Cell by Cell: Suspected of driving drunk, a long-haul trucker died in jail—but he actually had pneumonia

Michael Hoeppner wasn't high or drunk — just deathly ill. He died in an Oklahoma jail without medical treatment.

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Michael James Hoeppner was 60 when he died in the Atoka County Jail. Courtesy

Cell by Cell is The Frontier’s ongoing series tracking jail deaths in Oklahoma

The police officer who pulled over long-haul trucker Michael James Hoeppner for weaving erratically across lanes on U.S. Route 69 in March thought he was high or drunk.

Hoeppner, 60, seemed unsteady on his feet and couldn’t follow basic instructions to complete any field sobriety tests, Buddy Sanders, a police officer for the Atoka County town of Tushka, noted in a court affidavit.

Sanders placed Hoeppner under arrest and took him to the Atoka County Medical Center for a blood draw to test his alcohol level. In the hospital parking lot, Hoeppner nearly fell over onto Sanders’ police cruiser, the officer later wrote.

Later, at the Atoka County Jail, Hoeppner filled out a questionnaire on his health history and was sent to the detox tank to sober up. He marked on the form that he had no past or present health problems according to a jail incident report.

The next morning — less than 24 hours after arriving at the jail — a detention officer found him dead in his bunk.

The state medical examiner’s office would later find that Hoeppner had no drugs or alcohol in his system but that he had died of pneumonia caused by the flu. Hoeppner had not been high or drunk — just deathly ill.

Hoeppner’s death has left his family searching for answers about how law enforcement and medical personnel treated him in his final hours. No police, hospital or jail staff seemed to recognize that Hoeppner was having a medical emergency.

State officials later cited the Atoka County Jail for failing to document regular sight checks on detainees the night of Hoeppner’s death.

Karl Hoeppner said though his older brother was arrested for suspected DUI, Michael Hoeppner never drank.

“If they (the sheriff’s office) would have called someone, we would have told them, ‘Hey, he’s sick,’” Karl Hoeppner said. “It’s just terrible he was put in a drunk tank. He needed protection. He shouldn’t have been on the road — he was ill. And he probably didn’t realize he was ill.”

James Joslin, who oversees the jail inspection division for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, believes that Hoeppner may have been too sick to communicate that he needed medical attention.

“My suspicion is that his behaviors were related to his illness and it wasn’t picked up by the hospital or the jail staff,” Joslin said.

State does not require medical clearance for people booked into jail

The Atoka County Jail has no medical staff, but sends detainees to the local emergency room if they require treatment, Sheriff Tony Head said. State law does not require jails to provide any on-site medical treatment.

Greg Munholland, administrator for the Atoka County Jail, said Hoeppner indicated on a jail health form during the intake process that he had no health problems and did not need medical attention.

“It was very unfortunate,” Munholland said. “We did the best we could with the information we had.”

Atoka County officials later learned from Hoeppner’s family that he had respiratory problems and used a CPAP machine while sleeping, which he kept in the cab of his truck.

He never told jailers or wrote on the health screening form that he needed the machine, Munholland said.

Hoeppner spent several hours in the detox tank before being moved into an open pod at the jail, he said.

“He spent about eight hours there and seemed just fine,” Munholland said. “This particular night, a jailer did go up to him and say ‘do you need anything’ and he said ‘no.’ He went to bed and didn’t wake up.”

Jail cited for failing to document sight checks on detainees

In interviews the health department conducted with men who shared a cell with Hoeppner, one told investigators Hoeppner was quiet and didn’t talk to anyone. The evening before he died, Hoeppner said he was cold, the cellmate said. The man got Hoeppner a blanket.

Another detainee told investigators Hoeppner’s cellmates would ask him throughout the day if he was OK, but Hoeppner would never respond.

Hoeppner’s death was only discovered when one of his cellmates tried to wake him the next morning, according to a Health Department report.

“Hey, Pop, breakfast,” the man said, touching Hoeppner on the shoulder. Two of the men then called jail staff for help, according to the report.

After an investigation, the Oklahoma State Department of Health cited the Atoka County Jail for failing to document hourly sight checks on detainees the night of Hoeppner’s death.

The jail failed to provide logs documenting the hourly checks to the Health Department, according to a notice of deficiency issued by the department.

Munholland said detention officers at the Atoka jail do conduct hourly sight checks on detainees as required by state jail standards. In some cases, detention officers at the jail check on detainees as frequently as every 15 minutes, he said.

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Medical forms provided to The Frontier by Hoeppner’s family, show hospital staff measured his blood pressure, pulse and respiration rate, but a field to record body temperature was left blank. In a report, a nurse wrote Hoeppner showed no signs of distress. 

David Lively, chief nursing officer for Atoka County Medical Center, declined to answer The Frontier’s questions about how the hospital handles arrestees that police bring to the hospital for blood draws to test for drugs and alcohol, citing patient confidentiality.

Typically, the purpose of a hospital blood draw is only to test for drugs or alcohol in order to aide the local district attorney’s office with charging a person with driving under the influence, Joslin said.

Oklahoma jail standards do not require jails to conduct a full physical exam on detainees during the book-in process. The minimum standard requires the completion of a paper form on health history and medical needs.

This is less than what the National Commission on Correctional Health Care recommends in its intake standards for jails. The NCCHC holds that all detainees should receive medical clearance at a hospital or by “on-site health staff,” as well as a health screening that includes questions about health history and physical observations by trained staff.

Through an attorney, the town of Tushka declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Hoeppner’s arrest. The Frontier has filed an open records request for body camera footage and other documents from the town.

“to know people were around that just didn’t give a darn is so hard.”

Amy Hoeppner, Michael Hoeppner’s sister-in-law, said the family, which lives in Wisconsin, is looking for more answers on what happened during his arrest, as well as at the hospital and jail. She said feels as if the sheriff’s office has treated the family with little compassion and that its it’s disturbing her brother-in-law didn’t get the medical care he needed.

“If it was just natural causes and he just fell asleep in his bunk that would be hard enough,” Amy Hoeppner said. “But to know people were around that just didn’t give a darn is so hard.”

Karl Hoeppner said his brother had always been a hard worker and was a leukemia survivor. He even worked while he was undergoing treatment for cancer.

“He had worked through anything,” Karl Hoeppner said. “He never collected unemployment. Never did he not have a job.

“To be treated so unfairly is just terrible.”

Amy Hoeppner said Michael Hoeppner was generous and always provided for his family.

“He wasn’t a rich man, but financially, and from his heart, he did what was right. …He was just a good man, a great soul,” she said.

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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