Editor’s note: This story contains videos that may not be suitable for all viewers. The videos are a compilation of the events between Terral Ellis having what appeared to be a seizure at the Ottawa County jail on Oct. 21, 2015, to his in-custody death on Oct. 22, 2015.
For hours, Terral Ellis tried to convince someone — anyone — at the Ottawa County jail to help him.
Laying in a solitary cell, he repeatedly shouted “D.O.,” in an attempt to sway detention officers to aid him, videos from jail security cameras show. He moaned and cried out in pain.
“Help, please,” Ellis called out. “Don’t leave me here.”
The videos, which were edited down from hundreds of hours of footage given to lawyers for Ellis’ family, depict more than two hours of Ellis’ stay at the jail. The 18 video clips were recently filed in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Ellis’ family brought against the county in 2017.
For more than 20 hours, jailers sitting only feet away from Ellis’ cell ignored his cries for help and at times mocked the 26-year-old. At one point, detention officers laughed at Ellis when he complained his legs were going numb.
“Oh my God, no,” Ellis said as his pleas went unanswered.
“I can’t believe y’all are doing this.”
“I think I’m dying.”
Ellis died on Oct. 22, 2015, after spending 12 days at the jail. The state medical examiner ruled he died from sepsis and pneumonia.
Even the jail’s nurse, Theresa Horn, ignored Ellis’ pleas for medical attention, the videos show.
About four hours before Ellis died, Horn went to check on him. Instead of helping Ellis, she yelled at him: “Listen to me and shut up. We’ve had EMS come over and check you out and they don’t think there’s nothin’ (sic) wrong with you.”
“Please, look at my legs,” Ellis said. He had told jail staff his legs were turning black.
Horn accused Ellis of faking his condition and threatened to place him on a “D-ring,” a restraint that jailers may use to handcuff and shackle inmates to a metal ring attached to the floor.
“I am sick and fucking tired of dealing with your ass,” Horn said before she slammed the cell’s door closed and walked away. “There ain’t nothing wrong with you.”
In motions to dismiss the case, lawyers for the county, Horn and several detention officers acknowledged a violation of jail policies. However, they denied that jail staff intentionally denied Ellis medical care or that the jail had a pattern of denying care to inmates.
Ottawa County Sheriff Jeremy Floyd is named in the lawsuit in his official capacity and was elected in 2016. He did not respond to a message requesting an interview.
Ambre Gooch, a lawyer representing the county, said although Ellis’ death was “sad and unfortunate, it was not caused by any action or inaction of the Sheriff in his official capacity.”
“He died of sepsis which is an infection of the blood and which is very difficult to diagnose, which develops rapidly, and is often fatal,” Gooch said in an emailed statement.
Gooch added: “The video depicts behavior by Jail staff that had never before been seen, heard, or reported up the chain in the Sheriff’s Office, prior to Mr. Ellis’s death. Certain Jail staff’s interactions with Mr. Ellis were contrary to their training and to Jail policies and procedures. The video does NOT accurately depict the Sheriff’s Office’s policies, procedures, standards, or expectations of Jail staff.”
Horn did not return messages left at a phone number listed under her name or social media messages from The Frontier seeking comment. In court documents, Horn’s lawyers stated the nurse thought Ellis was faking his symptoms and didn’t realize he had a serious medical condition. A lawyer for Horn did not respond to messages seeking comment.
No one took Ellis to a hospital until jail staff found him in his solitary cell, which had no sink or toilet, in “respiratory distress,” with his hands and feet discolored and blue, video and records show. Ellis became unresponsive only minutes after emergency medical personal arrived, which was hours from when he started to plead with jail staff for help, records show.
Before EMTs could even leave the jail they started resuscitation efforts on Ellis.
Investigators told the medical examiner’s office that Ellis “was found alone in his cell with acute respiratory distress,” with “a bed sheet tied loosely around his neck.”
After emergency medical responders put Ellis into an ambulance, Horn and a detention officer sat at the jail’s booking desk and discussed what they should write in the incident reports describing why EMTs took Ellis to the hospital, video shows.
“Due to…” Horn paused for a moment. “…change in mental status — possible suicide.”
