A security gate at the Cherokee County detention center, in Murphy, N.C. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press
A security gate at the Cherokee County Detention Center, in Murphy. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

An autopsy released by the N.C. Office of the Medical Examiner says Joshua Shane Long’s death last summer, after he was held in the Cherokee County Detention Center in Murphy for several hours, resulted from a methamphetamine overdose.

The amount of methamphetamine in his blood listed in the autopsy report is “extremely high,” according to Dr. Don Teater, a Waynesville-based physician who specializes in addiction treatment and mental health.

The amount of the drug that a postmortem toxicology report found in Long’s system raises doubts about whether all of it entered Long’s system prior to his arrest more than five hours earlier, according to Teater.

“It seems likely that (Long) did ingest a large dose of meth while in custody,” Teater said. “He probably took a very large dose.”

Scientific literature shows that the amount of methamphetamine in the blood peaks after about two or three hours after use, Teater said.

When asked about the doctor’s conclusion, Cherokee County Sheriff Derrick Palmer did not say Teater was wrong.

“I have my theory as to what happened,” he wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press on Wednesday. “… My fear is that I might contaminate the (State Bureau of Investigation) investigation by providing theories when I was not the one who investigated it.”

Records from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office show Long collapsed more than five hours after he was arrested, and he was pronounced dead roughly two hours after that.

Teater said Long had more than 10 times a fatal dose of methamphetamine in his system, after reviewing the autopsy report Wednesday at Carolina Public Press’ request.

Given how long the inmate was in custody and the amount of meth in Long’s system, it is unlikely that he had that level of meth in his blood “without taking more in the jail,” Teater said.

Drug use in jail is not uncommon, but the substances are clearly forbidden.

Detained at the jail

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Long at 5:45 p.m. July 11, 2018, after calls to 911 about a man acting erratically and screaming. Officers who arrived at the scene reported that Long was there and matched the callers’ description.

Officers booked Long into the detention center to be held on several misdemeanor charges, including resisting a public officer, a drug count and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

Palmer has said responding officers thought they saw Long swallow a pill while holding a breath mint tin, but Long denied it was an illegal substance.

Magistrate Joe Bateman visited the jail that evening to see Long’s condition for himself. Bateman had previously served for 20 years as a police officer. Bateman said Long appeared to him to be impaired on some substance, but he wasn’t sure what.

Long was held with a secured bond, meaning it required a responsible adult to get him out of the jail, Bateman explained to Carolina Public Press last month.

Former detention officer Tom Taylor talked with CPP about the case last year, criticizing how Long was booked and detained.

The so-called breath mint should have been a red flag, Taylor said.

“If (Long) ingested something, he shouldn’t have even been in that jail,” Taylor told CPP in an Aug. 31 interview. “If he ingested something, he should have been on 24-hour watch. But really, they shouldn’t have even accepted him.”

Records received by Carolina Public Press do not indicate that Long was seen by jail medical staff or given a proper examination before being booked there.

More than five hours after Long was arrested, an officer making rounds past Long’s cell noticed that the inmate had collapsed. After retrieving the keys to the cell, officers said they could find no pulse and observed that Long wasn’t breathing. As he lay unconscious on the floor, the second-in-command at the Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy Mark Thigpen, worked the phones to get Long’s bond unsecured.

With an unsecured bond, an inmate could walk out of the jail on a promise to appear in court at the appointed time. After more than an hour, the bond paperwork was signed, and Long was flown to a Knoxville, Tenn., hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:21 a.m. July 12.

Cause of death

Last summer, about a week after Long’s death, Sheriff Palmer said he had received a preliminary oral report that there was “no obvious cause of death and they did not find any obvious trauma to Mr. Long.”

The autopsy report generally confirms this assessment.

The report says Long had a scuff on his left cheek, perhaps from when he collapsed to the floor, said Dr. Lawrence Selby, a pathologist at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva who completed Long’s autopsy shortly after Long died.

Selby likened the cheek abrasion to a rug burn.

“We looked for deeper injuries and we didn’t find anything,” Selby said.

The autopsy also shows Long did not have any other illegal drugs in his system. Amphetamines are listed as present, but that is expected since methamphetamine metabolizes into amphetamines in the body, Teater said.

After Long died, the SBI opened a probe into why, which is common for in-custody deaths. The SBI turned its investigation findings over to District Attorney Ashley Welch in mid-November.

Kelly Oaks, assistant special agent in charge of the SBI’s western district office in Asheville, said the SBI looks for excessive force for in-custody deaths and whether the death was related to law enforcement actions or whether it was a natural death.

She declined to speak specifically about Long’s case.

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Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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