NEW YORK (AP) — Jerome Murdough was just looking for a warm place to sleep on a chilly night last month when he curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project where he was arrested for trespassing.
A week later, the mentally ill homeless man was found dead in a Rikers Island jail cell that four city officials say had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.
The officials told The Associated Press that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.
“He basically baked to death,” said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.
The medical examiner’s office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough’s exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.
Department of Correction spokesman Robin Campbell said in a statement that an internal investigation will look into all circumstances of Murdough’s death, “including issues of staff performance and the adequacy of procedures.”
Campbell acknowledged that the temperature in Murdough’s cell was “unusually high” and that action has been taken to fix mechanical problems to ensure safe temperatures, “particularly in areas housing vulnerable inmates.”
According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his 6-by-10 cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.
When Murdough was found and his cell opened, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Those temperatures could have been higher before he was discovered because the cell had been closed for several hours, the officials said.
Dr. Susi Vassallo, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and a national expert on heat-related deaths who monitors heat conditions at Rikers Island, said psychotropic medications can impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating, making it retain more heat than it should.