An Action News Jax Investigation uncovered that a medical treatment may have played a role in a Clay County mother’s death.
Michelle Bewley was being held in the Clay County Jail on a shoplifting charge.
Bewley died in her cell on March 5 at age 35.
“It broke my heart,” Bewley’s cousin Amanda Snyder told Action News Jax.
Snyder said it’s hard to think about the cousin she grew up roller skating with dying alone in a jail cell.
“She was a very loving, kind person. And she didn’t deserve this. Nobody deserves this,” said Snyder.
On March 4, Bewley violated the conditions of her bond on a shoplifting charge and was booked back into Clay County Jail.
The next day, a detention deputy and nurse found her dead.
The medical examiner’s report said Bewley died of hypertensive heart disease and that “chronic drug abuse... with opiate withdrawal” played a role.
Bewley’s toxicology report showed she had fentanyl, a powerful opiate, in her bloodstream when she died.
The report also found Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, in her blood.
Although it’s unclear whether jail staff gave Bewley that medication, Clay County Detention Director Chris Coldiron said staff does use Lorazepam to treat anxiety in some people going through drug withdrawal and some who are on suicide watch.
Both of those applied to Bewley.
Gateway Community Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Raymond Pomm said the combination of Lorazepam and fentanyl can be lethal.
“Oh, 100 percent,” said Pomm.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that mixing Lorazepam and opioids like fentanyl can be deadly, especially for people with underlying health conditions.
“If you take too much of Lorazepam along with fentanyl, you could stop breathing,” said Pomm.
Dr. Gaines Martin is the head physician for the Clay County Jail.
Action News Jax called and emailed Dr. Martin, and stopped by his office to ask why he gives Lorazepam to people going through drug withdrawal if the combination can be deadly.
No response yet.
But Director Coldiron agreed to talk.
Action News Jax questioned him about the FDA warning.
“Well, the strange thing is, that’s kind of a misnomer within that comment. Because what we’re doing is treating the withdrawal, which is the absence of the opiate,” said Coldiron.
But Pomm said a person can go through withdrawal even when they still have drugs in their bloodstream; it just means they don’t have the amount of it in their system that their body is used to.
“Lorazepam is not a medication that we would use for opiate withdrawal. Period,” said Pomm.
Handwritten on Bewley’s daily observation reports is the word “Disintox,” which is short for disorderly intoxication -- indicating jail staff was alerted there may have been drugs in her system.
But the jail doesn’t drug test each person before giving them medication like Lorazepam.
“We can’t. We’re right at 5,000 inmates that we process every year,” said Coldiron.
Instead, staff relies on people to be honest about their drug use during medical screening.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is now investigating Bewley’s death.
Investigators don’t have any surveillance video to help.
Cameras in the Clay County Jail don’t record; they’re for live monitoring only.
Some of the cameras are broken.
The system is so antiquated, the cameras have to be programed with floppy discs.
Coldiron said he’s pushing to replace the cameras with ones that record.
In the meantime, Bewley’s family waits for answers.
“I love her regardless of the mistakes she has made because that doesn’t define her as a person. Because she was a caring person. She loved her family,” said Snyder. “And I hope this never happens to anybody else’s family member.”
Coldiron said the sheriff’s office is now exploring whether the jail should switch from in-house medical services to a third-party medical provider.
He said it’s a move that could improve services but would cost taxpayers more money.