Horn continued: “Extremities were cold and blue. Discolored. Cold to the touch. And pain systemically.”
The detention officer asked her how to spell “systematically.” She paused, began to try to spell the word and laughed, video shows.
“Just put complaints of generalized pain over the entire body,” Horn said.
‘It looks like he’s dying’
Ottawa County jail is in Miami, a city with a population of about 13,000 people in northeast Oklahoma. Ellis turned himself into the jail on a warrant for failing to appear in court almost a year earlier on a DUI charge.
On the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2015 — nine days after he entered the jail — Ellis left a message for his grandfather complaining of back pain, The Frontier previously reported.
“Hey Grandpa, it’s Terral. If you (could) call and set an appointment for me, I’ve got some ribs that are out of place… His name is Dr. Jones … he’s a chiropractor, Grandpa. It costs $30, if you would please call him set up an appointment and pay for that… it costs $30. I’ve got to set this up so I can get my… my back hurts so bad, grandpa. Nothing happened… I just…sleeping on that bed or something. I love you, bye.”
On the evening of Oct. 21, 2015, Ellis had what appeared to be a seizure in a general population pod at the jail, video and records show. When paramedics arrived, Ellis reportedly told them he was “severely dehydrated,” had pain in his back, ribs and internal organs, and had been urinating in cups because he couldn’t get up to use the bathroom, according to records.
An investigative report by the health department into Ellis’ death stated a guard pulled a paramedic aside and told them “that the (patient) had been walking around all day, and that right before his seizure-like episode he had walked up to the guard station and told them he would sue them for not letting him use the phone and for the fall the previous week because of the plumbing.”
Ellis told paramedics he believed his ribs were broken, records show.
“(Patient) was told that if he did have broken ribs, that the ER would X-ray them and if bad enough they would wrap them but there was nothing they could really do for broken ribs.”
Ellis reportedly told paramedics that Horn had seen him earlier in the day and given ibuprofen for his pain, according to the investigative report.
Integris Miami EMS is named as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly contributing to Ellis’ death by failing to transport him to a hospital. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers for Integris stated jail staff told paramedics that Ellis would be placed into a holding cell in view of the guard desk and checked on every 15 minutes, and if anything change they would contact EMS immediately.
Ellis couldn’t sign the ambulance service’s refusal of treatment paperwork because he’d been taken to a holding cell, records show.
John Lackey, a lawyer representing Integris Miami EMS, in an email declined to comment on the pending litigation. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers for Integris stated the “evidence is overwhelming” that Ellis’ condition deteriorated, but jail staff failed to call the ambulance service back to the facility.
“The Ottawa County jail staff and nurse mocked Mr. Ellis, laughed at him, stated he was faking it, and specifically told him they were not calling an ambulance,” the motion stated.
Several hours after paramedics left the jail, shortly after 9 p.m., Ellis started to call out to detention officers to ask for medical attention, video shows. He told them his legs were numb and he couldn’t get up to use the bathroom. Jailers told Ellis that Horn would be in to check on him the next morning.
About 15 minutes later, Ellis again called out for help.
“Hello, welcome to Ottawa County jail, how can I help you,” a detention officer responded. “You’re paralyzed now? Almost? OK.” The man chuckled and then sat back down at his desk.
About two hours later, Ellis called out to staff for a drink of water. However, jailers insisted that Ellis get up, leave the cell and walk to the restroom.
A detention officer opened Ellis’ cell door. “You can get up, they said there was nothing wrong with you,” the man said. “I’m not getting you anything, you’re going to get it yourself, man.”
In court records, lawyers for the county argued Ellis got up to use the bathroom three times throughout the night.
The next morning, Ellis’ pleas for help started to grow more frequent, video shows.
“Help! Help,” Ellis repeatedly shouted from his isolation cell.
Detention officers ignored Ellis and continued working at the jail’s booking desk, video shows. Ellis complained he couldn’t breathe.
“If you can’t breathe, how can you talk,” one employee said as she passed his cell.
About an hour later, Ellis called out “water, please,” video shows.
“Water? Yeah, I’ll get you some water,” a detention officer said.
Another jailer stopped him: “No, he can get up.”
The detention officer left Ellis’ cell door open for about five minutes to allow him to get his own water. Ellis didn’t get up, video shows.
