X

‘Sarge, I think he’s gone’: Video shows last hours before Rockdale jail inmate died in cell

Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis, who represents the Tilson family, showed videos taken during the last eight hours of 22-year-old Shali Tilson's life before he died in jail.
Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis, who represents the Tilson family, showed videos taken during the last eight hours of 22-year-old Shali Tilson's life before he died in jail.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS/ ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS/ ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

The family of a 22-year-old inmate at the Rockdale County Jail said he tried to summon help before slumping down naked on the floor of his cell and dying, according to video released on Wednesday showing the last hours of his life.

Shali Tilson had been in custody on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for nine days. He died March 12, 2018 from blood clots that formed in his lungs due to dehydration, according to an autopsy conducted by the GBI. His attorney said he had been without water for three days.

Tilson, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was on suicide watch and, according to jail policy, should have been checked every 15 minutes. But deputies and medical personnel ignored Tilson for hours, the video shows.

Jeff Filipovits, co-counsel for Tilson family, called the video “disturbing.”

“I’ve watched this video dozens of times and I still see it. I still think about this child sitting in this cell.”

Filipovits and Mawuli Mel Davis, represent the Tilson family in a federal lawsuit filed in March after an internal investigation revealed jail employees falsified documents to claim they had checked on Tilson prior to his death. The civil action was amended in June after the family came into possession of the videos showing Tilson’s death.

Law enforcement officials had declined to release the videos saying they were a part of an ongoing criminal investigation. They were given to the Tilson family by an anonymous “good Samaritan,” according to Davis.

Davis showed the videos to reporters in his Decatur office.

“We have never seen this kind of treatment of a human being,” he said.

In the video, a naked Tilson can be seen peering out a small window in the cell’s door, and pressing a button on the left wall. Officials said that is an emergency button an inmate can use to call for medical help.

But the investigation found it was not functioning.

“We believe at that time, he knew he was in peril,” Davis said.

Tilson eventually collapses in the corner of the cell.

Later, Tilson can be seen sitting against the wall of his cell near the door. The video shows Tilson’s head drop forward.

IN-DEPTH: Troubled inmate ignored for hours before jailers found him dead

At that point Tilson had lost consciousness due to dehydration, the civil suit claims. He stayed in that position until he died.

According to the time stamp on the video, more than two hours passed before the door to the cell opened. Deputies appear in the door way and checked on Tilson, who did not respond.

Tilson’s body had begun to grow stiff by the time they found him naked and surrounded by trash, according to an internal investigation by the sheriff’s office.

Shali Tilson, 22, died in Rockdale County Jail in March. He worked as a tour guide at the Rhode Island State House before moving to Georgia in September 2017 care for his ailing father. CONTRIBUTED
Shali Tilson, 22, died in Rockdale County Jail in March. He worked as a tour guide at the Rhode Island State House before moving to Georgia in September 2017 care for his ailing father. CONTRIBUTED

Tilson was arrested after having what his parents called a “psychotic break.”  He had suffered from mental illness since he was 8 years old, his mother, Tynesha Tilsons, said.

“Shali was trying to take too much on his little shoulders,” Tynesha Tilson said. “It was just too much.”

His parents failed to convince Tilson to seek treatment.

When Tilson was arrested March 3, 2018, “it was obvious and apparent that he was in the midst of a mental health crisis,” according to civil action.

Tynesha Tilson (right), the mother of Shali Tilson, speaks out against her son’s death during an Aug. 24 protest on the 17th St. bridge near Atlantic Station in Atlanta. Shali Tilson, 22, died in March while being held at the Rockdale County Jail. WILLOUGHBY MARIANO/wmariano@ajc.com
Tynesha Tilson (right), the mother of Shali Tilson, speaks out against her son’s death during an Aug. 24 protest on the 17th St. bridge near Atlantic Station in Atlanta. Shali Tilson, 22, died in March while being held at the Rockdale County Jail. WILLOUGHBY MARIANO/wmariano@ajc.com

RELATED: When inmates die: Georgia's jails fail mentally ill

Witnesses told police he was trying to kick in the door of a stranger’s apartment, an arrest report states. Tilson and his family had moved out of the building about four months before, Tynesha Tilson said.

Tilson claimed to know a woman at the scene who denied they had ever met. He shouted obscene phrases that made no sense. At one point, he asked the officer driving him to jail to drop him off at his sister’s place.

The officer said he thought Tilson was on drugs.

When he arrived at the jail, he refused to get out of the back of the police car and physically resisted when a deputy tried to remove him, Davis said.

On March 4, Tilson was put on “suicide watch” and moved to Cell 11, a solitary cell located in the booking area of the jail, the civil action said. It had no water source.

“The only source of water available to an inmate incarcerated in Cell 11 is water that is provided to the inmate by jail staff.”

RELATED: Inmate found dead in jail had to be restrained to chair during arrest, police say

Tilson typically spent his time in jail banging on his cell door, but nine days after his arrest, he was unusually quiet, the internal report said.

Deputies said they thought he was sleeping, but they and medical personnel failed repeatedly to look into his cell when they passed it, according to a video reviewed by an internal investigator.

MORE: Family of man who died in Rockdale jail files federal lawsuit

At 8:35 p.m., Sgt. Dan Lang looked inside Tilson’s cell. The inmate appeared as if he had stopped breathing.

Deputies opened a flap on Tilson’s cell door. Cpl. Christian Klein told investigators that he tried to wake Tilson up by firing his stun gun, the report said.

“I just did it close to the flap so he’d be able to hear it, because you know that would get my attention if I was asleep and wasn’t waking up, you know that would wake me up,” Klein told an investigator.

Tilson didn’t move. They opened the cell door and Klein felt his arm, which was cold to the touch.

“Sarge, I think he’s gone,” Klein told Lang. They left to call for help.

Supervisors recommended one deputy be fired and four suspended without pay, according to written reprimands from the sheriff’s office, which runs the jail.

According to Davis, nobody has been fired in connection with Tilson’s death.

The findings of the jail’s internal investigation outraged Tilson’s family, who said those involved deserve harsher punishment.

“The jail never closes,” Tynesha Tilson said Wednesday. “First shift, second shift, third shift. There’s a lot of people that watched my son suffer and die in that jail. And I’m beyond outraged at this point.”

An attorney for the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment citing the pending litigation.

“My clients have all filed motions to dismiss the federal lawsuit, and those motions remain pending,” Jason Waymire said.

RELATED: Rockdale County inmate dies after being found unresponsive

The Rockdale County Jail came under more scrutiny after a second inmate died there during the summer of 2018. Jamie Henry, who was taken into custody on a probation violation charge, was found dead in her cell.

Davis, who also represents Henry’s parents, said the jail failed to treat the 40-year-old mother of one for symptoms of drug withdrawal. She died from complications related to cocaine and morphine, according to Davis.

Shali Tilson died in the Rockdale County Jail nine days after his arrest.