “’We can go to New York Pizza.’ We lived in a crappy little condo on Mendenhall. Sarah moved into our living room. It was completely illegal, something you do in your early twenties.”
The way she became friends with LaToya, who also lived on the street, was classic Jen — proactive, enthusiastic and a little oddball.
“She saw me on MySpace, and she thought I was cool,” LaToya recalled. Jen asked a mutual friend to arrange a meeting at College Hill Sundries.
“We played pool, drank and had a good time,” LaToya said. “She introduced me to everybody she knew.
“I don’t think it would have happened any other way,” she added. “Who cold calls you on the internet?”
Jen took another step and introduced LaToya and Sarah.
“She wanted all of her friends to be friends with each other,” Sarah said. “She was a facilitator of fun.”
Jen owned an unforgettable laugh.
“It was a head-back-cackle-take-up-the-whole room kind of laugh,” Randi said. “It was great. She’s so smart and she’s a genuine person. She’s really sweet.”
Through Jen’s cultivation of friendships, the Mendenhall parties gained a reputation as intellectual salons.
“She ordered Harry Potter books in ancient Greek so she could continue to read them,” Sarah recalled. “She would say, ‘You know the Bible is all wrong. If you read it in ancient Greek it makes a lot more sense.’”
Jen was an avid concertgoer — a fan of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire and Yo La Tengo.
Once, Sarah dropped her laptop and broke it, despairing that it was a total loss.
Not to worry, Jen told her.
“She completely rebuilt my computer,” Sarah recalled. “She put a new hard drive in and new RAM. It went from 80 Gigs to 250 Gigs. She installed Microsoft Word, and illegally downloaded some programs. She said, ‘I’ll put some of my music on there, too.’ I feel like I have a piece of her.”
Jen wasn’t the type to lord her intelligence over others.
Her tattoo, inscribed across her right breast, said it all: “Sol lucet omnibus” — Latin for “The sun shines on everyone.”
“For how intelligent she was, she could relate to anyone,” Sarah said. “If you were going through anything funky, she would want to celebrate that and make you feel that it was nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Janis McCormack, Jen’s mother, said her daughter was close with her grandparents, especially her grandfather, who was diagnosed with leukemia in about 2010. He later developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, which paralyzed him from the neck down. Jen would come up from Charlotte to see her grandparents in Kernersville as often as she could.
“Every time we’d get new medication — Dad literally had 20 pills at a time — Jennifer organized them,” Janis said. “She would put the labels on them, figure out what was good or bad. She was there to entertain them and figure out what had to be done.
“It was just the way she was,” Janis continued. “She always wanted to try to be helpful. She loved to cook things for them — something different to bring a little brightness.”
Jen had longstanding problems with both knees, and eventually had to undergo surgery. Janis didn’t understand how an addiction could have spiraled out of pain management from the surgery. But a counselor told her that every person is different, and that for Jen the first prescription pill might have been the trigger.
“It seems like once I found out, that’s when she went downhill,” Janis said. “She kept telling me how embarrassed she was. I said, ‘Good God, don’t be embarrassed. We’re going to get help.’”
Janis McCormack learned about her daughter’s addiction while Jen was still living in Charlotte. After her boyfriend broke up with her, in the spring of 2014, Jen moved back to Winston-Salem to stay with Janis.
“She would go into these all-night pharmacies,” Janis said. “She was a pharm tech through high school. She sounded more like a doctor than most doctors. She would put ’em in my name, in my mom’s name and dad’s name. We never got pain pills. The pain pill my dad got, he got from the VA in the mail.”
Jen’s gambit started catching up with her on Aug. 6, when she was arrested by High Point police officer RA Juren for impersonating a physician assistant while attempting to obtain hydrocodone from a Walgreens pharmacy. Two weeks later, her suicide attempt at the Walgreens on Cloverdale Avenue in Winston-Salem resulted in a commitment to Forsyth Medical Center for mental health treatment and medication-assisted addiction treatment.
In the meantime, the Winston-Salem police had been tracking Jen’s offenses, and Detective CN Kiser had amassed a string of warrants for 10 instances each of drug fraud and identity theft at the Cloverdale Avenue pharmacy from mid-July through mid-August. Janis said the staff at Forsyth Medical Center had been trying to make arrangements for Jen to get into a long-term drug treatment program, but detectives came to the McCormacks’ house on Signet Drive to serve the warrants.
“The trouble is — rehab is wonderful — she committed a crime,” Janis said. “That precludes her going to rehab in the eyes of the police department. To them, it was more important to arrest her than her going to rehab since rehab wasn’t court ordered. They told us that if she goes to court and a judge orders rehab, then we have a better chance of getting her into rehab.”
Janis, who works as a dispatcher for a local university police department, said she understands the position of law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean their interests are aligned.
“It comes down to: I trusted them because they had a badge,” she said. “I should have known better. I should know they’re just doing that to get their arrest, to get their stats. Does that make them bad? No. They’re just doing their job. But they’re not working in our best interest.”
Kiser told me he didn’t charge Jen with trafficking because the drug she was illegally obtaining — hydrocodone with acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) — doesn’t have a high street value. The acetaminophen typically makes the user sick if they take it in high quantities. While addicts will take hydrocodone acetaminophen in large quantities, it’s not sought after in street sales.
The detectives advised Janis to not bail Jen out, arguing that she would go behind her back and continue to abuse hydrocodone.
Not that Janis could have afforded to pay: Bond was set at $25,000.
The worksheet for Jen’s case checked off the boxes for Class G and H felonies, which typically carry bond amounts ranging from $1,200 to $22,000 and sentences upon conviction of no more than 44 months. Obtaining a controlled substance by fraud — Jen’s crime — falls under Class I, the lowest-level felony offense on the books in North Carolina. A $25,000 bond is consistent with Class D, E and F felonies, which cover crimes ranging from armed robbery and voluntary manslaughter to taking indecent liberties with children and habitual impaired driving. The magistrate evidently considered Jen to be a flight risk because notes on a court document indicated, “Necessary to reasonably secure appearance of the defendant as required.”
Whatever anyone else thinks about the bond, Officer Kiser said he considers the amount low, given that each of the offenses carried a charge of identity theft, which he characterized as “a pretty serious felony.”
The last time Janis talked to her daughter was when Jen called her from jail the evening of her arrest.
“She called and told me: ‘Mom, don’t pay my bail because I’m getting a lawyer to get it lowered,’” Janis recalled. “I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me, and that’s the last time we talked to each other.”
Jen came out of Forsyth Medical Center with a clean bill of health on Aug. 28, the day she was arrested and sent to jail.
“If she showed any indication that she was in distress or the baby was in distress, they would have never let her out of the hospital,” Janis said.
Janis said she turned over Jen’s Suboxone to the jail staff so her daughter could continue her medication-assisted treatment for opiate dependency, but they wouldn’t take her Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug. Whether Jen was allowed to take her Suboxone in jail remains unclear. Officials with the jail and Correct Care Solutions, the company that contracts with the county to provide healthcare to inmates, declined to address questions about Jen’s care. But continuing on medication-assisted therapy would have been critical to a healthy pregnancy, not to mention Jen herself.
A National Institutes of Health consensus panel recommended methadone maintenance as the standard of care for pregnant women addicted to opiates in 1998, according to a protocol published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. And a committee opinion reaffirmed by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists warns: “Abrupt discontinuation of opioids in an opioid-dependent pregnant woman can result in preterm labor, fetal distress or fetal demise.”
Jen’s pregnancy had progressed five months, and along with the health challenges of a serious opiate addiction, Janis said her daughter was also experiencing intense morning sickness at the time of her incarceration.
When she was booked in Forsyth County jail on Aug. 28, Jen said she was experiencing withdrawal, as indicated on an inmate intake form. The responses on the document show that jail staff should have been well aware that Jen was also addicted to opiates, was pregnant and had recently attempted suicide.
As early as Sept. 4, the seventh day of her incarceration, incident reports obtained from the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office indicate that Jen was experiencing urinary incontinence — a symptom that would continue to be documented hours before she was found unresponsive on Sept.13.
Pfc. V. McBride recorded observing Jen on the floor from the remote camera monitoring system in her cell in the jail’s female medical housing unit at 6 a.m. on Sept. 4. As with the other incident reports, Jen was identified by her married name.
