Justin Stieb: Video Contradicts Offical Version of Delta Jail Death

Alone in an observation cell, Justin Stieb waves at the camera in an effort to summon officers fifteen minutes before his fatal collapse on August 16, 2014.
Alone in an observation cell, Justin Stieb waves at the camera in an effort to summon officers fifteen minutes before his fatal collapse on August 16, 2014. Delta County Sheriff's Office
A heavily edited cellhouse video that depicts the fatal collapse of an inmate at the Delta County Detention Facility is a key piece of evidence in a lawsuit brought by the inmate's family against several jail employees — both because of what it shows and what it doesn't show.

Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee has said that jail staff did everything they could to try to help Justin Stieb, 37, who died in custody in 2014. After suffering three grand mal seizures in a nine-hour period, Stieb had been placed in an observation cell, where he was supposed to be closely monitored by camera and by staff making rounds. He suffered a fourth seizure in that cell and never recovered; an autopsy report states that he died of natural causes.

But the video recording turned over to the family's attorney raises several questions about the official version of Stieb's death. The recording isn't continuous footage, but a series of episodes, with significant and unexplained time lapses surrounding Stieib's seizure and the efforts to revive him that followed. The digital time stamp of the footage indicates a twenty-minute gap from the time Stieb collapses until deputies tentatively enter the cell to check on him, even though those events appear on the edited video as nearly instantaneous. By the time paramedics arrive, Stieb has evidently been deceased for some time. The video also shows Stieb banging on the door, waving at the camera and trying to summon deputies, without success, in the minutes leading up to his death.

"I would like to see a raw video with continuous footage, without these time lapses," says Blake Embry, the attorney representing Stieb's widow and mother in the lawsuit. "So far I haven't been provided with one."

Toni Benevento, Stieb's mother, says that her son had suffered from a seizure disorder since he was fifteen. He'd been incarcerated before, on minor theft and drug charges, and Benevento always made sure the jail staff were made aware of his condition and provided with his medication. A few days before his death, Stieb had begun serving a work-release sentence for theft. In the early hours of August 16, 2014, he had a seizure and was found by deputies on the floor beside his bunk. At first Stieb refused an ambulance, but he was transported to a local emergency room a couple of hours later after he reportedly hit his head on a metal pole during a second seizure.

Later that morning, Stieb was released from the hospital and taken to an isolation cell at the Delta County Detention Facility. After staff observed him fall from his bed and engage in what was later described as "unusual body movements," a staff nurse was summoned. According to internal documents, the nurse told deputies that she was "confident" Stieb wasn't having a third seizure but merely faking one. Still, he was moved to an "at-risk" cell, where he could be closely monitored.

The crucial video footage of the at-risk cell turned over to attorney Embry starts at 2:53 p.m. Stieb is restless and evidently in some distress, pulling at his shorts, pacing and agitated, occasionally falling down. He bangs on the door, throws a plastic water bottle at it, and signals to the camera, but no one responds. Or do they? There's an abrupt ten-minute gap in the footage at 3:13, and then comes the scene excerpted above: At 3:27 p.m., Stieb sits on a mat on the floor, lies down, then abruptly rolls over onto the floor, face down; after a few seconds, his limbs are flailing in another seizure. The scene then skips twenty minutes ahead: Two deputies enter the cell, leave, then return with a defibrillator. One of them spends some time studying the device and placing pads on Stieb's chest, but no electrical charge or chest compressions are administered.

What happened during the missing twenty minutes? Nothing, quite possibly. In written reports obtained as part of the sheriff's own investigation of the death, two deputies claimed to have seen Stieb moving on camera around 3:40 or 3:45 p.m. But his body is basically in the same position at 3:49 (when the deputies enter, a little over a minute into the version provided above) as it was at 3:29, and a timeline prepared by a jail captain who reviewed the raw footage doesn't indicate that anyone manning the cameras noted Stieb's fourth seizure or his subsequent immobility during that entire period. The jail was dealing with visitors and a shift change at the same time that Stieb collapsed; it was an employee just coming on duty who decided to check on him at last.

Benevento and Stieb's wife, Tamara Knob, had come to the jail to visit him less than an hour before he died but had been turned away at the door; they were told he'd already had a visitor that day. When the officers arrived at her home that night to tell her that her son had died, "it didn't seem real," Benevento recalls. "I'd been taking care of him all those years. Practically every seizure he ever had, I was there. He didn't like to be alone, and he died alone."

A nurse for 25 years herself, Benevento believes the jail nurse who dismissed Stieb's earlier seizure that day as "fake" needs to learn more about how people having seizures behave. "Justin had an aura about his seizures," she says. "He would hear music before they came on. [The jail staff] knew who he was. They knew he had seizures. He'd just had one. Why weren't they prepared?"

Knob says there's a great deal about her husband's death that she would like to find out. "At this point, I want to know how long he was in that cell and if they even tried to see if he was okay," she says.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast