A Quiet Little Death at Bellevue

Inmate Patrick Miller didn't beat the system. It beat him.

His body appeared destined for a grave on Hart Island, where the city buries its unclaimed dead. But a Legal Aid social worker who had gotten to know Miller began a search for his family. Eventually, the trail led to South Carolina and Miller's mom, a machine operator in a factory. Billie Ann Miller told the New Yorkers who found her that she had had only intermittent contact with her son in recent years. A funeral was arranged.

As a child, Miller was interested in books and "was a good listener and artistic," she tells the Voice. "I remember him at 10 months old going to look at books. He loved to draw."

The teenage Miller was in and out of trouble with his friends, his mother says, and she convinced him to enter the Job Corps by offering to buy him a car. After he turned 21, however, he moved out, developed a drinking problem, and had his first bout with homelessness. After his mental illness began to surface, she says, mother and son lost touch.

Patrick at home in South Carolina, four years before his death at Bellevue.

Patrick at home in South Carolina, four years before his death at Bellevue.

In 2003, Miller reappeared in Spartanburg and told his mom that he had been living in New York. "I didn't know he had moved there," she says.

Miller was scooped up off New York's streets and put into jail in December 2006 for alleged fare-beating at the Times Square station and alleged possession of a stolen credit card. He was transferred to the Bellevue jail ward on March 22, 2007, likely as a result of his prior history of mental illness.

By then, Miller was calling himself "Jermele Kelly," which happened to be the name of one of his closest friends back home. He often told people that he was from Chicago. Few knew his real name.

People who were acquainted with him say he was physically imposing but almost always docile, even childlike. He often seemed lost in his own internal world. At times, like many other people diagnosed with schizophrenia or related disorders, he seemed to be carrying on a conversation with someone in his brain. He never had any visitors.

Miller had had one previous violent incident: Another inmate punched him, and when a male nurse offered a calming touch, Miller reacted by hitting him in the face and breaking his glasses.

Still, Bellevue's jail wards aren't nearly as rough or foreboding as regular jails. Ward 19 North is a U-shaped hallway with offices and residential rooms arrayed along its length. There are beds for about 25 patients. A second unit, 19 West, has about 40 beds. There are video cameras in 19 North, but none in 19 West—which is significant in the Miller case.

Jail guards are stationed at three spots—a sequence of entry gates, outside the group-therapy room, and a central spot where they can monitor both legs of the hallway. There is also a glassed-in nurses' station.

The medical records for the last day of Miller's life say that he was in "good behavioral control, responsive and respectful," according to the lawsuit. He was on three different medications, but had no history of illegal drug use and no record of heart irregularities, records and sources say.

All of which makes the wording of the autopsy report mysterious: The report concluded that Miller had "multiple blunt trauma," but that wasn't mentioned in the "cause of death" section of the report. Miller had deep bruises on his face, head, neck, and along his jawline. Among other injuries, there were two long internal hemorrhages in his back. In his abdomen, there was internal bleeding.

He had what's called a mesenteric hematoma, an uncommon abdominal injury that occurs when someone is struck hard without warning—like when a baseball player is hit by a pitch.

Miller had also been struck at the point of his sinoatrial node, the nerve in the heart that regulates the heartbeat. Cardiac arrhythmia—or irregular heartbeat—isn't mentioned or supported anywhere else in the autopsy report, except in that single sentence in the "cause of death" section.

Other records in the case—or their absence—generate other mysteries: Miller's fateful encounter with the guards in 19 North was captured by videotape, but what happened after he was taken, unconscious, to the holding pen in 19 West was not.

The incident took place at 5:09 p.m., according to some records, and he was discovered "unresponsive" at 5:20 p.m. What, if anything, happened in those 11 minutes?

Another question is whether the jail guards immediately told hospital staff that Miller was in dire medical trouble. There seems to have been some delay. Sources say that officers appear to have tried to revive Miller themselves. At one point, one of the officers burst into the nurses' station, looking for a plastic bag and a defibrillator, sources say.

Eventually, a doctor on-site, Li-Wen Lee, arrived and went to the holding cell. Still in question is whether Lee was paged by Department of Correction staff or found out on her own and went to the holding cell herself.

The doctor tried to revive Miller for approximately the next half hour, records indicate. He was declared dead at 6:02 p.m.

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