Jennifer Lobato's Jail Death: Sheriff Admits She Didn't Need to Die

Today, a funeral will be held for Jennifer Lobato, a 38-year-old mother of seven who died in Jefferson County jail.

She needn't have. In a highly unusual admission, Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader is now publicly conceding that had she received timely medical care for what attorney David Lane, who is representing Lobato's family, describes as heroin withdrawal, she would likely still be alive today.

Lane is pleasantly surprised by Shrader's acknowledgment, but absolutely incensed by Lobato's needless death, especially considering that in December, a jury awarded former inmate Ken McGill $11 million for substandard medical care in the Jeffco jail.

"The same medical people and the same sheriff's department just got tagged," Lane says, "and $10 million of the verdict were punitive damages designed to teach them a lesson they'd never forget and make sure this kind of thing never happened again. And just a few months later, the same scenario is replaying itself with exactly the same entities involved."

Here's how Lane describes what took place after Lobato was booked into the Jeffco detention center on March 1.

"Jennifer got arrested for shoplifting," he says, "and she was suffering from heroin withdrawal. My best guess at this point is that she didn't want to get in trouble for being a drug user, so she denied using drugs upon intake.

"But she was getting sicker and sicker — and that morning, she told a deputy that she was in heroin withdrawal. That deputy alerted medical, who did nothing."

As time went on, other women in custody tried raising the alarm about Lobato's declining condition, Lane continues.

"I've interviewed eight inmates in her unit, all of whom were pushing emergency buttons, saying, 'Guards, get her help. She's in withdrawal.'

"Jennifer was vomiting from approximately eight o'clock that morning until she died at seven o'clock that night. It was virtually nonstop."

Nonetheless, Lane goes on, "medical never responded, medical never did anything."

Jail personnel were more active, but not in what Lane sees as a positive manner.

"The guards were telling the inmates, 'Bitches, we run this jail, not you. We decide when she gets medical, not you.'

"In fact, so many inmates pushed the emergency buttons so many times that the guards finally came in and said, 'You want our attention? You've got it. We're now going to shake down all of your cells.'"

As a result, Lane says, "the guards were writing up people for having too many socks or not wearing a wrist band appropriately, while Jennifer Lobato was begging for help and dying in the neighboring cell."

This kind of incident is hardly unprecedented. Lane points out that his firm consulted on the Ken McGill case and represented the families of Emily Rice and Christopher Lopez, both of whom died in custody.

Rice's family reportedly received a combined $7 million from the City of Denver and Denver Health, while Lopez's family was awarded $3 million by the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Does Jeffco sheriff Shrader see the Lobato case heading down this kind of path? He didn't make such an explicit statement in an interview with CBS4, which has done an excellent job of covering the Lobato case (the station's original report on the incident is on view below) — but he spoke about the situation with the kind of frankness that's exceedingly rare under these circumstances.

When asked if Lobato needed to die in jail, Shrader responded, "No, no." He also revealed that one deputy told an inmate trying to get help for Lobato, "That will be a lesson to you, Chavez: Don't do drugs."

“We’ve learned there were numerous opportunities of missed communication," Shrader added. "The communication between the deputy staff and between deputies and the medical unit could have been more demanding. The communication amongst deputies could have been more clear. The communication with the medical unit could have been more clear.”

Shrader was "bothered by the misses in communication" and "the off-the-cuff statements that appear callous. I’m bothered by those."

Lane's take on Shrader's remarks? "I think this is a possibly a breath of fresh air, where law enforcement is actually taking responsibility for their actions."

Thus far, Lane has not filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lobato's family. He's agreed to wait until the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office completes its investigation — but he's been in communication with the county attorney's office and anticipates more action in the future.

In the meantime, Lane says Lobato's funeral service is scheduled for today — and her family is struggling with expenses in the wake of her death.

Here's the introduction to page entitled "Support Jennifer Lobato's Family:"
Jennifer Lobato had been in custody for little more than 24 hours before she died in her jail cell, despite multiple requests for medical attention. Even after Jennifer had been seen on the floor of her cell uncontrollably vomiting by jail guards, jail medical staff denied her emergency medical care.

Jennifer Lobato left behind a family, including children. They are now saddled with the debt of the funeral expenses, and specifically buying a headstone for her. We need to mobilize to help Jennifer's family come up with the needed funds. Let's bless Jennifer's family the same way our communities have come together to bless others killed by indifferent law enforcement agencies in the Denver metro area.
At this writing, just over $500 has been pledged toward a $1,500 goal. For more information, click here.

Below, see a CBS4 report about Lobato's death.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.