On a late summer Sunday morning, 15 hours after he was arrested for shoplifting, a Brainerd native walked into a Crow Wing County jail cell and hanged himself from an upper bunk.
Jason Miller was taken off life support and died four days later.
The 33-year-old led a troubled life. His parents were relieved when he was arrested.
“I thought he was safe, safe from himself, safe so he could straighten up and start new,” said his mother Tammy Jensen Boehne.
They hoped it would provide a fresh opportunity for their son to straighten out his life and find a way out of addiction.
Toxicology reports taken at the hospital after Jason Miller’s suicide attempt were positive for amphetamine and heroin. Family members said they were at a loss in finding ways to help him turn things around. And then time ran out. They want others to know he wasn’t simply a statistic. And they hope there may be lessons from Jason’s story that may help others.
SATURDAY, AUG. 10, 2013
Jason Miller told his cell mate a good Samaritan was his undoing at Wal-Mart asking if he had paid for items. That question led to a citizen’s arrest at the store. Baxter police reports list $668.22 in merchandise in the shoplifting case, camping gear and children’s socks. The amount is a gross misdemeanor.
Baxter police officers were called to the store about 7 p.m. that Saturday in what would become a protracted physical confrontation. According to the arrest report, Miller attempted to flee was tackled and resisted arrest. A police officer suffered a head injury in the altercation. Back at the store, Miller was able to get his handcuffed hands in front and fled again. This time officers were concerned the handcuffs may be used as a weapon and Miller was tazed twice as police officers said he continued to resist arrest.
Boehne said her son was spiraling after losing his job in March. He was evicted from his apartment. He had a Big Lake address before coming back to Brainerd. Married with two sons, Miller had a long history of legal troubles.
“These are human beings,” Boehne said of people housed in the Crow Wing County Jail. “They are people. They have family who love them and yes, they have addictions but without them they are wonderful people.
“He was a good dad — he couldn’t get a grip on the darkness in himself.”
Following the Baxter arrest, he arrived in Echo Cell Block and Cell E102 about 1 a.m. Aug. 11 He talked to his cell mate about the felony charges he was facing. He was facing a fourth-degree assault of a peace officer among a host of charges stemming from the shoplifting aftermath. He also failed to register an address change as a predatory offender.
In their short conversation, the cell mate described Miller as “happy go lucky.” Miller didn’t come across as depressed, the inmate said.
During the few minutes they talked, Miller asked his cell mate for a piece of paper.
SUNDAY, AUG. 11, 2013
On that Sunday morning, inmates were out in the day room ringed by two tiers of cells. There were 14 inmates in the lower unit of Echo Cell Block and 22 on the upper tier.
Boehne said her son called his grandmother at 8:30 a.m. that Sunday morning. He told her where his car was parked, where his keys were. He wanted to be sure his wife and two sons had a place to go. It was a short and abrupt call his mother described as uncharacteristic for her son. Miller’s cell mate said they spoke briefly in the morning and he told Miller it was their release time when they could use the day room. The cell mate left for a shower.
Video surveillance shows an inmate enter cell E102 and close the door. In a statement to an investigator taken 45 minutes after Miller hanged himself, another Echo Cell Block inmate said he was out on the release time and happened to glance in Miller’s cell.
“I was just at the right angle,” the inmate said. “I seen him hanging there. That’s all I saw.”
The inmate started yelling “guard, guard.” He said he didn’t want to take another look. Miller was hanging toward the back cell wall.
Corrections officers held Miller up to relieve the pressure on his neck and others worked to untie the bed sheet from the upper bunk. It was described as braided and knotted numerous times.
An officer was able to untie the sheet from the upper bunk. Miller was lowered to the cell floor. They checked his wrists. They checked the carotid artery in his neck. No pulse. It was 10:34 a.m. About four minutes after the first alarm was raised.
Five officers rotated in providing CPR. They used a mouth-to-mouth mask to give breaths between sets of chest compressions. They continued until the North Memorial Ambulance crew arrived at the cell. About eight minutes passed.
Officers and the ambulance crew continued chest compressions. At last a pulse was observed in the abdominal area. Miller was secured to a backboard, lifted to a gurney and taken to the waiting ambulance.
A FAMILY’S QUESTIONS
Early questions as to whether their son acted alone or was possibly harmed by another person, or was able to use something that should have been confiscated when he was arrested, haunted family members.
Boehne said the initial call about her son’s condition from the hospital included a description of a rope-like ligature, specifically a braided survival bracelet. A survivor’s bracelet is made of parachute cord and while it fits around the wrist in a braided form, it may be unraveled to make a tourniquet or be used in any number of reasons in a survival situation or repair. The unraveled cord may be 15 feet long. Boehne wasn’t sure of the caller’s identity and said the doctor who treated her son told her the remark didn’t come from him. She said the doctor told her the ligature was removed before Miller arrived at the hospital. Corrections officers reported cutting the braided sheet used in the suicide attempt off at the jail.