A nurse report given to investigators stated Horn checked on Ellis at 9:45 a.m and that he “voiced no complaints” to her. However, Horn didn’t arrive at the jail until about 10:25 a.m., according to the video.
Instead of giving him medical attention, she yelled at Ellis, mocked him and accused him of faking his condition.
“Listen to me, shut up,” Horn said to Ellis. “We’ve had EMS come over and check you out, and they don’t think there’s nothing wrong with you.”
In court records, Horn’s lawyers stated that although her behavior was “regrettable, unprofessional, and certainly, not worthy of any accommodation” she did not intentionally disregard Ellis’ health.
“To the contrary, it supports an inference that Nurse Horn did not know Decedent had any acute, emergent, serious medical issue,” the records stated. Horn left her position at the jail in October 2018, according to a post on her Facebook page.
A couple hours after Horn spoke to Ellis, a trusty — an inmate who performs duties at the jail — went to Ellis’ cell and beckoned a jail employee to look inside.
“I don’t want to look in there,” the employee said.
“It looks like he’s dying,” the trusty said.
After about another hour had passed, a detention officer opened the cell and told Ellis the nurse wanted to talk to him. Ellis didn’t respond.
The detention officer walked away, put on a pair of black gloves and entered the cell. Horn followed shortly after, and stated in records that she was unable to obtain a blood pressure reading from him. Ellis was moaning loudly, video shows. The video does not give a view of the inside of Ellis’ cell.
A detention officer called an ambulance shortly before 2 p.m. Horn exited the cell and again returned with a blood pressure cuff.
Then, a trusty entered the cell with towels and a spray bottle, video shows. He then dragged out a mat Ellis had been laying on and wiped it down. In court records, lawyers for Ellis’ family stated the mat was soaked in urine.
About 10 minutes after staff called an ambulance, EMTs arrived at the jail. They entered Ellis’ cell and asked him to sit up. A few minutes later, medical professionals and jail staff carried Ellis out of the cell by his arms and legs, and placed him onto a gurney, the video shows. He was not moving.
Ellis suddenly became unresponsive and went into cardiac arrest at about 2:14 p.m., records show. EMTs started CPR on Ellis in the ambulance, according to the video, but he was pronounced dead about an hour later at a Miami hospital.
Though investigators several times told the medical examiner’s office Ellis had respiratory distress and “a bed sheet tied loosely around his neck,” his autopsy makes no mention of injuries to his neck.
In court records, lawyers for Ellis’ family have said they believed jail staff were trying to stage that Ellis died by suicide.
In an interview with The Frontier in 2016, then-Interim Sheriff Derek Derwin said the repeated mention of the cloth around Ellis’ was a mistaken assumption on the part of medical staff.
“Our nurse thought originally that he might have used that as a ligature,” because jail suicides are common, he said. It was not part of any effort to portray Ellis’ death as a suicide, he said.
The day after Ellis’ death, more than 15 inmates who were at the jail with him signed their names to a letter recounting his treatment at the facility.
“I can’t get this outta my head,” an inmate wrote. “He kept saying to me that he feels like he’s dieing (sic). He had a lot of friends in here that cared about him.”
He added: “For a couple days I helped (Ellis) he was using the restroom in cups because he could not !! (sic) get out of bed. … He told me about his son and that he did not want his son to grow up without a father. I told him that he would be fine.”
Tulsa-based law firm Smolen & Roytman is representing Ellis’ estate. In a statement on behalf of Ellis’ family, the firm said he “encountered terrible mistreatment” at the jail.
“Terral’s suffering and death were entirely preventable,” the statement said. “The Jail staff’s reckless — and at times, depraved — indifference to his serious medical needs is shocking, shameful and indefensible.”
At least 24 people died in the custody of Oklahoma jails in 2015, according to a database maintained by The Frontier. The Ottawa County jail reported another inmate death in October 2018, records show.
Terry Durborow was the Ottawa County sheriff when Ellis was at the jail in 2015. In a deposition, an attorney for Ellis’ family asked Durborow, who viewed the video from the facility, if Ellis “deserved to die like that.”
“No. Undoubtedly no,” Durborow said. “It was tragic.”