It was a few minutes before midnight on May 16 when Tyler Tabor’s body began to break down.
He had arrived at the Adams County Detention Facility near Denver two days earlier. The circumstances of his arrest were almost comical. Tabor had three open misdemeanor warrants to his name, most of them relating to minor driving offenses. He had been apprehended at a McDonald’s parking lot when a stranger mistook cigarette smoke and a child’s dirty diaper for heroin, according to his wife.
It was true, however, that Tabor was a heroin addict. He announced as much when he arrived at Adams.
And there was nothing funny about the pain he was going through now.
Tabor had spent two days vomiting up just about everything he ate or drank. The jail doctor had Tabor on a cocktail of Gatorade, Pepto Bismol, painkillers and anti-nausea pills, but his heroin withdrawal was getting worse by the hour.
By the time the jail nurse called for him to come get his medications at 11:38 p.m. on May 16, Tabor was unable to stand. A cellmate helped him to his feet, but when the nurse handed him his pills, Tabor’s hands cramped so badly he spilled them on the floor. His heart was racing. His blood pressure was dropping. An Adams County Sheriff’s Office deputy literally caught Tabor before he could fall.
But when Tyler Tabor asked for intravenous fluids, the nurse said no.
“She told him that they try not to use IV’s unless it’s absolutely necessary,” according to a report from the district attorney’s office.
Tyler Tabor was dead by dawn.
The official cause: dehydration.
Tabor’s death has caused outrage in Colorado and beyond. He is at least the second young man to die in jail from dehydration linked to heroin withdrawal in as many years. In both instances, the charges against the men were relatively minor. In both instances, surveillance cameras recorded the inmates’ slow, agonizing deaths, fueling complaints from the dead men’s families.
And in both instances, prosecutors have declined to press charges against jail officials. On Friday, Dave Young, the district attorney for Adams and Broomfield counties, released an 11-page report on Tabor’s death. It found no “abuse, mistreatment, or maltreatment that rises to a level of criminal culpability.”
“The evidence demonstrates that on April 17, 2015, Mr. Tabor died as a result of his heroin addiction and dehydration associated with his withdrawal,” the report concluded. An internal investigation by the Adam’s County Sheriff’s Office also found no procedural violations connected to the death, according to the Denver Post.
But Bridget Tabor pins the blame on the jailers.
“They killed him, that’s how I feel,” Tyler’s widow told The Washington Post. “Tyler knew his own body better than anybody else. He knew that something was wrong the night before he died. He was asking for an IV, and they told him ‘not unless it’s necessary.'”
“That IV would have saved his life,” she said.
Who took Tyler Tabor’s life? Was it the man who filled his body with heroin, or the jailers who denied him an IV?
Or was it fate: a drug-fueled prophecy spelled out on Facebook months in advance, and finally fulfilled on May 17?
For Tabor’s family, the answer may mean more than just closure. It may also mean money. His father has hired an attorney and expressed an interest in filing suit against the county. “I’m not the type of person to go and sue somebody, but at this point, whatever happens, happens,” Ray Tabor told the Denver Post.
But for thousands of other American families, however, the answer could mean much more.
Americans’ addiction to heroin is soaring. Two out of every 1,000 people in this country were addicted to heroin in 2013, double the rate in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 8,200 heroin-related overdose deaths in 2013: nearly quadruple the number in 2002.
How U.S. jails and prisons treat their drug-addicted inmates is a matter of life and death.
“A heart of gold” — and a heroin addiction
They fell in love in a metal factory.
It was 2011. Bridget Buesgens had a baby girl but no job, so she joined her father and brother at the Steel Star Corporation in Dacono, Colo. It was in the warehouse that she met Tyler, a Tommy Lee lookalike with a toddler of his own. He was skinny with dark hair, a goatee and more tattoos or piercings than seemed possible for a 21-year-old.
One of his tattoos, however, hinted at inner troubles.
“Only god can judge me,” read the ink along his jawline.
They were married a year later, with Tyler corralled into a black tie and Bridget dressed in white, her blond tresses down to her waist. A photo from their wedding day shows them side by side, their kids in front of them. Soon, they had a baby of their own.
But it didn’t take long for trouble — and judgment — to find the couple.
“It started off just with prescription drugs,” Bridget told The Post in a telephone interview from her home in Berthoud, Colo. “And it ended up he turned to heroin.”
