Autopsy: Inmate died from alcohol withdrawal
by Anna Oakes
Watauga Democrat on March 18 received a copy of the autopsy report, dated March 7, for Bobby Lee Ward, who was found dead in his cell on Oct. 14, 2013, after being last being seen alive by jailers 15 minutes earlier, a report filed with the state indicated. At the time, the report listed Ward's death as "natural" with the cause unknown.
Ward's autopsy was performed at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem on Oct. 15. The report lists the cause of death as "complications of alcohol withdrawal due to chronic ethanolism" and lists chronic heart disease as an additional significant condition.
"According to investigative reports, the decedent had a history of chronic alcoholism and was found unresponsive in his jail cell on Oct. 14," the report stated. "Following incarceration he had been sweating and had experienced convulsions. He was arrested on Oct. 11 for a probation violation."
Ward's criminal history indicates he was convicted in March 2013 of criminal contempt.
Sheriff Len Hagaman said last fall that Ward was being held in a special cell with full-time camera surveillance because of a medical condition. He said jailers immediately administered CPR after finding Ward unresponsive, and the autopsy report indicated that resuscitation-related rib fractures were present.
The report filed last fall said Ward was found unresponsive in his cell at 8 a.m. and that medics were called to the jail at 8:08 a.m. He was later pronounced dead at Watauga Medical Center.
Toxicology tests detected no alcohol in Ward's system, but did indicate the presence of diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan), which are medications for anxiety and seizures, as well as promethazine, a medication for nausea and vomiting. According to medical sources, all three medications may be used to treat symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
The autopsy report also states that "no pathological lesion was identifiable in his brain to explain his seizures."
According to the National Institute of Health, alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically peak between 24 and 72 hours of a person's last drink. A severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens can cause agitation, fever, hallucinations, seizures and severe confusion and may lead to death.
The institute advises that people with moderate to severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may need inpatient treatment at a hospital or other facility and recommends calling 911 or going to the emergency room if seizures, fever, severe confusion, hallucinations or irregular heartbeats occur.
Stacy "Four" Eggers IV, attorney for Watauga County, said Friday that pursuant to federal HIPAA regulations, "we are not allowed by law to comment on Mr. Ward's medical status, medications or medical history."
Eggers noted that the State Bureau of Investigation investigates all deaths that occur in custody of law enforcement and "determined that our detention staff followed all appropriate steps and protocols."
"Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Ward family in their loss," Eggers said.
Eggers did not respond as of presstime Saturday to questions about the protocols in place for assessing the medical needs of inmates admitted at the Watauga Detention Center.
N.C. Department of Justice spokeswoman Noelle Talley said last week that "the SBI has the autopsy report now and expects to wrap up the investigation within the next couple of weeks." The SBI report would then go to the office of District Attorney Jerry Wilson for review, she said.
Family members of Ward expressed doubts that he received the care he needed while in custody. Johnny Clay Ward, Bobby Ward's brother, said that Bobby had been hospitalized for delirium tremens in the recent past.
"Don't send a man to jail after he went to the hospital for DTs -- send him to detox," Johnny Ward said. "He didn't deserve what he got."
Johnny Ward is also facing possible prison time for unlawful possession of a firearm.
Kay Cornett of Bethel, who is Bobby Ward's cousin, said Ward had been in and out of jail and that "they knew he was an alcoholic." Cornett said she was aware that Ward had been prescribed medication for blood pressure, but did not know if he required other medications. She said a family member who saw Ward at the jail prior to his death said he was complaining that "his heart was hurting."
"He had just got out of the hospital not long before that with some health problems," she said. "I don't think they took proper care of him."
Cornett said she was close with Ward growing up, and that he was survived by two daughters.
"He was a good guy, other than he had the problem," she said. "He was always good to me."