The family of Russell Fincham filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, July 9, alleging that Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office officers and the jail’s former healthcare provider could have prevented him from dying.

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The family of a 25-year-old Charlotte man who died inside the Mecklenburg County jail has alleged that detention officers were “nonchalant” as their son cycled through signs of fentanyl intoxication and opioid withdrawal days after being arrested.

They also allege Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden suggested he covers up jail issues when he “vented his frustrations” about his staff’s failure to update him.

“You don’t find out the same day it happened . . you find out two weeks when it happened, and then I have to cover it up . . . I have to deal with and then I got to say this is what happened y’all,” McFadden allegedly said, according to the lawsuit.

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Russell Fincham’s parents, in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the sheriff, the county and the jail’s former healthcare provider, say jail workers were “nonchalant” when they discovered their son cycling through fits of distress, and failed to provide immediate emergency medical attention.

Fincham, according to the lawsuit, told a Wellpath nurse working in the jail he was “a daily user of fentanyl.” He said he had “consumed five Xanax bars and one-half gram of fentanyl” on July 3, 2022 — the day he was arrested and charged with two counts of breaking and entering a motor vehicle and two counts of misdemeanor larceny.

On July 5, 2022, officers conducting rounds missed seven mandated direct observations of Fincham, according to the lawsuit.

That evening, he spent all night vomiting two gallons of a black substance into Styrofoam cups and a bucket next to his bed. The next morning, a nurse took his vitals are reported low blood pressure from Fincham, who “appeared lifeless and in physical distress” as a blood pressure meter cuffed his wrist.

At that point — 7:58 a.m. on July 6, 2022 — officers and nurses should have administered the life-saving overdose reversal drug Narcan, according to jail policy, the lawsuit says.

Instead, it was administered at 8:29 a.m, and Fincham died at 8:59 a.m.

The lawsuit, which references jail documents and video, names McFadden and several on-duty detention officers. It also names Wellpath — the jail’s former healthcare provider — and several nurses.

Fincham’s parents, represented by Micheal L. Littlejohn Jr., Ronard Dixon Jr. and M. Anthony Burts II, are requesting a trial by jury.

Following Fincham’s death, the fifth Charlotte jail death of 2022, McFadden in a statement said: “It is devastating to report the death of this young resident who was in our custody and care. We send our deepest condolences to his family during this difficult time.”

State-led investigations into recent deaths have concluded staffing shortages in the Mecklenburg jail likely contributed to safety violations at the time of death in at least three of the recent cases, The Charlotte Observer has previously reported.

The lawsuit alleges that McFadden “vented his frustrations to his staff about their failure to provide him with timely reports regarding issues in the jail.”

According to the lawsuit: “Sheriff McFadden stated, ‘if you really know what all goes on instead of what people telling you, you’ll be a little upset too . . . because when you find out, you don’t find out the same day it happened . . you find out two weeks when it happened, and then I have to cover it up . . . I have to deal with and then I got to say this is what happened y’all . . .’”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for North Carolina’s Western District.

Bradley Smith, a spokesperson for the sheriff, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office does not discuss or comment on pending litigation,” Smith said in an email.

Nashville-based Wellpath didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Wellpath, sheriff have been sued before

Wellpath has a history of being sued for its work in North Carolina’s jails.

Last year the Observer reported on a case in Rowan County where Wellpath’s nurses were accused of ignoring David Ryan Wood’s brain injury for weeks. They gave him Tylenol, put him on a liquid diet and told him to rest, according to a federal lawsuit.

Wood will “never be the same,” it says. His cognitive function, memory and hearing were all permanently and severely damaged, the lawsuit says.

Wellpath often settles lawsuits confidentially, the Observer found.

In May the company’s contract with the Mecklenburg County jail ended early. Wellpath was “grappling with the economic realities, cost increases, and nationwide nursing shortages resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the company said earlier this year.

A pattern of ‘deliberate indifference’

The lawsuit alleges that McFadden had a policy of “deliberate indifference” toward state rules that require detention officers to supervise inmates.

Jail staff would routinely scan their badges — logging a supervision round — but not actually check on each inmate in a holding pod, the lawsuit alleges. And when an inmate faced a medical emergency, jail staff routinely declined to help them, it says.

And McFadden failed to discipline detention officers who fell short, the suit alleges. Eventually, it became a sort of “unwritten policy.”

There have been other deaths at the Charlotte jail with similar circumstances, the complaint notes: Michael Trent in 2019; Michael Mangan in 2020; Karon Golightly and John Devin Haley in 2021; Francine Laney, William Rhinesmith and Derrick Geter in 2022.

The sheriff has criticized state jail inspectors in recent months, and said that they hold his jail to an unfair standard when reviewing the rounds his guards make. At an April press conference, he derided the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees jail inspectors, and one inspector in particular.

Ryan Oehrli writes about public safety and criminal justice for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked at the Asheville Citizen Times. A North Carolina native, he grew up in Little Washington.

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Julia Coin covers local and federal courts and legal issues after previously working as a breaking news reporter for the Observer. Julia has reported on fentanyl in local schools, the aftermath of police shootings and crime trends in Charlotte, and she occasionally photographs and reviews local concerts.. Michigan-born and Florida-raised, she studied journalism at the University of Florida, where she covered statewide legislation, sexual assault on campus and Hurricane Ian’s destruction.
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