On New Year’s Day, a 36-year-old man named Rodrico McLeod was suffering from an increasingly severe headache. His nephew called an ambulance, which brought him to the emergency room at a local hospital in Peoria, Illinois.
The next morning, he was found dead in a jail cell.
The sequence of events at the hospital, managed by UnityPoint Health, is not fully clear. But what’s certain is that, on the following day, the Peoria County medical examiner determined that McLeod had suffered from bacterial meningitis, a rare and sometimes deadly infection affecting the brain and spinal cord that causes severe headaches and confusion.
Two witnesses at the hospital tell Fusion that, more than an hour before midnight on New Year’s Day, medical staff discharged McLeod. But instead of leaving, McLeod sat in the emergency room’s waiting area in a disoriented, semi-conscious state, apparently unable or unwilling to leave the hospital, according to the witnesses. At intervals, McLeod would stand up and pace around the emergency room in a bewildered discomfort, according to the witnesses, who said he appeared too weak to stand for an extended period.
Despite his state, the hospital did not readmit McLeod. Instead, shortly after midnight, the facility called the police, who arrested McLeod for trespassing and resisting arrest. At the Peoria County Jail, McLeod was locked alone in a detox cell. The next morning, McLeod had succumbed to the bacterial infection, according to initial autopsy results.
Over the past week, as McLeod’s family has sought to piece together the chain of events leading to McLeod’s death, they have expressed outrage at what they call a frustratingly small amount of information shared by authorities about the incident. For some, the death of McLeod, who was black, has come to symbolize what they see as an entrenched racial bias in Peoria’s criminal justice system.
In response to a request for comment, UnityPoint Health provided a short statement and pointed to a local news report in which the Peoria County coroner said that hospital personnel could have mistook meningitis for a less severe ailment. “We offer our deepest condolences to the family,” UnityPoint spokesperson Blake Long said in an email. “When concerns are raised about our care, we take them very seriously. We are always reviewing the care we provide to assure it meets our high standards.”
“We were under the assumption that he was medically cleared,” Brian Asbell Peoria County Corrections Superintendent told Fusion. “He was already discharged from the hospital, so we wouldn’t turn around and refuse this person and send him back to the hospital.”
Last week Asbell told a local news station that his staff believed McLeod was intoxicated upon his arrival at the jail, especially since many people arrested “are under the influence of some sort of drugs and alcohol,” Asbell told Fusion. “[In] this case in particular, it’s truly unfortunate and I’m saddened that Mr. McLeod died in our custody.”
Around 10:30 p.m. on January 1, a longtime acquaintance of McLeod named Deon Jackson brought his wife, Brittany Hearton, to UnityPoint emergency room. They tell Fusion they saw McLeod sitting in the waiting area clutching his hospital discharge papers. “I knew something wasn’t right with him,” Jackson said. “Because he would have automatically been like, ‘What’s up Deon? What are you doing up here?’ But he was looking like he didn’t know his left from his right.” Jackson, who says he has known McLeod for two decades, added: “He kept staring at me like he was still trying to figure out who I was.”
Jackson says McLeod would periodically stand up, pace the room in discomfort, “like he was trying to walk the pain off but he couldn’t,” Jackson recalls. Then he’d waver and sit back down in a different chair. At one point, Jackson says, McLeod sat in a chair designated for security guards, who he says were becoming increasingly upset with McLeod. “They wanted to get rid of him,” Jackson said. “They were getting frustrated with him because he wasn’t responding to them.”
According to a police report, McLeod was arrested at 12:25 a.m., after hospital security had called Peoria police. The police report states that police were called after McLeod refused to leave the emergency waiting area and had wandered into a restricted area of the hospital. “I ordered Rodrico to leave or he would be arrest[ed],” reads the police report. “Rodrico again continued to stay seated in the chair and say nothing. At that time Rodrico was handcuffed behind his back.”
Stevie Allen Linwood, an inmate entrusted with performing certain duties around the Peoria jail, told Fusion that, at around 7:05 that morning, he was asked to deliver a breakfast tray to a lone inmate locked in a detox cell. When Linwood peered into the cell, he says he saw a man lying naked, motionless and face-down against the cell’s floor—a highly unusual position in which to see an inmate, said Linwood.
At around 11:35 a.m., Linwood says he went back to the cell door to deliver a lunchtime tray, and saw the inmate in a similar face-down position, still motionless. Linwood says the inmate’s breakfast tray was untouched.Linwood says that, at this point, he notified jail staff about an unresponsive inmate on the floor of a detox cell. He says he does not know whether he was the first to find that McLeod was unresponsive, but that an ambulance came shortly after he told guards what he’d seen and removed the body.
Asbell, the jail superintendent, says his officers had been checking on McLeod consistently throughout the morning, and that they took notes multiple times each hour on his body position that show McLeod had been moving between breakfast and lunch. “He was in different body positions, from what I can tell from the log: Right side, left side, stomach, back,” Asbell said. Asbell says notes show that McLeod did not eat his breakfast, and says that McLeod was found unresponsive when a sergeant entered McLeod’s cell after a relative had come to the jail to deposit the inmate’s bail.
McLeod’s family has called for both the UnityPoint hospital and the Peoria County Jail to release video footage of the chain of events leading to McLeod’s death. So far, they say no footage has been disclosed.
But some of law enforcement’s comments on the case have only served to deepen outrage over the handling of McLeod’s death. Last week, in an interview with local media, Sheriff Mike McCoy pointed to McLeod’s “severe alcoholism” and emphasized his lengthy criminal record. "You know, we have 56 reports on the man," McCoy told a local news station after McLeod’s family held a small vigil at the jail. "We took care of him while he was here. But I certainly respect their right to go where they want to to have their vigils."
“We didn’t ask about about many times he’s been arrested,” Sandra Bailey, McLeod’s sister, told Fusion. “That has nothing to do with him dying.”
Some have also questioned the details of McLeod’s arrest. Brittany Hearton and her husband expressed shock at what McLeod was cited for: In addition to being arrested for criminal trespassing for not leaving the emergency room, Peoria police also cited McLeod for resisting arrest. Although the arrest happened shortly after they left, Hearton and Jackson say that McLeod appeared likely unable to comprehend or comply with an order from an officer.
“I could tell he was in really bad pain,’” Jackson recalls. “He didn’t know what was going on.”
Spencer Woodman is a freelance reporter based in New York.