From an isolation cell in the Ottawa County Jail, Terral Ellis begged for someone to help him.
He could not feel his legs and he could not breathe, the 26-year-old told jail staff and the on-site nurse at the Miami, Okla., facility. It felt, he said, like his back was broken and he was bleeding internally.
“I think I’m dying,” he said just after 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2015.
Staff mocked him, laughed at a joke about the “boy who cried wolf,” and ignored him as he moaned. When nurse Theresa Horn arrived later that morning, she did not help either — instead threatening to chain Ellis to the ground if he continued to complain.
“I’m sick and tired of f—ing dealing with your ass!” she yelled. “Ain’t a damn thing nothing wrong with you!”
Hours later, Ellis was dead.
Video surveillance footage of Ellis’s 12 days in jail in 2015 became public for the first time last week as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit. The 18 clips taken from 16 cameras — which were edited down from the hundreds of hours of footage given to the Ellis family’s lawyers — show how jail staff repeatedly mocked Ellis and refused him adequate medical treatment.
On Oct. 10, 2015, Ellis took the advice of his grandfather and turned himself into the county jail on an outstanding warrant for an old DUI. On Oct. 22, he was rolled out on a paramedic’s stretcher — cold and unresponsive from septic shock brought on by pneumonia, a medical examiner later ruled.
Unlike most jail surveillance video from high-profile inmate death cases, these clips have audio. The attorneys representing the Ellis family in the suit said the videos show not just what was done, but what was said, throughout Ellis’s rapid decline.
“If you don’t have everything I have, this is just some kid who died in jail because he got sick,” said attorney Dan Smolen, who specializes in jail death cases across the country. “I want people to understand this is happening, every day, all day long, in jails across the United States. I think it has just been captured [here] in a really awful way.”
Immediately after Ellis’s death, his fellow inmates spoke out about his treatment, and in 2017 the man’s family filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma against the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, the emergency medical service, Horn and other jail staff, claiming their negligence and gross indifference led to his death.
Smolen’s legal team has pieced together witness accounts, staff reports, deposition interviews and now, the hundreds of hours of surveillance video from inside the Ottawa County Jail that show how a healthy young man trying to get right with the law died in government custody, court documents allege.
At the jail, after the paramedics had left, Horn can be heard suggesting to Shoemaker that Ellis may have died by suicide. The medical examiner later determined the cause was septic shock and also noted that Ellis was allegedly found with “a bedsheet tied loosely around his neck,” according to court documents, but that there were also no marks on his neck.
Horn, Bray and Shoemaker are all named in the lawsuit, alongside paramedics Jennifer Grimes and Kent Williams, the Office of the Ottawa County Sheriff and Baptist Healthcare of Oklahoma LLC on behalf of Integris Miami EMS.
In court documents, attorneys for the sheriff’s office argued that the institution cannot be held liable because Ellis’s death was not caused by insufficient policy or training of jail staff.
Attorneys for Horn did not respond to a request for comment, and efforts to reach Horn directly were not successful.
A lawyer representing Grimes, Williams and Baptist Healthcare said he cannot comment on pending litigation. Their attorneys argued in the motion for summary judgment that the paramedics and their employer could not be held liable for what happened to Ellis after they left the jail.
In his court filing, Smolen argues that the video evidence shows why the judge should allow the case to proceed to a jury trial. There is no clear timeline for when that might happen, Smolen said.
Most striking for Smolen about this case is the way the video supported much of what Ellis’s cellmates had been saying since 2015. Sixteen men, including Harrington, signed a document two days after Ellis’s death promising to testify on his behalf. One cellmate, Justin Barrera, wrote in a letter that he could not sleep at night because a loop of Ellis’s scared voice was playing in his head.
“Everything they said in that letter was true,” Smolen said. “It just took us years to corroborate it.”
In his letter, Harrington — the inmate who tried to help — said that he learned from an orderly that Ellis died.
“If it weren’t for the negligence and total disregard to human life, Terral would still be with us today,” Harrington wrote. “No one deserves to be treated like that. Something needs to be done.”