Family demands answers for death in holding cell Brooklyn man didn't get medical treatment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Angelina Griffin thought that having her husband arrested would save his life. Instead, Daniel Griffin died alone, sprawled on the floor of a holding cell -- even though a doctor reportedly had twice ordered treatment that might have kept him alive.

A correctional major suspected of disregarding the doctor has been placed on administrative leave while the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services investigates. Meanwhile, the family of a man they say had never been arrested before is demanding answers to the questions that linger about his death.

Griffin, 53, was a Brooklyn father of three who went to Mass every Sunday. He was at the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore on Ash Wednesday for one simple reason -- his wife called police when his alcoholism led him to threaten to shoot her.

Two internal investigations of Griffin's death Feb. 12 point the finger at a correctional major who, the investigators have reported, did not have Griffin taken to a penitentiary hospital even though a doctor had ordered it on a form that read, "Emergency." They found that he died several hours after the doctor had called the correctional major, Wallace C. Laster, again and directed him to call 911.

An investigation by Maryland State Police does not name Laster and leaves out details, but it found that "the medical staff determined that the victim needed to be hospitalized, and [he] was placed back in the cell awaiting transportation to the prison hospital."

According to sources familiar with two separate internal investigations, Laster has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of a third inquiry into the death, this one by the inspector general's office of the department. Laster did not respond to a letter left at his Randallstown home. An attempt to contact him through a lawyer who represented him on an unrelated matter also was unsuccessful.

Barbara Cooper, spokeswoman for the booking center, would not answer any questions about Griffin's death or Laster's job status. "The investigation is continuing because additional information is being pursued," she said, adding that the inquiry was expected to be finished within the week.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, declined to make department Secretary Bishop L. Robinson or LaMont W. Flanagan, the commissioner with responsibility for the booking center, available for interviews.

Before he lost his job as a security guard at St. Agnes Hospital a year ago, Griffin's drinking hadn't been a problem in years, according to his wife. But when he became unemployed, he slid back into alcohol again, she said. A proud man, he grew increasingly despondent. He didn't even tell his grown children from a previous marriage that he had been laid off.

He continued to attend Mass every Sunday at St. Rose of Lima parish and greet the Rev. Joseph M. O'Meara afterward. Last fall, he trimmed the church lawns.

"He just was a friendly guy," said O'Meara, who celebrated Griffin's funeral service. "To me, he's a classic example of somebody who has a serious problem that he can't handle, but deep down is a really wonderful guy."

At home, Griffin's problems were escalating. In December, he grabbed his wife by the hair and slammed her into a wall. On the afternoon of Feb. 11, he told Angelina Griffin he was going to shoot her, saying, "I'll put five holes in you." This time she called police, who found Griffin inside their home with a blanket over him and a .380-caliber pistol nearby. A police report says he told the officers: "I was just kidding, man."

Griffin was arrested on a charge of first-degree assault. His wife told the officers he was an alcoholic who had been drinking for several days. She said she told them he would suffer withdrawal symptoms if locked up for any length of time. "They said not to worry," Angelina Griffin said, "that they dealt with this all the time."

Court records and his family indicate that he had never been charged with a crime before.

On a temporary protective order Mrs. Griffin obtained the day of the arrest, the 56-year-old woman wrote that she wanted her husband to get counseling. She hoped the court system could halt her husband's downward spiral if she could not. "He did need help," Mrs. Griffin said later. "He just didn't want to hear it."

According to several sources, two separate internal investigations of Griffin's death have found that this is what happened after he was arrested:

Griffin arrived at the booking center the afternoon of the 11th. The next day he saw a court commissioner, who set bail at $25,000. Soon after that, Griffin was placed in a booth with several other inmates to be interviewed by a pretrial investigator. He became ill, throwing up blood.

Other prisoners summoned correctional officers, who took Griffin to the Central Booking dispensary. Dr. David Holliday determined that Griffin needed treatment for symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. He wrote out a transport order dictating that Griffin be taken to the Maryland Penitentiary hospital, where he could receive medication. On the form, the doctor checked a box labeled "Emergency" and gave it to Laster, the shift commander.

According to the sources, investigators reported that Laster looked at the form but determined he did not have anyone available to transport Griffin. Two hours later, officers noticed that Griffin was sick again. They took him back to the dispensary. This time, according to the sources, Holliday called the major and told him to call 911 to get Griffin to a hospital immediately.

Instead, Griffin was placed in holding cell 2C-15, according to a state police report. Three hours later, correctional officer Donna Clayton walked by the cell "and noticed the victim on the floor," State Police Sgt. Robert Perrot wrote in a report. "Officer Clayton opened the cell door and found the victim dead on the floor."

Griffin was pronounced dead at 6: 10 p.m.

Dr. David Fowler, an assistant medical examiner, conducted an autopsy and found that Griffin died a natural death, caused by cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular disease. At the time of Griffin's death, more than a day after he had been arrested, no alcohol was found in his system.

Fowler said yesterday that either condition could have killed Griffin, even if he had not been suffering from alcohol withdrawal. "Even with the best medical treatment, he may have died at this particular time," Fowler said. "But he may not have."

In his report, Perrot concluded that there had been no violation of criminal law in the case. Department administrators are investigating now to determine whether disciplinary actions against any staff members should be taken in connection with Griffin's death.

Reached at the Baltimore City Detention Center yesterday, Holliday declined to comment, referring inquiries to PHP Healthcare Corp., the private contractor that provides medical services in eight Baltimore jails and prisons. PHP project administrator David Thompson did not return a phone call.

Angelina Griffin said a social worker from the booking center called her to say her husband had died. Since then, she has received conflicting explanations of what happened. "They said he died from alcohol complications," she said. "The next day the police tell me he died peacefully in his sleep."

His wife and three children have been trying to find out whether his death could have been prevented. So far, they have seen only a short State Police report, which has left them with many questions. "The not knowing what happened in there is what's bothering me the most," said Sheila Gunkel of Pasadena, Griffin's 29-year-old daughter.

Angelina Griffin has had to grapple with guilt over calling the police in the first place. "Would this have happened if he hadn't been arrested?" she said. "I don't think so.

"He was a normal, hard-working person and he had problems and he started drinking. It could happen to anyone."

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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