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan reported the property intake did not list any type of jewelry or a survivor’s bracelet in Miller’s possession on the night he was arrested. His family reported he wasn’t known to wear one.
“That’s not what he hung himself with,” Ryan said. “He took the sheet off his bunk ripped it up, made a ligature.”
Still in an evidence bag, Ryan said the sheet was braided and then run through a hole in the upper steel bunk and tied to a wadded wash cloth to keep it from pulling through. The braided sheet is the same color as the bedding on the bunks.
Jeff Miller said his son was happy all the time as a boy. He hoped a stint in jail would help his son straighten out. “I just don’t know how it could have happened in jail,” Jeff Miller said. “You‘d think that would be a safe place.”
Protocol calls for checks on cells and inmates every 30 minutes. Ryan said Jason Miller was found hanging in his cell 20 minutes after the last well-being check. The jail does have cells for inmates who need to be segregated for a medical issues or suicide watch.
“The jail had no indication this person was suicidal,” Ryan said.
Ryan was in Montana when the incident happened. Ryan said the decision to delay announcing information of the attempted suicide in jail was his recommendation. More than two weeks passed before a tip led to a Brainerd Dispatch inquiry and then to more information. Ryan said he had competing interests in the public’s right to know and protecting the county’s interests. The family had contacted an attorney.
“There isn’t anybody in Crow Wing County trying to cover up anything,” Ryan said.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections’ Inspection and Enforcement Unit (DOC) reviewed Jason Miller’s death. In a letter to Heath Fosteson, jail administrator, the DOC reported it appeared staff responded appropriately and there were no rule violations. The report did state the incident should have been noted in the facility log. The log keeps track of every action, check and personnel at the jail. Since the event, including the arrival of the ambulance, was recorded on videotape and provided to the DOC, Ryan said it wasn’t written out in the log.
“It’s a tragedy. I don’t know how our staff would have been able to prevent this,” Ryan said, adding if someone is determined to take their life, they find a way. “Not a statement I want to make but it is the cold reality.”
Ryan said he didn’t see any red flags to lead him to believe anyone else was involved.
“I feel for the family,” Ryan said. “It’s a horrible thing. No one wishes that on anyone.”
A suicide note was found by hospital staff. It was in Miller’s pocket, likely written on the piece of paper he asked for in his first moments in the cell block. In it he listed the contact information for his family, told his sons he loved them more than life itself. “I will always be watching you from somewhere. Don’t forget me,” he wrote. He apologized to the one who would find him and be left to deal with his letter.
Boehne said her son was a risk-taker, a prankster, a loving father, a son and brother — and an addict. His parents divorced when he was 7. His trouble seemed to start as a teenager. He started drinking alcohol. His mother said his addiction would later include meth and a new emerging drug in bath salts. Not to be confused with products designed for bathing, bath salts are synthetic cathinones. Users can experience euphoria, paranoia, agitations, hallucinations and even violent behavior, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Chemically, the substance is similar to amphetamines such as meth and was first considered a legal high.
In October of 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put the drug on an emergency ban and in 2012 the substance was made illegal. Boehne said her son started taking bath salts in his late 20s and grew in paranoia, thinking the FBI was following him and his phones were bugged. Boehne educated herself on the then legal substance and tried to get help for her son. The family tried various methods, including instigating a 72-hour hold for treatment in a surprise move three years ago. It wasn’t successful. His father urged him to make a change for the children.
“That’s been our struggle with Jason,” Boehne said. “We just couldn’t save him. He just couldn’t get a grip on life after the bath salts.”
Boehne pointed to a list of myths on drug abuse and addiction she found on helpguide.org. The myths note treatment doesn’t have to be voluntary to be successful, that addicts don’t have to hit rock bottom before they can get better. The website also has a list of signs and symptoms, including warnings signs of teen drug abuse and how to get help.
While he had a long list of prior arrests, Boehne said her son was someone who also worked on ABCs with his sons and took them fishing. She said he was devoted to his children.
“As a parent my heart goes out to all these parents dealing with kids on addiction,” she said. “It’s terrible. I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know how to save our kids.”
After going through her son’s personal belongings at home after his death, Boehne found a noose made of shoelaces tied together. While there isn’t evidence of a survival bracelet being used, Boehne remains convinced it was part of her son’s suicide attempt. The family withdrew medical support at 11:56 a.m., Aug. 14, in St. Cloud Hospital. Death was due to anoxic cerebral injury due to near hanging.
“I think about it everyday,” his father Jeff Miller said quietly. “I don’t know what a person could have done.”
This story used interviews with family and Crow Wing County officials, sheriff’s department statements, reports, photos and recorded interviews with inmates, along with Department of Corrections reports.