ST. GEORGE – Chelley Bullis burst into tears Monday afternoon in the Washington County 5th District Court when the court bailiff announced that her daughter, Chelsea Hunerlach, was physically unable to attend her own video court hearing from the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility.
Hunerlach was arrested on drug charges Thursday evening after calling for help when her ex-husband, Jon Vincent Paxman, 22, of St. George, overdosed on heroin in a room at the Coronada Inn & Suites in St. George.
Upon entering the hotel room, first responders found Paxman lying on the floor, according to court documents. Paramedics were able to revive him with Narcan, an opioid antagonist, and ground ambulance transported him to Dixie Regional Medical Center.
After her daughter’s arrest, Bullis began trying to work with Washington County officials to get her daughter the medical attention that she needed while incarcerated.
Bullis said her 20-year-old daughter is disabled and chronically ill, both mentally and physically. “She basically has the capacity of a 14-year-old,” Bullis said, going on to say that her daughter, weighing a mere 90 pounds, has a compromised immune system and that her body doesn’t produce antibodies.
Bullis said correctional facility authorities denied her daughter her prescribed medication and that she explained to them: “If she doesn’t get her meds, she’s not going to eat and she’s going to get very sick and you’re probably going to have to transport her to the hospital,” and said:
They are meds for cancer patients. They are meds for bipolar schizophrenia. They are meds that you cannot be taken off of. You have to be weaned off them. It is highly dangerous.
“She’s on lots of medication,” Bullis said. “She has some very rare medical conditions that are uncommon for a person of her age. She is very sick and bottom line, they don’t have the chronic medical facilities there.”
Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jake Shultz, who oversees jail operations, said once an inmate is in custody, the correctional facility’s contract physician becomes the inmate’s primary care physician because they’re the ones that now have to authorize the prescription for whatever medications the inmate may be on.
“Generally, what we do,” Shultz said, “we will listen to whatever they say they’re on. We take what they have and verify with whoever their outside provider is that yes, they’re on this prescription, yes, they’ve been diagnosed with this, and more often than not, if there’s any question, they’ll get whatever medications that doctor says they’re supposed to have until our doctors can make their own diagnosis – either agree or disagree – but in the meantime, they get the benefit of the doubt, as long as that medication is allowed in the facility.”
Bullis said she was told by Jon Worlton, the facility’s medical administrator and mental health coordinator, that some of her daughter’s prescribed medications were acceptable in the jail, however, he was not going to allow her to take them because he did not know what type of medication or illegal drugs her daughter had been on.
Bullis said, “I asked him ‘well didn’t you pull a blood draw?’”
Hunerlach is also limited on a soft food diet and, Bullis said, the correctional facility doesn’t have the dietary capacities to meet her daughter’s needs.
“She has a portion of her jaw missing,” Bullis said. “She is undergoing a full mouth restoration and the day before getting arrested, she had had two crowns and a lower filling so she was in a lot of pain.”
We do special diets based on a religious need or a medical need, not on a preference. So they can request it, and if it’s a medical need, they request through medical, and if it’s a religious preference, they request through programming. We have a lot of inmates on special diets. We even have inmates on soft food diets, so it’s not like we don’t have it. But if someone comes in and says, ‘hey, I’d like to do the Paleo Diet’ we’re not going to do that if it’s not a legitimate religious need or medical need. There have been very few that we haven’t been able to accommodate.
Her daughter was so sick from not receiving her medication and being unable to eat that she could not call home from the jail, Bullis said, and:
She is so not herself that she could not call home after the first night as she started to get weaker because they’ve got a voice recognition system and the telephone system did not recognize her voice when she attempted to call home, which was five times, and finally she gave up. So they said the next time she attempted to call, they would reset it so that it would sound like her sick voice but she never attempted to call back home nor has she even tried to do that text messaging.
Authorities were not taking Hunerlach’s medical condition seriously enough, Bullis said, and the fact that the arrest occurred just prior to the weekend only slowed the process of trying to get her daughter help.
“They just think she’s a junkie,” Bullis said. She went on to say:
This is a criminal matter and I’m going to spend the money on the attorney protecting my child who has never been in trouble basically. It’s not like she’s a drug addict that I’m just looking at burying my head in the sand. I know what the problems are, but mainly the problems, the medical precedes all else. So my concerns are strictly for the medical and then the secondary issue will be that they follow protocol because she met all the criteria for the Good Samaritan Act and she should never have been arrested. As it is, they have already punished her enough by what they’ve done. They have violated her. They should have put her in the hospital or the mental health.
Overdose Good Samaritan Law
Overdose has become the No. 1 accidental killer in the United States. Not only is overdose on the rise in young people, it is on the rise in all age groups including the elderly. Furthermore, it is reported that most people overdose in the presence of family or friends that could have called for help, yet they either didn’t recognize signs of an overdose, hesitated to make a call or were afraid of criminal prosecution.
The Good Samaritan law takes the position that no person who suffers an alcohol or drug overdose should die because of fear of criminal charges, and that it is within the state’s best interests to encourage reporting dangerous situations where they occur to save lives.
“My daughter called 911, stayed with him, the cops arrived and everything,” Bullis said, “and they booked her and arrested her.”
Hunerlach was charged with one third-degree felony for possession of heroin and a class B misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Punishing people who seek help for someone who is overdosing is exactly what Utah’s Good Samaritan law was supposed to stop.
Signed by the governor in March, the Overdose Reporting Amendments are designed to give immunity and offer legal protection to any Good Samaritan who reports an overdosing victim in good faith and then continues to cooperate with rescue personnel.
Hunerlach’s Attorney, Larry Meyers, said after Monday’s hearing that they appreciate the county attorney’s office taking a look at this case.
“Our position is, we think that it is a Good Samaritan case,” he said, “and that we’re asserting that affirmative defense and we’ll talk to the county attorney’s office in more detail and proceed from there.”
Meyers went on to say:
The Good Samaritan is written up as an affirmative defense which means that if the county continues to prosecute then you have to raise that affirmative defense at trial and the person who’s deciding the case would find the facts. There would be a jury instruction that says this is what you’re looking for and if these facts are met then you should find her not guilty based on affirmative defense. So I don’t know which way the county attorney’s office will go but it’s our view that they should dismiss it, but they’re going to do their analysis.
You want to encourage the public policy, Meyers said, if someone is having an overdose, people aren’t too afraid to report it.
One thing at a time
Meyers and Bullis said their first priority was to attend to Hunerlach’s health condition.
On Monday afternoon, Bullis’ daughter was released on an O.R. order – a release on her own recognizance. O.R. release is no-cost bail. Defendants released on their own recognizance are required to sign a written promise to appear in court as required, and no bail has to be paid. However, all other aspects of bail remain the same and a judge can place conditions on a defendant released O.R.
Meyers said by doing that, the prosecutor is acknowledging that it appears that the facts of the case reflect the defense that’s given in the Utah Code, yet wants to review it further before making any further decisions.
When Bullis went to pick her daughter up from the correctional facility, she said she was still incoherent and couldn’t dress herself. She said she was told that her daughter had been transported to the hospital Sunday night.
“She was dehydrated and they hooked her up to an IV unit to hydrate her, gave her a Klonopin patch and some anti-nausea and she’s still not eating or drinking,” Bullis said. “I’ve been given instructions that if she can’t keep food down or starts vomiting again, to take her back to the hospital.”
Hunerlach’s next hearing is set for Oct. 6 before Judge John J. Walton of the county’s 5th District Court.
- Man arrested after overdosing on heroin at Coronada Inn & Suites
- Overdose law gives immunity to drug-using good Samaritans; Washington County statistics
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