“I observed a large puddle of water on the floor and the cell was not sanitary,” McBride wrote. “I immediately went to Fe-002 and asked inmate McCormack Schuler what happened and she stated she had fallen. I moved the bed that appeared to have her trapped against the wall.”
Dr. Hendrée Jones, a professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC-Chapel Hill, told me that urinary incontinence and failing are not typically symptoms of opiate withdrawal.
“That makes me think there’s some kind of underlying condition that the opiate addiction unmasked,” she said.
In hindsight, the symptoms are troubling, at the very least, Dr. Robert Newman, a former assistant commissioner for addiction services for the New York City Health Department, told me.
“The falling and incontinence, it can’t just be coincidence that after 10 days they were followed by her death,” Newman said.
After freeing Jen from the bed, McBride contacted Charge Nurse Carol Suratt. The incident report records that Suratt checked Jen’s vitals and advised “that there was no sign of injury at this time.” When Suratt asked if Jen had eaten, McBride reported that she “had refused her tray.”
The report concludes by reporting that “Nurse Suratt advised inmate McCormack Schuler to eat her meals and slow down on drinking water.”
A second incident report the next day filed by Officer A. Walker adds to the impression that Jen’s symptoms presented something graver than opiate withdrawal. The report indicates that Jen told Officer Walker she was feeling dizzy, and the officer caught her arm as she began falling and helped lower her to the floor. The report goes on to record that Charge Nurse Cornatzer examined Jen, and “advised that everything was okay.”
On the eve of the acute health crisis that would put Jen in a coma, jail staff noted what one incident report termed her “strange behavior.”
“Inmate McCormick Schuler [sic] had used the bathroom on herself multiple times that morning, had refused medication, and also would not eat,” Officer K. Bruner reported.
Janis said she would later speak to a detention officer who had talked to Jen on the previous morning.
“He asked her: ‘Are you going to eat today?’” Janis recounted. “She said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to try to eat.’”
At 12:40 p.m., Officer Bruner reported, a mental health counselor asked to speak with Jen. At 1:18 p.m., the report indicates, Jen was placed on active suicide watch.
At 2 a.m. the following day, Pfc. McBride reported going to Jen’s cell to offer her water, as directed by medical staff.
“Inmate McCormack Schuler reeked of urine and had been urinating on herself,” McBride reported. “Inmate McCormack Schuler has been refusing to walk or use the toilet on her own. Medical has stated that inmate McCormack Schuler is capable and there is no medical reason at this time that she cannot walk on her own.”
Janis’ understanding of her daughter’s condition, based on later conversations with detention officers, is at odds with this characterization.
“One guy told me she was scooting on the floor to get to the bathroom so she didn’t have to ask for help,” Janis added.
After detention officers advised Jen “that these conditions were not safe for her or her unborn child,” according to the report, they helped her into a sitting position, at which point she reportedly “rolled her eyes and went limp.” A nurse responded by breaking an ammonia capsule under Jen’s nose.
As jail staff placed Jen in a wheelchair and attempted to move her to a new cell, the report indicates she “refused to respond to directives and just stared at officers.” Again, a nurse used an ammonia capsule to revive her.
After Jen was laid out on the mat in her new cell, McBride reported that the nurses performed a health check.
“All vitals were reported normal and no injuries were reported,” McBride wrote. “Inmate McCormack Schuler was then offered a drink of water. She was assisted to a sitting position by Nurse Clarke and Cpl. Peterson. Her intake was noted on the hunger strike form.”
Later, when Janis arrived at Baptist Hospital, she said the first thing the doctor asked her was how long Jen had been on hunger strike.
“She was not on hunger strike,” Janis replied.
Less than eight hours after staff moved Jen and offered her a drink of water, Pfc. P. Perry-Ionescu would discover her unresponsive in her cell during an observation round.
Correct Care Solutions declined to comment on the care that Jen McCormack received through spokesperson Karla West “due to potential or current litigation.”
The company, which describes itself as “a progressive and customer-oriented leader within the correctional health care field,” holds an uneven record for inmate care. While it’s difficult to make a definitive conclusion from a limited number of cases, a handful of reported inmate deaths present a troubling picture of Correct Care Solutions’ quality of care.
