This story is a part of Cell by Cell, The Frontier’s ongoing series tracking jail deaths in Oklahoma.
Before he died of pneumonia in the Atoka County Jail, Michael James Hoeppner appeared disoriented and short of breath. Hoeppner told a police officer he was tired and sick, according to police body camera footage of his arrest.
The Frontier obtained over an hour of body-camera footage of Hoeppner’s arrest and blood draw from the Tushka Police Department through an open records request.
A police officer in the southeastern Oklahoma town of Tushka arrested Hoeppner on suspicion of driving under the influence in March. Hoeppner, 60, a long-haul truck driver from Wisconsin, was passing through Oklahoma with a refrigerated truck at the time of his arrest.
In the video, Buddy Sanders, a Tushka police officer, told Hoeppner that several people had called 911 after they had seen Hoeppner’s white semi-trailer truck swerving across lanes on U.S. Route 69.
The body-camera footage shows Sanders pulled Hoeppner’s truck over just before 9 a.m. on March 8.
“The reason I stopped you, we got a whole bunch of 911 calls on your driving,” Sanders said.
“OK,” Hoeppner responded.
“I got behind you there and you was all over the road over here. Is there any reason you’re driving like that,” Sanders asked.
Hoeppner shook his head and paused for a moment.
“I’m just tired,” he said.
Sanders eventually arrested Hoeppner and took him to the Atoka County Medical Center for a blood draw to test for drugs or alcohol in his system.
Later, Hoeppner was booked into the Atoka County Jail. He was found dead in his cell less than 24 hours later. The state medical examiner’s office would later find Hoeppner had no drugs or alcohol in his system. He was just deathly ill.
Neither hospital staff or law enforcement seemed to recognize Hoeppner was having a medical emergency, even after Hoeppner told Sanders he was sick.
Responding to requests for comment about the nature of Hoeppner’s arrest, the Tushka Police Department directed The Frontier to an attorney for the town of Tushka. The attorney did not respond to requests for comment on Monday or Tuesday.
‘I’m sick right now’
The body camera footage shows Sanders gave Hoeppner three field sobriety tests, but the man was unable to complete any of them. Hoeppner appeared to struggle with the tests and would stagger when told to walk. When Sanders directed Hoeppner to stand on one foot, he almost fell over.
After the tests, Sanders placed Hoeppner under arrest. While walking to his police cruiser, Sanders asked whether Hoeppner was on any medications or had a disability.
“I have a CPAP machine, but that’s about it,” he replied.
Once in the police cruiser, Sanders again asked if Hoeppner was under the influence of any substance or had any “physical problems.”
“Well, I’m sick,” Hoeppner said.
Later, in the hospital parking lot, Hoeppner nearly fell over onto Sanders’ police cruiser after exiting the car.
“Let me ask you a question,” Sanders said. “Why are you staggering around so much if you’re not taking anything?”
“Well, I had leukemia,” Hoeppner said, “and I am sick right now.”
In the hospital lobby while waiting for an employee to take Hoeppner back into a room, Hoeppner began to wheeze and appeared to be trying to catch his breath. Sanders asked the man if he was going to throw up, but Hoeppner didn’t respond.
The video did not show Sanders telling hospital staff that Hoeppner said he was sick.
Medical forms provided by Hoeppner’s family show a nurse 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.
Fred Hoeppner, Michael Hoeppner’s brother, works as a registered nurse in a Wisconsin hospital. He said considering what his brother’s vitals were measured at, and because he told the officer he was sick, Michael Hoeppner should have never been allowed to leave the hospital.
Medical records with Michael Hoeppner’s vitals show his SpO2 level, which estimates the amount of oxygen in the blood, was measured at 90%. Typically, the normal levels range between 95% and 100%. When someone’s value is below 95%, it might be a sign of poor blood oxygenation.
Fred Hoeppner said his brother’s SpO2 level, along with his decreased level of consciousness, should have alerted hospital staff. He also pointed out that Sanders did not relay to nurses that his brother said he was sick, previously had leukemia or that he used a CPAP machine.
“We would have never let someone out of our hospital with an O2 of 90% and or decreased (level of consciousness),” Fred Hoeppner said in an email.
David Lively, chief nursing officer for Atoka County Medical Center, previously 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.
At the Atoka County Jail, Michael Hoeppner was placed in a detox cell to sober up. He marked on a form that he either had an allergy to the antibiotic Bactrim or that he had a prescription for the medication, according to an investigation report from the Oklahoma State Department of Health Jail Inspection Division. All other medical questions on the book-in sheet were marked as “No.”
The morning after he arrived at the jail, a detention officer found Hoeppner dead in his bunk.
The state medical examiner’s office found Hoeppner had no drugs or alcohol in his system — and determined that he had died of pneumonia caused by the flu.
State officials later cited the Atoka County Jail for failing to document regular sight checks on detainees the night of Hoeppner’s death.
Jail officials previously told The Frontier they were unaware Hoeppner had respiratory problems and used a CPAP machine for sleeping, which he kept in the cab of his truck.
Karl Hoeppner told The Frontier last month his older brother never drank.
“If they 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.”
Frontier staff writer Brianna Bailey contributed to this story.