What happened to Terral? Family questions suspicious Ottawa County jail death

The District Attorney responded to a records request by The Frontier: "No records held by the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office concerning the death of Terral Ellis, are subject to public inspection."

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Terral Ellis. Courtesy
Terral Ellis. Courtesy

Terral Ellis’s grandpa told him to get right with the law, and he finally listened.

In October 2015, Ellis turned himself in on an Ottawa County warrant for failure to appear in court months earlier on a DUI charge. He knew it meant heading straight to jail.

No one expected him to die there.

Ellis died Oct. 22 while in custody at the Ottawa County jail. He had complained of pain in his back, ribs and internal organs. Jailers noted he had a history of drug abuse and seizures, and twice called an ambulance, but Ellis wasn’t taken to a hospital until he was dying.

The 26-year-old was examined by jail medical staff and put in a solitary cell where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. He left a phone message for his grandpa begging for an appointment and money to go to a chiropractor for his back pain.

According to Ellis’s autopsy, investigators told the medical examiner’s office “he was found alone in his cell with acute respiratory distress,” and “a bed sheet tied loosely around his neck.”

This bedsheet detail was repeated several times as the investigation into Ellis’s death began, records show.

The problem with that? Ellis died of sepsis and pneumonia.

A puzzling message

On Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 at 1:25 p.m., Ellis left a voicemail message for his grandfather:

“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… 540-1521. 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.”

The message was left on his grandfather’s cell phone, and it wasn’t discovered until after Ellis died. Now his family wants to know if something did happen to him at the jail, and how it may have caused or contributed to his death.

Since Ellis’ death, his family has heard numerous explanations for what happened: He had fallen several days earlier, he had seizures, he may have been assaulted. Was he injured and never properly treated, they wonder?

Other inmates who were in the jail at that time have told them Ellis was sick and jailers were refusing to treat him, saying he was faking illnesses to get medications.

He couldn’t make it to the bathroom, inmates observed.

The day before he died, an ambulance was called to the jail for Ellis, but medical records provided to The Frontier by his family show he remained at the jail.

Medical records obtained by his family show emergency medical personnel found him lying on the floor of a cell, with “small bruising on his right ribs, which the (patient) stated came from a fall about a week ago.”

Ellis told the ambulance crew he thought his ribs were broken.

“(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 told the EMTs that “he couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, that he had been peeing in a cup, and someone was emptying it for him.”

The report continues: “At this time, a guard pulled me aside and stated 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 reportedly told them he’d been seen by the jail nurse earlier in the day and given ibuprofen for his rib pain.

“One of the guards then stated (Ellis) would be put into a holding cell in view of the guard desk and checked on every fifteen minutes, and if anything changed with the (patient) that EMS would be called back immediately, and that the nurse would contact the (doctor) to come in” to look at Ellis in the morning.

The guards told Ellis he couldn’t call his grandfather again, and he reportedly grew agitated and threw a blood pressure cuff, asking to be taken back to the holding cell. The ambulance records note that the inmate couldn’t sign the refusal of treatment paperwork because he’d been taken to a holding cell. The ambulance returned to service.

Hospital records provided by the family to The Frontier show the ambulance was called to the jail on the day of Ellis’ death “because of back pain.” It was called to the Ottawa County jail about 1:50 p.m. and arrived within eight minutes.

The hospital narrative continues: “He reportedly had a seizure yesterday. EMS reported to the scene at that time but he was fine so they did not transport him. He reportedly has been refusing food and water but did eat breakfast this morning. When EMS arrived he was awake and talking to them. They report that he had a sheet tied around his neck loosely.”

Records from the Quapaw Tribe ambulance service also note “patient was found with blanket wrapped around his neck but not tightly according to a woman.”

“The blanket was removed and patient started complaining of back pain. She notified 911,” according to the ambulance service report.

Those records note that “upon loading patient into ambulance, he had an abrupt change in level of responsiveness.”

At 2:14 p.m., records show, Ellis suddenly became unresponsive and lifesaving measures began. He was finally taken to a Miami hospital.

