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Mecklenburg Sheriff McFadden Sued Over Fentanyl-Downloaded Death in Prison

Russell Fincham’s family filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, July 9, alleging that Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office officers and a former jail health worker could have prevented his death.

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The family of a 25-year-old Charlotte man who died in the Mecklenburg County Jail says detention officers were “indifferent” as their son suffered from fentanyl poisoning and opioid withdrawal in the days after his arrest.

They also allege that Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden suggested he was covering up jail-related matters as he “vented his frustration” over a lack of updates from staff.

“You don’t find out the day it happened…you find out two weeks after it happened and then I have to cover it up…I have to deal with it and then I have to say this is what happened, y’all,” McFadden said, according to the lawsuit.

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Russell Fincham’s parents say in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the sheriff, county officials and a former prison health officer that prison officials were “uncaring” when they discovered their son was having anxiety attacks and failed to provide him with immediate medical attention.

Fincham, according to the lawsuit, told a Wellpath nurse working at the jail that he was “taking fentanyl on a daily basis.” He said he “took five Xanax bars and a half gram of fentanyl” on July 3, 2022 — the day he was arrested and charged with two counts of breaking and entering a motor vehicle and two counts of grand theft.

According to the lawsuit, on July 5, 2022, officers conducting patrols failed to allow seven mandatory, direct observations of Fincham.

That evening, he spent the entire night vomiting two gallons of the black substance into Styrofoam cups and a bucket next to his bed. The next morning, a nurse took his vital signs, noting low blood pressure in Fincham, who “appeared dead and in physical distress” when the blood pressure monitor was placed around his wrist.

At that point — 7:58 a.m. July 6, 2022 — officers and nurses should have administered the life-saving overdose reversal drug Narcan, per prison policy, the lawsuit says.

Instead, it was administered at 8:29 a.m., and Fincham died at 8:59 a.m.

The lawsuit, which cites prison documents and video footage, names McFadden and several detention officers on duty. It also names Wellpath — a former prison health worker — and several nurses.

Fincham’s parents, represented by Michael L. Littlejohn Jr., Ronard Dixon Jr. and M. Anthony Burts II, are seeking a jury trial.

Following Fincham’s death, the fifth in a Charlotte jail in 2022, McFadden said in a statement: “It is devastating to report the death of this young resident who was in our care. Our deepest condolences go out to his family at this difficult time.”

As The Charlotte Observer previously reported, state investigations into the recent deaths have found that understaffing at Mecklenburg Prison likely contributed to security breaches at the time of death in at least three recent cases.

The lawsuit alleged that McFadden “took out his frustration on staff over their failure to provide him with timely reports regarding problems at the jail.”

According to the lawsuit, “Sheriff McFadden stated, ‘if you actually know what’s going on, instead of what people are telling you, you’re going to be a little upset, too…because when you find out, you don’t find out the same day it happened…you find out two weeks after it happened, and then I have to cover it up…I have to deal with it, and then I have to say this is what happened…'”

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Bradley Smith, a sheriff’s spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office does not discuss or comment on pending litigation,” Smith said in an email.

Nashville-based Wellpath did not respond to a request for comment.

Wellpath and the sheriff have been sued before

Wellpath has a history of lawsuits over its work in North Carolina prisons.

Last year, the Observer reported on a case in Rowan County where Wellpath nurses were accused of ignoring David Ryan Wood’s brain injury for weeks. They gave him Tylenol, put him on a liquid diet and told him to rest, according to a federal lawsuit.

Wood “will never be the same,” the lawsuit said. His cognitive function, memory and hearing were permanently and severely damaged.

Wellpath often resolves legal cases in a confidential manner, the Observer has learned.

In May, the company’s contract with the Mecklenburg County Jail ended early. Wellpath “struggled with economic realities, rising costs and a nationwide nursing shortage resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the company said. earlier this year.

The pattern of “conscious indifference”

The lawsuit accuses McFadden of having a policy of “conscious indifference” to state laws that require detention officers to supervise inmates.

Prison staff routinely scanned their badges — recording a round of surveillance — but did not actually check every inmate in custody, the lawsuit alleges. And when an inmate faced a medical emergency, prison staff routinely refused to help him, she alleges.

And McFadden failed to discipline detention officers who failed to perform their duties, the lawsuit alleges. It eventually became a kind of “unwritten policy.”

The complaint notes that there have been other deaths under similar circumstances at the Charlotte jail: Michael Trent in 2019; Michael Mangan in 2020; Karon Golightly and John Devin Haley in 2021; Francine Laney, William Rhinesmith and Derrick Geter in 2022.

The sheriff has criticized state prison inspectors in recent months and said they hold his prison to an unfair standard when they inspect guards’ rounds. At an April news conference, he derided the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees prison inspectors, and one inspector in particular.

Ryan Oehrli covers public safety and criminal justice for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked at the Asheville Citizen Times. A native of North Carolina, he grew up in Little Washington.

Julia Coin covers local and federal courts and legal issues after previously working as a news reporter for the Observer. Julia has covered fentanyl in local schools, the aftermath of police shootings and crime trends in Charlotte, and occasionally photographs and reviews local concerts. Born in Michigan and raised in Florida, she studied journalism at the University of Florida, where she covered state law enforcement, campus sexual assault and the devastation of Hurricane Ian.
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