The first time he tried to kick his habit, it was so tough he decided to give custody of his son to his parents — a decision he later regretted when his mom and dad cut him off, Bridget said.
His Facebook page hints at the friction his addiction caused with family and friends.
“Miss you so much bubba an I love u to the moon and back it will all be fixed soon…. im sorry sorry son,” he wrote on April 17, 2014, above a photo of him and his son. Alongside the message was frowning emoji and the words “feeling depressed.”
“Not lookin forward to going to court at 1:30,” he added shortly afterwards. “Hope it goes good.”
Two days later, when he complained that a rap CD he had bought didn’t work, a family member excoriated him online.
“You have money to blow?” the relative said. “That’s funny didn’t you just say you needed money for groceries.”
Two days after that, Tabor seemed to hit an emotional bottom.
“Strait up I am lost like none other,” he wrote. “Something’s got to change. No joke. I don’t know how much more I can take…. not being able to talk or see my son is really really f—– me up my family.
“No choice but to put a end to all this,” he wrote cryptically. “Miss my son my dad my mom my brother and my sister love u guys.”
Things got worse. Tyler, Bridget and their two kids were evicted from their apartment and had to move in with her parents. Meanwhile, authorities issued three warrants for Tabor’s arrest. All three were for relatively minor offenses — failure to comply with probation for a misdemeanor harassment charge, driving with a suspended license and speeding — but they meant cops were on the lookout for Tabor.
“They were just piddly little things,” Bridget told The Post. But they could easily have been avoided.
“You miss the court date and they automatically issue a warrant for you,” she said. “He missed the court date.”
By this spring, Tabor knew it was only a matter of time before he was arrested, but he wanted to get clean before turning himself into authorities.
“He said that if he went to jail before he detoxed,” Bridget recalled, “he wouldn’t make it out alive.”
63 hours of hell
To hear Bridget Tabor tell it, her husband’s arrest was due to a stranger’s mistake.
She and Tyler went to McDonald’s for lunch on May 14, but when they arrived Bridget had to change their baby’s diaper. With a cigarette in her mouth, Bridget leaned over the back seat. A passerby spotted her bent over something, smoke rising, and called the cops.
“A lady called the police saying that she saw us getting high with the kids in the car,” Bridget said. “She didn’t know us.”
When cops arrived, however, they quickly learned who Tyler was and how many warrants were out for him. And when they searched the car, they found a balloon of heroin.
Tyler Tabor was booked into Adams County jail at 3:07 p.m., according to the district attorney’s report.
Sixty-three hours later he would be dead.
When Tyler was arrested, Bridget began calling family members for help only to find that their patience had worn thin.
“His dad said that he wasn’t going to bail him out. They were doing the tough love thing,” she said. Even Bridget agreed. After four years of her husband’s addiction, she wanted him to finally sober up. “We all thought it would help if he was in jail.”
His bond was only $300.
Tyler told his jailers that he was a heroin addict. In fact, he told them he had used a gram that very day, according to the report. A doctor and several nurses at the facility put Tabor on an “opiate withdrawal protocol.” They moved him to the medical unit and gave him prescription drugs for blood pressure, allergies and nausea — all designed to help with side effects from heroin withdrawal. He was also prescribed Suboxone to treat his opiate addiction, but it’s unclear if he actually requested or received the drug.
What he did get was copious amounts of Gatorade, sometimes several liters at a time, according to the report. But he often threw it right up.
By the time he finally reached Bridget on the morning of May 16, he was 43 hours into a painful withdrawal.
“He just said that he was withdrawing and throwing up and whatever and all the regular symptoms of withdrawing,” Bridget remembered. “And he said that whoever helped get him out, he would pay them back.”
Then he said what would be his final words to his wife.
“Tell the girls that I miss them and love them,” he said, according to Bridget. “I love you with all my heart and I miss you and hopefully I’ll see you later today.”
The conversation convinced Bridget to bail him out, but she had no luck asking her own family for money. Meanwhile, Tabor’s health quickly declined. Normal the day before, his blood pressure was now dropping and his pulse quickening. He was given dinner, but didn’t eat. When a nurse checked his vital signs at 7:55 p.m., he “staggered to the door” and later lost his balance, falling over a cellmate’s bed and onto the floor.
