A Minnesota nurse is speaking out about the circumstances surrounding the death of a Black inmate who died while being held at the Beltrami County Jail in 2018. Stephanie Lundblad, a nurse practitioner, had just begun working at the jail in Bemidji around the time that 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell arrived on Aug. 24, 2018. Sherrell walked into the jail without any apparent problems and was captured on surveillance footage joking around with a corrections officer in an elevator.
On Aug. 24 “my son walked into the jail healthy,” said Sherrell’s mother, Del Shea Perry. On Sept. 2, Sherrell was pronounced dead.
Over a matter of days, Sherrell’s health rapidly deteriorated as he suffered the effects of a rare autoimmune disease, losing his ability to walk and suffering from excruciating pain. Though he begged jail staffers to listen to him, they accused him of feigning his symptoms, including paralysis.
“My baby suffered not for nine minutes and 29 seconds, but for six days he cried for his life. He pleaded for them to help him,” said Perry, adding that her son was in relatively good spirits despite facing about five years in prison for unlawful possession of a firearm.
“I felt like I had witnessed a murder,” Lundblad told KARE11 News in May.
Lundblad was a new employee at MEnD Correctional Care at the time of Sherrell’s death. Founded in 2006, the company has contracts with jails across Minnesota to provide health care to incarcerated individuals.
According to Lundblad, before she encountered Sherrell, an unidentified nurse had recommended to MEnD CEO Dr. Todd Leonard that he be taken to an emergency room. However, a jail administrator vetoed the directive, claiming Sherrell was trying to escape.
Related Story: Beltrami County sued for Black man’s death while in custody
On his fourth or fifth day at the jail, Perry recalled, Sherrell called her and told her he was being mistreated by jail staff, asking her to get access to footage from his cell.
When Lundblad first encountered Sherrell on Aug. 31 his condition was grave. The father of three was covered in sweat, his mouth dropping. A diaper he was wearing had been soaked through, leaving the mattress pad below him soiled.
Sherrell asked Lundblad not to leave him alone with the other jail staff and asked her to call his family. “He had tears coming down his face,” Lundblad recalled.
“It looked like a man that was suffering, that was sick, that was dying,” she said. Fearing Sherrell had suffered a stroke and would die if he didn’t receive medical attention, Lundblad directed that he be taken to a hospital immediately.
Jail footage shows that two correctional officers were required to lift Sherrell off the floor and into a wheelchair. At Sanford Hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, Sherrell’s MRI came back normal. According to a correctional officer, this prompted a doctor to say, “The only reason he can’t move is because he isn’t willing to try.”
Sherrell was diagnosed with malingering, or feigning illness, and released with instructions dictating that he return immediately if he experienced symptoms like difficulty standing or swallowing, paralysis, or loss of control of his bladder or bowels. Despite showing all of the symptoms listed in the discharge papers, Sherrell was not returned to the hospital and died two days later on the floor of his cell.
Lundblad didn’t learn about Sherrell’s death until two days later during a meeting with Leonard. She said he told her not to jump to conclusions about the circumstances surrounding Sherrell’s death because it “could jeopardize his company.” Lundblad resigned immediately.
Lundblad’s account ‘devastating’
Perry and Lundblad first met at an event at George Floyd Square on May 25, one year after Floyd’s death. Though the two had spoken years prior and Perry had previously read a statement written by Lundblad that provided the nurse’s account of events, she had not heard the details personally. She described hearing Lundblad’s full account last month as “devastating.”
On Sept. 5 and 11, 2018, Lundblad penned letters to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Minnesota Department of Corrections detailing the “disturbing” circumstances and events that led up to Sherrell’s death.
An initial review by the Minnesota DOC found “no violations” in the events prior to Sherrell’s death. But after Perry continued to ask questions and apply pressure, the DOC conducted an internal investigation and came across the letter again. This time, the DOC concluded in May 2020 that there had been a plethora of “regular and gross violations of Minnesota jail standards.”
According to Perry, Lundblad should not be viewed as a “whistle-blowing nurse” but as “someone who decided to stand up for what was right for something she saw so wrong.” Three years after her son’s death, Perry said, there has been no accountability.
“Why hasn’t anyone been fired or let go?” she asked. “Why hasn’t anyone’s licenses been suspended? The nurses that work for MEnD, how are they even able to still practice medicine? How are they able to go on as if nothing ever happened?” Dr. Todd Leonard, Perry said, should be the first to have his license revoked.
Perry says the absence of accountability can be attributed in part to Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel, who “doesn’t believe they’ve done anything wrong. A blind man can see all the wrong in what they did to my son,” Perry said. “They murdered my son.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating Sherrell’s death but has yet to make any announcements about findings or potential charges.
Sherrell isn’t the first person to die under concerning circumstances while being held at Beltrami County Jail in recent years. Five people have reportedly died while in the Beltrami County Jail since 2015. Perry said the fact that others have met similar fates at the jail further reinforces the need for charges to be brought against those involved in her son’s death.
Tony May Jr., 26, was found unresponsive in his cell by his cell mates in 2016. Possible sudden cardiac death was listed as his cause of death, according to a report provided by his family. The Minnesota Department of Corrections found that the jail had violated State rules regarding inmate checks in the case of May’s death. May’s mother Aldene Morrison filed a civil lawsuit in 2019.
Bruce Lundmark, 63, died in 2019 after asking to see a doctor or nurse after experiencing severe abdominal pain and numbness in his left arm and fingers. Lundmark was not seen by a doctor or nurse before he was transferred from Beltrami to Clearwater jail. He collapsed and died there shortly after arriving. His family is seeking legal action.
Carol Bunker, the mother of Stephanie Bunker, who was found hanging from a bed sheet in her cell on July 1, 2017, has also sued the jail. She alleges jail staff showed deliberate indifference to Stephaine, whose death was ruled a suicide.
Learning the stories of other family members of those who died from apparent neglect on the part of jail staff prompted Perry to start the nonprofit organization that advocates for those who are currently being neglected. “Those incarcerated will be heard!” the mission statement reads. Through the organization, Perry also advocates for the passage of the Hardel Sherrell Act, legislation aimed at preventing inmates from dying behind bars due to neglect.
“We’re not just talking about the police,” she said. “We’re talking about jails. We’re talking about law enforcement agencies, period.”
Perry is in the process of suing the jail, MEnD, Sanford Hospital and other defendants, but she said only when those involved are criminally charged and convicted for “choosing to do Satan’s work” will a measure of justice be reached. “Let them be held accountable.”
Niara Savage is a contributor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.