The company settled with the estate of Farah Saleh Farah, a 24-year-old mentally ill man who died of dehydration in a jail in Alexandria, Va. in January 2008, for $1 million. Among the causes of action enumerated in the family’s lawsuit against Correct Care Solutions was wrongful death, and cruel and unusual punishment.
“During the last days of Farah’s life, any competent and reasonably diligent healthcare provider, including the individual defendants herein, had to have recognized from his woefully debilitated condition that this patient was in dire straits and needed immediately to be seen by a doctor, hydrated, tested for electrolytes, and otherwise properly cared for on an emergency basis,” the lawsuit charged.
In another case, the New York State Commission of Correction found that nursing staff from Correct Care Solutions “mismanaged” complaints of chest pain by a 36-year-old inmate named Rashad McNulty, who died in Westchester County Jail in January 2013. The commission found that that a physician employed by Correct Care Solutions “made a hazardous presumptive diagnosis of abdominal distress on McNulty, a patient presenting with accepted symptoms of acute coronary syndrome, without the benefit of actually examining McNulty or performing requisite diagnostic tests.” The report went on to say: “Had McNulty been given appropriate emergency medical care and sent to a hospital in a timely manner his death may have been prevented.”
Earlier this year, CBS 4 in Denver reported that Jennifer Lobato, a woman withdrawing from heroin, died on the floor of the Jefferson County Jail, where Correct Care Solutions held the contract for inmate health services, 10 hours after pleading for medical assistance.
“Yes, she might be alive today if there was intervention,” Sheriff Schrader told CBS 4 in March.
The Forsyth County Commission voted unanimously to extend Correct Care Solutions’ contract — in place since September 2012 — at a cost of $4 million on Aug. 10.
Neighboring Guilford County began contracting with Correct Care Solutions for inmate health services in July 2014, following a dispute with the previous contractor over what services should be covered in the agreement. Maj. Chuck Williamson, who has responsibility for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s court services bureau, said staff checked out Correct Care Solutions’ “corporate reputation” and consulted with other companies that engage the company’s services before recommending the contract. Williamson said they didn’t discover anything that discouraged them from going forward with the contract.
“You have to have a good health services administration who’s on site akin to a hospital administrator,” Williamson said. “You’re still dealing with a large population. There are some sick people that come in; they don’t take care of themselves. Hospitals, even providing the best care, have people pass away.”
At least one person has died in Guilford County Jail since Correct Care Solutions took over the contract. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office disclosed that 38-year-old Willie David Vandiver died on Aug. 31, 2015. Prior to Correct Care Solutions’ tenure, media reports indicate that at least five people died in the Greensboro jail from 2007 to 2014.
Correct Care Solutions is currently a defendant, along with Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman and other employees, in a lawsuit alleging constitutional violations by the estate of Dino Vann Nixon, who died in the jail in August 2013 after being arrested on a charge of trafficking heroin.
According to the lawsuit, Nixon had prescriptions for hydrocodone — the same chemical Jen was dependent on — Xanax, Effexor and Ambien when he was arrested, and that he was not allowed to bring his medications with him to jail. Nixon’s family charges that medical staff at the jail ignored his pleas for medication to ease his pain, and neglected him as his health declined precipitously.
A licensed clinical social worker allegedly offered Nixon “sleeping problem worksheets” in response to his request for additional medication.
“Anxiety, panic, racing thoughts and difficulty sleeping are normal reactions to incarceration that can be regulated through the practice of healthy coping skills over time,” she wrote in mental health department memo. “We recommend that you follow up with a mental health provider following your release.”
Diane Emmert Nixon, the inmate’s wife, visited him on July 29, the 19th day of his incarceration, and “thought that he looked like he had Parkinson’s disease because his whole body was trembling and his speech was slurred,” according to the lawsuit. “He could not even hold a cup to drink out of it without spilling it on himself. He told her he felt awful and complained about not getting sleep. His hygiene was even worse than before, and he looked like he had not shaved for several days. He looked very pale.”
The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the inmate’s constitutional rights to be free from cruel or unusual punishment, to adequate medical care and to due process before being deprived of life, concludes, “Defendants acted like Mr. Nixon was faking his symptoms. Defendants were dead wrong. Mr. Nixon died. This showed defendants’ deliberate indifference to Mr. Nixon’s serious medical problems that led directly to his death.”
