EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Family fights for answers after St. Louis dad dies in CJC custody

Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 10:27 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- The family of a St. Louis dad who died while in custody at the St. Louis City Justice Center (CJC) wants answers about what led up to his death.

Courtney McNeal was arrested and taken to the City Justice Center on September 1, 2022. On September 6, McNeal died. For almost five months, the City Justice Center’s explanation was that the 41-year-old was, “found unresponsive.”

News 4 Investigates uncovered surveillance video and records from the city corrections department that provide more details about what happened.

“Tell my babies I love them, I’m sorry,” McNeal can be heard saying in a recorded call while he was inside the City Justice Center.

Surveillance video from inside the Justice Center shows McNeal walk into a holding cell, three minutes later he’s dragged-out limp and barely moving. Within an hour, McNeal was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The video released by the City Justice Center does not show the minutes inside the cell or what happened the hours before. That’s leaving McNeal’s loved ones with a lot of questions.

“I want justice,” said the mother of McNeal’s 11-year-old twin daughters. She asked News 4 to hide her face and name since she’s afraid of backlash. “I want justice for my girls, and I want justice for Courtney. That’s murder, that’s what that is, that’s cold-blooded murder.”

The surveillance video along with the reports News 4 Investigates obtained from the City Justice Center hasn’t been seen publicly until now. From the week McNeal died to now, News 4 spent months asking the city to provide this information, which are public records. News 4 has a paper trail showing month after month the city kept delaying releasing that information.

Some of the records given to News 4 Investigates aren’t complete, there are entire pages the City Justice Center doesn’t think you should see. News 4 is still asking to get those public records released.

“These are public records however institutions claim privilege all the time and that’s the battle lawyers have to take,” said Attorney Bill Meehan. Meehan is working with McNeal’s family to try and help them get answers.

McNeal was arrested on an outstanding warrant for missing a court hearing. That case dates back to 2020 when McNeal was accused of stealing more than $25,000 from an ATM. Court records show McNeal was also accused of being found with drugs.

McNeal was arrested on a Thursday, and by Tuesday, five days later, he was dead.

The City Justice Center claims McNeal was, “found unresponsive.” Surveillance video shows McNeal wasn’t alone in the cell, he was with at least two other detainees, a nurse, and two guards.

The video shows that before he died, McNeal had a routine medical check because he was in a detox unit. In the video, McNeal is seen going back into his cell after the medical check, a few minutes later he leaves with a guard and walks off camera.

According to an incident report written by one of the corrections officers, the officer claims that he told a nurse that McNeal was “throwing up.”

“A little while went by, I then asked nurse [name redacted] if she was sure that we didn’t need to call for a code as the inmate [McNeal] appeared to be in a steady decline. Nurse stated there is nothing we can do until a wheelchair comes,” it reads.

The surveillance video shows the wheelchair arrive, however, McNeal isn’t in the cell.

The corrections officer doesn’t mention that in his report. In the report, he claims the wheelchair arrived then, “me and nurse [name redacted] enter the cell. The inmate [McNeal] begins to crawl to the wheelchair and then stops.”

In the video the officer and nurse are already inside when it shows McNeal walk into the cell, that’s the last time he’s seen alert.

According to the incident report the officer claims, “me and officer [name redacted] then help the inmate into the wheelchair it was at this time he let out one breath and seemed to have stopped breathing.”

None of the video released by the City Justice Center shows those minutes inside the cell.

News 4 Investigates obtained a copy of the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s report. The report notes that nurses started treating McNeal for an overdose and gave him, “3-4 doses of Narcan.” Narcan is a potentially lifesaving drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

The surveillance video shows that it takes 15 minutes for EMTs to get to McNeal, despite the closest fire station being directly across the street. They then take him to the hospital where he’s pronounced dead.

Based on the medical examiner’s report, McNeal had drugs in his system, but he didn’t die of an overdose. The report found McNeal’s manner of death was “natural” and the cause was “complications of a perforated gastric ulcer.”

“Basically he had a number of ulcers in his stomach, one of them was deep enough that it eroded through an artery,” said Dr. Michael Graham, St. Louis’ Chief Medical Examiner.

Graham explained that ulcers like what was seen in McNeal, cause symptoms and many people get treatment.

“It’s more likely that he’d be walking and talking and then got dizzy and passed out,” Graham said. “They can go very rapidly from basically being okay to being in serious medical trouble.”

McNeal’s family and their lawyer Bill Meehan have their doubts.

“I do not believe Mr. McNeal died of natural circumstances,” Meehan said.

He questions another part of the report that says McNeal had “blunt force injuries” to his “torso” and “lower extremity.”

“I believe that he died of complications from a physical beating,” Meehan said.

Meehan claims they talked to a detainee who was a witness.

“He indicated that he saw Mr. McNeal being beaten and he was denied medical care,” Meehan added.

Back at the medical examiner’s office, Dr. Graham believes there’s another explanation for those injuries.

“The ones on the chest are fairly typically of resuscitation injuries and then the ones on the knees probably when he collapsed,” Graham said.

Despite phone calls and e-mails, Commissioner of Corrections Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah won’t talk to News 4 Investigates.

News 4 found City Justice Center policies that list all the reports required when someone dies in custody. The list of records includes reports from anyone who “observed” the “emergency.” Based on the records News 4 received, there are only two reports from corrections officers, despite video showing more people were there.

No reports state if McNeal asked for medical help or showed symptoms that should have been warning signs.

“I have no confidence in the management of the Justice center because I don’t think it’s properly maintained,” Meehan said.

McNeal is one of six people who died in custody at the City Justice Center in 2022. The city released little to no information about their deaths.

On top of that, News 4 Investigates uncovered the city isn’t following reporting requirements. In Missouri when someone dies in custody the center is supposed to send a form to the State Department of Public Safety, which in turn sends that information to the federal Department of Justice.

News 4 investigates found the City Justice Center only reported two of the six deaths. One of the two was McNeal. His report barely has any details and uses the same explanation of, “found unresponsive.” What’s more, the report is wrong. It states McNeal died on September 4, 2021. McNeal died on September 6. The report also lists an incorrect time of death.

“Somebody down there is not doing their job,” said the mother of McNeal’s daughters.

She told News 4 their family wants more than answers, believing McNeal deserved the chance to come home.

“All these deaths that have been happening in the last year, they all need to be held accountable for their actions, jail is not a death sentence,” she said.