For almost an hour, hospital staff attempted to revive him before he was declared dead, records show.

“There were so many missed opportunities to help Terral,” said his cousin, Shawna Sartin. “How was he so ill that he wasn’t able to get up? He needed to be on an IV, not in a jail cell.”

She and her family are puzzled as to why none of the jail staff or medical personnel recognized how sick Ellis was.

“Why wouldn’t they help Terral?”

Official stories

A few weeks after Ellis’ death, The Frontier requested all records related to his custody, including the jail’s incident report of his death.

Sheriff Terry Durburow responded in a letter that “after consulting Ottawa County District Attorney Kenneth Wright, it is his opinion that no records held by the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office concerning the death of Terral Ellis, are subject to public inspection… in accordance with the Oklahoma Open Records Act.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Health’s jail inspection division is investigating Ellis’ death, as it does all deaths in the state’s county jails. A spokesman for the department said the investigation remains open and the report has not yet been completed.

Durborow announced his retirement in December at an Ottawa County Commissioners meeting. One of the county commissioners told the Miami News Record at the time: “Terry has done a fantastic job. We haven’t had to worry too much about the jail.”

Interim Sheriff Derek Derwin took over in January. A new sheriff will be elected in June.

Derwin’s name appears on the incident report from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s office that Ellis’ family provided to The Frontier. He also issued a statement to the local paper when Ellis died.

He told The Frontier he has been advised by the district attorney not to discuss the case, due to a notice that Ellis’ family intends to pursue civil litigation.

“Certainly his death was untimely,” Derwin said. “It’s unfortunate and I’m sorry for their loss. Looking for their records and what… maybe there’s something else we could have done?”

Derwin defended the response by the Sheriff’s Office.

“We did call in outside medical. We had our nurse look at him. The hospital elected not to transport and treat him. Any decision to treat or not to treat him is up to the EMT or hospital.”

Derwin disputed that official records contained details about a “blanket” or “bedsheet” found wrapped around Ellis’ neck, until The Frontier read him several of the reports that include that detail.

Though the autopsy states that information was supplied by investigators, the medical examiner recorded no injuries to Ellis’ neck.

Derwin said that was simply a mistaken inference on the part of medical staff who saw part of a blanket on him.

“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.

Because Mark Garrett, Ellis’ uncle, is running for Ottawa County Sheriff, some (including Derwin) have suggested that their quest to find answers in Terral’s death is politically motivated. But records show Garrett launched his campaign months before Ellis turned himself in and died while in jail custody.

Sartin said Garrett, who is her father, ran for sheriff “because he understood the then-current Sheriff Durburow did not plan to run again, and he also had concerns about the competence levels of those who might run when the sheriff retired and how things were being conducted within the administration.”

“The mistreatment of Terral just confirmed his concerns and strengthened his resolve to bring about change for the better in Ottawa County,” she said.

Terral Ellis. Courtesy
Terral Ellis pictured with his son a few years ago. Family members said he was trying to turn his life around so he could be a better father to his son, now 4 years old. Courtesy

They’re simply trying to find out what happened to her cousin, she said. When they viewed his body at the funeral home, there were massive bruises on his torso. The bruises are visible in photos they showed The Frontier.

Before Ellis’ death, he’d been living in Miami with his grandpa. He’d grown addicted to K2, and his life had spiraled out of control. When he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, he was driving on a suspended license.

“Terral wasn’t perfect,” Sartin said. “He was an addict.”

But he finally wanted to own up to his mistakes and put the past behind him. He was working to to turn his life around so he could be a better father to his 4-year-old son, she said.

Jail staff never called Ellis’ emergency contact or any family to tell them he was ill, Sartin said. They were only notified after he was taken to the hospital where he died.

It was too late, Sartin said.

“Something clearly happened to him in that jail,” she said.

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Cary Aspinwall

Creative Director / Staff Writer

During more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, Cary has written about everything from reality TV stars to inmates on death row. She's twice been named Great Plains Writer of the Year and was recently honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. Contact: cary@readfrontier.com or 918-928-5835.
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