The county declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Six days after Jen McCormack died, her friend Sarah Sellers composed an email to Sheriff Bill Schatzman.
“My dear friend Jennifer McCormack suffered a massive heart attack while in your detention center, and I do not think she and her unborn child were receiving proper care,” Sarah wrote. “Her doctors said she had extremely low electrolytes and that could have caused her heart attack. She was arrested and ripped away from a treatment center she had waited to get into where she was receiving good care only to be placed in your jail and die several days later. I want to know how and why this happened.
“She was breaking the law and I understand that, but she was more than just some addict,” the email continued. “She was a wonderful human being with lots of people who loved her. She had been dealing with so many health issues and had been in so much pain for so long and I believe that’s what led her down this path. She deserved a second chance in rehab to get clean and that was robbed from her, and she lost her and her child’s life because of it. I want to know what you’re doing to ensure this won’t happen to another in your jail.”
The sheriff never responded to Jen, but he forwarded her email to Chief Deputy Brad Stanley, Major Robert Slater, who oversees the jail, and Assistant County Attorney Lonnie Albright. The sheriff added a pithy but telling message of his own: “FYI. Let’s talk about this tragic incident. What have we learned to possibly prevent this from happening again?”
A Google calendar document provided by the county reveals that Albright confirmed plans to attend a Sept. 29, 2014 meeting headed “Jennifer McCormack discussion” with Stanley and Slater.
I confronted Schatzman about the email recently during a lunchtime talk given by state Rep. Donny Lambeth at a Golden Corral restaurant in Winston-Salem on Sept. 21. I had been attempting to contact Schatzman and Stanley for six weeks without success, so I took the opportunity to address him while he was waiting to speak to Lambeth.
I asked: What did they learn from their meeting?
“The purpose of that email was, ‘Something happened that was unacceptable to us, and let’s share what we know with each other,’” Schatzman said. “But we can’t share that with you. That’s not for public consumption.”
Schatzman added that he couldn’t comment specifically about the circumstances of Jen’s jail stay because of an “anticipated lawsuit.” Janis told me that she contacted a lawyer, who eventually stopped returning her calls at some point, so that she could get answers about what happened to her daughter. As legal counsel to the sheriff, Albright said he advised Schatzman to not discuss “the McCorkle-Schuler [sic] matter.”
“In terms of the reporting of this, the reading public should be outraged that a mother lost her child in jail while under presumably constant supervision, and the sheriff refuses to comment,” Dr. Newman said. “That’s mind-boggling. You can’t prevent it happening again if you don’t know what happened.
“Is there evidence of wrongdoing?” Newman continued. “If the attorneys of the prison say, ‘We have told our client to not comment,’ that certainly tells me as a layman that there may be a claim of culpability — negligence or wrongdoing of some kind.”
Olivia James, a spokesperson for the state Health & Human Services Department, said an autopsy report was not conducted by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner for Jen. The office did provide a toxicology report to Triad City Beat on Tuesday. It indicated “no analyses requested” despite the fact that 3 milliliters of blood and 1 milliliter of vitreous humor were taken posthumously.
James said in an email that “the decedent was monitored in the hospital for several days, giving any drugs from outside of the hospital time to metabolize, meaning the only drugs that would have appeared in the report would have been the ones given the decedent at the hospital.”
Newman said he finds the lack of documentation in the aftermath of Jen’s death to be “bizarre.”
“[The report] says no analyses were requested and specimen on hold,” he said in an email. “Absolutely nuts: A young person dies after many days in jail, no apparent cause evident, and yet no autopsy is done and even the blood and other specimen are not tested for various drugs. Beyond comprehension!”
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, above all, should be clamoring for the reports, he said.
“It’s inexplicable not simply because the family has been trying to get them,” Newman said. “One would imagine the prison officials would be the most anxious to know what the cause of her death is. The prison authorities who are responsible for her care and safety should be the first to want to know. How could one rule out the possibility that she was hit over the head?”
