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Mentally ill inmate starved to death at Las Vegas jail, lawsuit alleges

Updated January 15, 2024 - 9:57 am

Fernando Martinez Jr. lost 64 pounds over 77 days before he died while incarcerated at the Clark County Detention Center without receiving proper medical treatment, according to a federal lawsuit.

The wrongful death lawsuit, filed Dec. 29 on behalf of Martinez’s mother, Sonia Esparza, alleges that jail staff and Wellpath LLC, the company in charge of medical care at the detention center, failed to ensure that Martinez was eating and drinking even through staff knew that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was self-inducing vomiting and was not taking his prescribed medicine.

“I think it’s pretty much a systemic problem with CCDC and Wellpath,” said attorney Peter Goldstein, who filed the suit on behalf of Esparza.

Esparza, who works as a housekeeper, raised Martinez as a single mother and lived with him his whole life. She took care of him through his severe mental illness, Goldstein said.

“She’s grieving very, very deeply,” he said. “They were very close.”

According to the lawsuit, jail staff were aware of Martinez’s diagnoses and deteriorating mental health because of court orders and his history of past detentions at the jail.

“Defendants failed to address Martinez Jr.’s state of starvation and dehydration, a medical urgency that could clearly be seen as Martinez Jr. was losing a concerning amount of weight each week/month,” Goldstein wrote in the complaint. “Defendants are responsible for Martinez Jr.’s death, a tragedy that could have been avoided if adequate housing, monitoring, treatment, and care had been provided.”

Wellpath has been in charge of medical care at the jail since 2019, and has faced dozens of lawsuits across the country in recent years, according to the lawsuit. The company was the subject of a 2019 investigation by CNN that found that Wellpath was tied to lawsuits arising from more than 70 deaths in a five-year period.

Wellpath did not respond to request for comment on Friday. The Metropolitan Police Department, which operates the jail and is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

Martinez wasn’t supposed to be at the jail when he died, the lawsuit alleges. He had been deemed incompetent in January 2023, less than a month after he was booked into the jail, and a judge ordered him to be sent to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment. But delays in transfers for competency treatment kept him at the jail, unable to be released on bail while he awaited trial.

“They didn’t do anything, they let him stay there for another month before he died,” Goldstein said.

Those delays have been ongoing in the court system for nearly a decade, but increased wait times like in Martinez’s case have led to a judge issuing contempt orders against the Division of Public and Behavioral Health. The Nevada Supreme Court has upheld the contempt orders, resulting in the state paying more than $83,000 in fines.

On Feb. 14, more than a month after he was deemed incompetent, Martinez was seen stumbling, with an “abnormal appearance in his eyes” and dilated pupils, Goldstein wrote in the complaint.

Martinez had previously reported being paranoid about the food he was served, believing it was poison, and his cellmate reported that Martinez sometimes forced himself to vomit after eating.

Martinez did not leave his bunk when dinner was served that afternoon, and he was seen “sleeping without snoring,” the lawsuit said. More than three hours later, a corrections officer walked into Martinez’s cell and found him unresponsive.

Attempts at CPR were unsuccessful. Martinez had been dead for so long that rigor mortis was set in his jaw, according to the lawsuit.

Jail employees failed to provide Martinez with adequate housing, the lawsuit stated, failed to create a food log to monitor Martinez’s food intake or humanely force-feed him when he was “starving” and refusing to eat, and failed to adequately train their employees on how to care for mentally ill inmates.

“The Defendants’ conduct amounted to reckless disregard for Martinez Jr.’s health and safety and was therefore objectively unreasonable,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also calls into question Martinez’s autopsy report, noting that although the Clark County coroner’s office ruled that he died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, the report “showed the cardiovascular system to be unremarkable.” Goldstein alleged that Martinez instead starved to death.

“It was the Defendants’ inadequate medical and mental health attention, malpractice, and lack of due care that caused Martinez Jr. to die,” the lawsuit said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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