In a remarkable display of openness, the Orange County Sheriff's Department opened its doors to a group of jail reform activists, lawyers and reporters on Wednesday, March 17. Accompanied by deputies, the group, including this reporter, toured the Orange County Men's Jail and Intake Release Center for three hours that morning, getting a rare up-close view of the inner workings of the county's oldest jail. At one point during the tour, our guide pointed out that the facility was among the nation's safest, with one of the lowest rates of inmate deaths in the country.
Inside the jail that day was Michelle Marie Gee, a 41-year-old mother and drug addict who'd been sent behind bars the previous day for violating the terms of her drug diversion probation. Just hours after our tour ended, Gee perished inside the jail, a death that for some reason the Sheriff's Department chose not to make public, and refused to confirm until the Weekly confronted the agency with independent verification of the incident.
"At 4:15 p.m. on March 17, inmate Michelle Gee . . . was found unresponsive in her cell at the Intake Release Center in Santa Ana," sheriff's spokeman John McDonald told the Weekly yesterday. "She was alone in a two-person cell. Lifesaving efforts were attempted by deputies and jail-based medical personnel and paramedics were called to the scene. The circumstances of the death are under investigation by the District Attorney, as is routine in all cases of in custody deaths. All further questions are referred to the District Attorney."
DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder confirmed her agency is investigating the death but refused further comment. "We do all in-custody investigations and don't reveal any facts until we're done," she said. "I'm sure it will be months until we finish."
Neither the Sheriff's Department nor the DA's office issued any press release revealing the fact Gee had died and the Weekly only learned of the incident through one of her friends, Mike Rogers, who called us yesterday. Rogers disputed what he said was the sheriff's official story that Gee committed suicide. "She wouldn't hang herself," Rogers said. "She has a daughter and was outgoing. She had a staph infection, and probably what happened was, she kept pressing the button [to demand medical attention] and they probably choked her out."
Gee's friend Laura Dinatale also expressed doubts that Gee killed herself. "Anybody who knew her would know she wouldn't do that," Dinatale said. "Things were starting to look up for her. There is no reason she would take her own life."
According to the OC Superior Court website, Gee has several criminal cases involving drugs and receiving stolen property on her record. Her mother, Karen Shue, confirmed Gee had a drug problem, which she said began four years ago when she lost her job. Shue said her daughter had been put behind bars after admitting in a drug diversion court hearing that she was still using narcotics. "She broke down and told them she needed help and couldn't do it by herself," Shue said. "They said they'd get her help. They made arrangements to put her in the medical ward [of the jail] and treat her."
Shue also claimed that Gee had a bad staph infection on her foot and that her daughter was told this would also be treated inside the jail. Shue said her daughter called a family friend just an hour before the Sheriff's Department claims deputies found her lifeless body, and told the friend that she still hadn't been treated for either her infection or her withdrawal symptoms. "Anybody that goes into a medical ward or who is in withdrawal for drugs needs help," Shue said. "They're sick and need something to come down with. My question is, did she get medical treatment?"
Shue told the Weekly she learned of her daughter's death at about 9 p.m. on the evening of March 17 when a DA official, a sheriff's deputy and several Westminster police officers knocked on her door. They told her that her daughter had committed suicide. "They wouldn't let me see the body because she was under county care," Shue said. "They didn't release the body until [the following] Monday afternoon. They embalmed her there and did an autopsy, and I don't think that's a normal procedure."
Like Gee's friends, Shue also harbors suspicions about the idea that her daughter might have killed herself. Shue said Gee had never expressed any suicidal tendencies, and noted that the same agency--the sheriff-coroner--that housed her when she died and reported her suicide, had also performed the official autopsy, the results of which have yet to be made public.
"Where is the surveillance system inside that jail," Shue asked. "Who was on watch? They said it took 20 minutes to get to her and she was a goner. She would never leave her daughter; her daughter was her whole life. She loved her daughter, and us, too way too much. Something doesn't sound right. She wasn't suicidal, I can tell you that, and I'm not going to lay dead on this."