Albright emphasized the fact that Jen was not an inmate at the time of her death in an email exchange for this story. That legal maneuver, allowing Jen’s family access to her hospital room, also served the sheriff’s interest in distancing his agency from the tragedy.
Assistant District Attorney Brian Taylor wrote in a Sept. 17, 2014 court document that Jen was on life support.
“She will not survive and will be taken off life support this week,” Taylor wrote. “Because she is in custody, her family is only allowed access to her for one hour per day.
“Based on the foregoing,” he continued, “the state asks the court to unsecure the bonds in the above matters so her family can be with her during her last days.”
Newman said the refusal of the sheriff’s office to comment comes across as “incredible arrogance.”
“It really sounds like a concerted effort,” he said, “to bury the whole damn thing with a dead patient.”
• Jail Classification History Report
• Sheriff Bill Schatzman email (includes email from Sarah Sellers)
• Jennifer McCormack discussion (Google Calendar invitation)
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What an outrageous story, from beginning to end. Prescribing opiates. Jailing a pregnant woman (or anyone else) who is in treatment. Taking her freedom away, but not providing even a bare minimum of medical care. Limiting her family’s visits because she was “in custody” (but claiming she did not die in custody.) And finally, not ordering an autopsy. Two lives lost and the public, let alone this poor woman’s family, are not owed a medical explanation? Keep digging, Jordan.
Really and truly one of the finest examples of journalism anywhere.
Thanks for an article that does not strain to add drama or pathos to a story that is just so sad with an ending that did not have to happen. And we all know that this happens without notice or fanfare to so many not-white and not-college educated human beings.
Absolutely. I’m sure far and away most of the victims of this sort of treatment don’t fit into any of the same categories. I hope that in the future we can investigate some of those stories too, and that the public will help us in identifying other instances of potential mistreatment of inmates. Thanks for reading!
Abby, you’re entirely correct, of course. It doesn’t take anything away from Jen to acknowledge that if she were a woman of color, this story would be getting far less traction because readers would have more difficulty getting past the stigma of addiction to see a human being. We have some evidence based on previous stories about addiction and crime and punishment that covers portraying African Americans don’t get as many pick-ups. There’s no reasonable explanation for that other than latent racism. As Eric alluded, we ran with this story because it came our way. But we’re absolutely committed to telling the stories of all members of our community with equal passion and diligence, no matter how many people want to read them or not.
Thanks to all of you for the comments. I agree wholeheartedly. One small note, Lorraine: Prescribing opiate substitutes such as Methadone and Suboxone is actually recommended by physicians for treating addiction. So there would be an issue if the nurses in the jail took Jen off Suboxone and caused her to go into withdrawal. We simply don’t know whether they did or not, because the available documents don’t mention it one way or the other.
Mr. Green, Thank you so much for writing this story about my friend. Jen was one of those people everyone wanted to know. She was a kind and funny soul and she didn’t deserve all the heartache she endured in the past few years. I hope through your story others will be more aware about the grave situation of prescription addiction. More resources need to be available for others that are in this situation. More compassion needs to be available as well. And don’t get me started on the police and the jail! It is so sad these institutions have gone so far down the drain. Do they help anyone that needs it? Is there anyone at all in these places that understands what addiction does to a body and mind, not to mention a person’s spirit. Again, thank you for writing this story Mr. Green. Please don’t stop digging into what exactly happened. Jen deserved to be treated better than she was, as I am sure many others do. I hope the people who neglected her will come to justice themselves.
Truly a sad story! I’m very thankful that you have put this story out there for others to read.
Jordan, re: opiates, I don’t mean methadone, etc., but rather the painkillers that were prescribed (or maybe I assumed they were?) for pain in the first place. This seems to be the original source for a lot of people getting hooked on pharmaceutical heroine — their doctors (and dentist.)
Yes. I see your point.
I agree with Lorraine in regard to the administration of prescription pain killers. I underwent surgery earlier this year and even though I was taking my *prescribed* medication as *prescribed*, I developed a physical dependence and expierenced a small bought of withdrawals. I used to think of it as a cop-out, getting addicted to prescription drugs, but I can now see how easy it is, how quickly it can happen, and under the most innocent of circumstances, especially for a person who is predisposed to addiction in the first place. I can especially relate to withdrawals. Mine were very simple compared to what people who have been physically dependent and for a long period of time suffer.