When a nurse again called Tabor to his cell window to take his meds shortly before midnight, he was “unable to stand on his own” and was instead helped by a cellmate. “While the nurse handed the medications to Mr. Tabor, Tyler Tabor’s hands appear to be cramping,” the DA report reads. “Mr. Tabor appears unable to hold his medications, and some or all of them fall to the floor.”
Moments later, Tabor himself nearly fell to the floor but was caught by a sheriff’s deputy. His blood pressure was so low (82/60, which is generally considered hypotensive, or alarmingly low) and pulse elevated (110, as if moderately exercising instead of resting in a cell) that the nurse called a doctor, who told her to give him more Gatorade, according to the report.
Although Tabor had previously told his cellmate that he wanted to go to the Denver West mall and “burn everybody up,” the nurse determined that he was now “coherent” and “made sense.”
Yet, when he asked for an IV, the nurse told him that they “try not to use IV’s unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Over the next five hours, security cameras would capture Tabor falling several times in his cell, according to the report. He nibbled on his breakfast at 4:20 a.m. but half an hour later hit the distress button, asking if he could take a shower. He could not, the nurse told him.
Guards did not conduct their regular row check at 5:00 a.m., according to the report (Bridget said it was because another inmate was making noise).
Tabor crawled around his cell, fell, threw up and lay on his back in the middle of his cell.
At 5:25 a.m., a sheriff’s deputy passed by the cell and “became concerned that Mr. Tabor appeared to be having some difficulty breathing,” according to the report. When the deputy asked Tabor what was wrong, the inmate could only moan. Surveillance footage shows the deputy standing over Tabor, shining a flashlight into his eyes. “Mr. Tabor did not respond,” according to the report.
By the time Tabor was wheeled to the treatment area, a nurse couldn’t find his pulse. Nurses, then paramedics, performed CPR but it didn’t work. Tyler was pronounced dead at 6:00 a.m., roughly 63 hours after his arrest.
“Waiting for Tyler’s call”
At 10 a.m. that day, Bridget Tabor had her cellphone in her hand, waiting for her husband to call. Instead, there was a knock at the door. It was Tyler’s stepmom.
“I looked at her and she looked at me and then she told me Tyler had passed away,” Bridget told The Post. “I just screamed and fell to the ground.”
In the five months since, Bridget and the rest of the Tabor family have gone through stages of suffering. First, it was the shock of losing Tyler. Then, it was the confusion over how it happened. Now, it is anger.
Initially, the coroner’s office told them that Tyler died from a “stomach aneurysm,” according to Bridget. “They said his stomach pretty much exploded and he bled to death.”
But when the official autopsy report was released, it listed “dehydration” as the cause of death.
That’s when Ray Tabor hired an attorney.
And when the district attorney’s office announced on Friday that it wasn’t charging anyone from the jail in Tyler’s death, that’s when his father went public with his anger.
“I blame them for taking my son’s life, bottom line,” Ray Tabor told the Denver Post. “If it’s a medical wing, then these kids coming off of something should be safe.”
“If they had told me he was in this kind of shape, I would have done whatever to get him out,” Ray Tabor told the newspaper. “I would have put my house up. I would have bailed him out however I could.”
“I’m not the type of person to go and sue somebody,” he warned, “but at this point, whatever happens, happens.”
Bridget Tabor is even angrier.
“When I think of dehydration I think of someone who is lost in the wilderness and has no access to water,” she said. “Not somebody who is locked in a jail cell and is supposed to be getting checked on all the time, especially in a medical wing. There is no reason for [his death] at all.”
With Tyler gone, Bridget is left with their baby, a six-year-old daughter and a bunch of questions. Why didn’t the nurse give her husband an IV? Was it to save money? Couldn’t sheriff’s deputies have taken Tyler to the hospital and handcuffed him to a bed? Isn’t a human life — drug addict or not — worth that much?
“I don’t know how they go to freakin’ sleep at night,” she said. “Somebody there knows the truth, the real truth, behind what happened but… they are trying to cover up things.”
Bridget said neither she nor the rest of Tyler’s family knew the report was going to be released on Friday. But the worst part came on Monday, her birthday, no less, when the widow went on Facebook to see video footage of her husband’s death.
“To watch him crawling on the floor, suffering like that, and then the two officers are just standing there staring at him and the one shines his flashlight on him…,” she trailed off.
“None of those people at that jail have any compassion for anybody,” she said. “They were looking at Tyler like he was just some heroin junkie off the street.
“He was a husband, a father, a son, a friend.”
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