Inmate died of ‘natural causes’ Autopsy attributes cause of death to chronic use of alcohol

Last October, an Arizona man reportedly died of natural causes while in custody at the Montezuma County jail.

Montezuma County Coroner Charlie Rosenbaugh said the early morning death of 38-year-old Harrison M. Begay of Tonalea, Ariz., on Oct. 27, was due to “natural causes from chronic use of alcohol.” In custody for nearly 26 hours, Begay was being held for the Cortez Police Department on a charge of trespassing.

According to an eight-page “unattended death” incident report from the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, Rosenbaugh arrived on the scene just after 4 a.m. to discover Begay had a black eye with wounds on his forehead and nose. The report adds that blood was found inside Begay’s nostrils and around his nose.

“Coroner Rosenbaugh was not able to determine a cause of death, and advised an autopsy would be conducted the following week,” Deputy John Hancock wrote in the report.

The report states that Begay was last seen alive by a jailer about 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 26. Just before midnight, jailers placed a 21-year-old inmate in the same cell, and a third 24-year-old inmate was placed in the cell about 3 a.m. on Oct. 27, the report reveals.

Interviewed by a sheriff’s official, the 21-year-old inmate told authorities that Begay “never moved” during the three hours they shared the cell, even while he talked on the phone.

“Coroner Rosenbaugh advised that due to rigormortis Begay had probably expired between (midnight) and 3 a.m.,” the report states.

The report also reveals that initial life-saving measures to revive Begay only included chest compressions without respirations being administered. An automated external defibrillator was also used, the report states.

The sheriff’s report states that Begay was medically cleared by Southwest Memorial Hospital before being admitted into the jail, and that Begay was “extremely intoxicated.” Some 12 hours after being brought into the jail, the report states, Begay registered 0.15 on a portable Breathalyzer.

The second inmate to die while in the sheriff’s custody in four months, Begay was a married, unemployed construction worker. The sheriff’s report shows that he was a 5-foot-6-inch Native American weighing 230 pounds.

Sheriff’s timeline

A timeline of cell checks reportedly conducted on Begay were originally kept in written form. Spruell provided the Cortez Journal with a typed two-and-a-quarter page copy of the jailer’s written log.

Spruell said jailers were ordered to keep Begay on a medical watch, explaining that jailers kept a written log of every time they checked on the inmate. According to the typed log, Begay was placed on medical watch starting at 1:50 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26. The typed log indicates that Begay slept through the night until 8:30 a.m., when he received his first meal.

The log reveals that jailers noted that Begay remained “lying down, asleep” throughout the morning until 1 p.m. At 1:15, a shift supervisor noted that Begay “seemed disoriented” as he answered medical and booking information.

Begay’s second and final meal, according to the typed log, was served at 3:57 p.m., but Spruell said the log doesn’t accurately reflect when meals were served on the day in question.

“Our feeding times are 8 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.,” he explained. “Mr. Begay was taken off the (medical) watch at 7:22 p.m., so the feeding log would no longer be kept. He was never denied food.”

The typed log indicates that after booking, jailors performed routine “welfare” checks every half-hour or so up until the last check at 7:22 p.m. The next cell check, labeled as a “booking” check, occurred nearly two hours later, at 9:19 p.m. Two minutes later, a deputy opened the door to holding cell four, followed by another booking check at 9:50 p.m., the log states.

“Welfare check is checking on the welfare of an individual that may require extra attention,” Spruell clarified. “A booking check is routine checks to make sure everybody is in their cell with no abnormalities.”

The typed log indicates that no other cell checks were conducted before a deputy opened the holding cell door nearly two-and-a-half hours later, at 12:15 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 27. The log indicates that the door was opened three additional times within a 10-minute period.

“Begay was not the only inmate in that cell,” Spruell said. “Another inmate was booked in.”

The next booking cell check occurred nearly an hour-and-a-half later, at 1:53 a.m., and the final booking check occurred at 2:57 a.m., some 10 minutes before deputies reported Begay dead in his cell.

“You must consider the hour,” Spruell said. “Most individuals are asleep at that time of morning. To constantly walk in on sleeping individuals makes them very cranky. Mr. Begay was no longer on watch and did not require half-hour checks.”

Citing instructions from Spruell, a spokesperson for the Colorado Bureau of Investigations said that they were unable to release additional information about its probe into Begay’s death.

According to a sheriff’s office report, Dr. Robert Kurtzman conducted Begay’s autopsy on Oct. 30. Kurtzman’s Loma-based business office is listed as Rocky Mountain Forensic Services.

“During the course of the autopsy, Dr. Kurtzman advised that H. Begay did not suffer any physical trauma that led to his death,” sheriff’s office detective Tyson Cox in a supplemental report.

Citing there was “nothing extraordinary” about his examination of Begay, Kurtzman declined to comment, referring all questions to coroner Rosenbaugh.