I have also personally know an individual who was incarcerated in Orange County, NC who was denied his prescription suboxone because of some formality with the dating of the prescription. He would have to have obtained a new prescription which required a face to face with his provider, an obviously impossible task while incarcerated. He expierenced severe withdrawals for which he wasn’t even given acetaminophen, even though it was a well on
Excuse me.. Well on
WELL KNOWN fact that he was in treatment. By the way his incarceration came three years after his conviction due to repeated continuations.
My phone is severely damaged. Forgive the multiple posts. My whole point is that these are serious issues. Prescription drug addiction and the way addicts are treated in the justice system.
My heart goes out to Jen’s mother and her friends and family. I desperately hope they get the answers they are seeking and are able to grieve their loved ones in peace.
As a society, we have the attitude of turning our nose at those suffering through addiction to drugs and other illicit substances. We automatically fall into the stereotype of calling them bad people and say “They all should be locked away so they can clean up”. Some addicts are bad people. These individuals are criminals before they become drug abusers, but there are others. People like Jennifer McCormack try to escape the physical and emotional pain he or she suffers through and feel no other course of action can alleviate the pain. Ms. McCormack was a young woman who seemed to be full of life and love, yet suffered through physical pain that seemed to be one of the triggers for her addictions.
Yes, she committed a crime, but I think the Sheriff’s office should have done a little more work to learn of the reasons for her actions and lessened the bond. $25,000 was way too much for the crime Ms. McCormack had committed. A jail cell is not a rehab facility. The lack of empathy by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is deplorable. They should serve the public and not go hunting for arrests in every nook and cranny within the county.
It saddens me to read this article and see how dependency to prescription drugs changed Jennifer McCormack for the worse. There are so many what-ifs that could be asked, yet can never be answered. The Jennifer McCormack I read about in this article seemed like a young woman that everyone cared for and loved beyond measure and not the “drug fiend” that was illustrated in news reports of her arrest.
Mr. Green, thank you for writing this article. Your words gave a much needed contradiction to what the media, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, and society branded this young woman. If at least one person who reads this article and becomes empathetic to the affliction of addiction, then hopefully that empathy will spread and become commonplace in our apathetic and callous society.
My heart is breaking for this girl’s family & loved ones. I’ve had the same experience- completely legitimate pain killer prescription for impacted wisdom teeth that kept getting infected & abscessed. After a few years my DDS refused (reluctantly as well as somewhat rightfully) to continue prescribing a 10-15 day prescription every 6 months & told me I needed to had them removed. At 18 with no family, no job, no healthcare, it isn’t that simple. I started getting Vicodin though friends. When a “friend” didn’t have any he gave me morphine. At the time I was in so much pain becoming addicted never crossed my mind. A few years later turned into a 10 year SERIOUS habit. I’ve seen more friends die than live. I made it out only after multiple attempts at methadone (which I never used properly). It wasn’t until I got on Suboxone I really got clean. The ONLY reason I was able to afford the $3,300.00 (YES! $3,300..00!!!) was because of an inheritance after my Dad died. Hence to say a humble man who worked his entire life in a factory, saving every penny he could for his only 2 surviving relatives, saved for decades to pay for medication that lasted me a year. There’s something SERIOUSLY wrong there. THAT’S how expensive it is to get prescribed meds that make you healthy & that you can’t abuse. It’s so wrong on so many levels. Thank you fpor writing this. It NEEDS to be talked about… And again, my condolences to your friend & her family… A tragedy that doesn’t need to happen in this country. I don’t want to turn this poor family’s pain into a political statement, but if people (especially in this state) decided it was in humanity’s best interest to pay a few extra dollars out of every $100 in taxes these thins might not happen… Because TRUST ME, it could be ANYONE’S child next.
Sorry, I meant to say $3,300 a MONTH for Suboxone with no insurance..… Yes, three THOUSAND, three hundred dollars a MONTH!
I spoke with someone not too long ago, who committed themselves, after a devastating loss of a spouse that they couldn’t otherwise normally handle; getting off the meds they were prescribed, they told me, was worse than the reason why they went in, and that they never would never do it again.
So sad. I almost can’t read the comments because I understand their pain. I truly hope they are healthy now…. mind & body 🙁
thanks for writing this story, what a sad story, what a sad county Forsyth county is sham on this county.
So said that two lives are lost here while in custody at the of those who are there to protect them into guard down. It never ceases to amaze me how jails what to so quickly play doctor when they don’t have the experience and the knowledge to do so. They should’ve took her to the emergency room immediately just to be on the safe side if for no other reason. Addiction is a disease and professionals who deal with the disease of addiction should be the ones who should’ve been treating her all along. To deny her the right to a medication that I doctor prescribed to her is just simply murderous on their part and they need to be held accountable. The harm that addition cost far outweighs the cost of the medication to help treat it. Lives matter
Why was the bond so high. She shouldn’t have been in jail. In 2011 Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Man faces 24 counts of prescription fraud was free on a $250 cash bond.
2013, pharmacist in Brookfield, Wisconsin was charged with 12 felonies of prescription drug thefts and released on a signature bond (requires no money).
“A signature bond is common in cases where a defendant has no prior criminal history, is not considered a flight risk and has committed a minor or non-violent misdemeanor crime. Crimes that may fall into this category include vandalism, possession of small amounts of drugs, trespassing or driving under the influence.” from – http://www.ehow.com/about_4689829_what-signature-bond.html
$25,000 bail, WHY? She’s was pregnant, with other health issues, living at home with her mother. Yet, a man with a higher count of prescription fraud, was released on a $250 cash bond and a pharmacist stealing drugs worth over thousands over a two year period, given a signature bond, normally used for misdemeanors. Yes, she committed a crime, but she shouldn’t have been in jail at that time. She should have been out on a (reasonable set) bail amount, being treated for her addiction, with a trail date for after the birth of her child.
Thank you for shedding light on a conversation that families and communities too often hide behind the shame society has attached to addiction and substance use disorders. In response to such tragedy, there was recently the first national rally to Unite To Face Addiction on the mall in Washington, D.C., estimated to have drawn 50,000 Americans across the country. This was a phenomenal event that had performers such as Joe Walsch, Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, and many more – come together to bring awareness in our nation’s capital. As an addiction professional and personal advocate, the unity and support at this rally was unlike anything I have ever experienced.
However, the event did not get the coverage that I believe it deserved nationally. Wilmington has been the only North Carolina community to cover this giant step towards social justice for individuals with addiction or who are in recovery. For more information you can visit the organization’s website that pieced this rally together: https://www.facingaddiction.org/actnow/
If you search for “Unite To Face Addiction” online you will find some information about the event, but there are great videos, photos, and quotes if you search the hashtag #UNITEtoFaceAddiction
What happen to this poor women is happening EVERYWHERE to the medically ILL W/PAINFUL/SIEZURES MEDICAL CONDITIONS,,Because of the cdc’s Klondyn,,the dea going after innocent doctors,,,parents of adult children who o.d. who want REVENGE for their adult childs death or choice to abuse medicines or unlawful drugs,,,instead of greif ,,they want all the medically ill w/painful medical condition to suffer in tortureous physical pain till death,,,it truly is an act of WILLFULL torture and genocide by our government onto the medically ill w/painful medical condition who need MEDICINE,like opiates/valium to live every second of their day NOT in physical pain from medical illness!!!Don’t believe me,,check out a petition called ,”petition 2 congress dea going after doctors,due no harm?,”,,there are 30,000 commentores forced to suffer in physical pain from medical illness because of parents,governmnent official like cdc’s klondyne who are sooo full of themselves the arrogance stinks,,It is physically impossible for anyone to physically feel the physical pain of another from medical illness,,,Thus NO-ONE has this divine rite to decide who suffers in physical; pain and who does not from medical illness,,,,but our govermet is now playing Dr.Government ,inturn they are willfully committing torture and genocide onto all the medically ill who’s medical condition requires the MEDICINE OF A OPIATE,OR MEDICINE OF A VALIUM TO CONTROL THE MEDICAL ILLNESS!!! IT IS SICKING WHAT IS HAppening to all the medically ill in the United Staes,,,it is archaic,cruel and inhumane what Dr.Government is doing to the medically ill in this so-call ,”free” country!!maryw