CLAY COUNTY, Fla. -- Born just 11 months apart, Merissa and Daniel Linsinbigler were more than just brother and sister. They were roommates, partners in crime, and best friends.
Standing in the middle of the fields at the Murray Hill Playground, 19-year-old Merissa Linsinbigler recalls coming here with her big brother. "We used to play soccer here football here. We would come out here. We'd play ball. One time we had a little picnic over here."
Daniel's life wasn't always easy and like a lot of teenagers, he made mistakes. On March 2 of last year, Daniel apparently smoked the popular, and once legal, "spice."
"He made a choice to use synthetic marijuana," says his mom, Valerie Linsinbigler, "and it landed him in jail."
Apparently suffering some kind of psychotic break, Daniel entered two apartments at the Stay Suites inn in Orange Park. Without permission -- or any clothes – police say he charged into two apartments, yelling Bible scriptures and proclaiming he was Jesus.
He didn't touch anybody, or break anything. But the misdemeanor landed him in the Clay County jail. Where 10 days later, pepper sprayed and strapped into a restraint chair, he asphyxiated and died.
"I think my son died a heinous death," says his father, also Daniel Linsinbigler. "I can only think of the last two minutes of his life and what must have
been going though his mind, which eats me the most: 'I'm dying I'm dying. I'm going to die now. I'm never going to see my sister or my mother or my father again and this is it.'"
According to inmate Linus Farr, who was housed in the cell next door to Daniel Linsinbigler, the teen's problems began the night before when he asked for a pencil to write with.
Linsinbigler had been in jail for more than a week and, according to Farr, wanted to make a written request to see his attorney. But while deputies apparently gave him the form, they would not give him anything to write with. He was on suicide watch. No pencils allowed.
According to Farr, the guards didn't just deny Linsinbigler. They mocked him.
"They were all making fun of him," Farr told investigators with the Clay County Sheriff's Office. "They were calling him a Jesus freak, a God freak … [teasing him] about his religious beliefs: 'God cant' help you now. God can't give you a pencil."
The teasing, Farr added, caused Linsinbigler to grow "more and more agitated."
Jail employees didn't mention teasing in their interviews with investigators from either the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or CCSO Internal Affairs. But all agree that at some point, Linsinbigler's agitation grew physical. He began kicking and punching his cell door. A later autopsy found only "minor abrasions" on his hands, but officers said they were concerned for his safety.
"We really believed he was going to hurt himself," Clay County Deputy Rodney Houldson told investigators in a recently concluded Internal Affairs investigation.
So, at about 8:30 that morning, according to all accounts, officers entered his cell, subdued him with pepper spray and strapped him into a restraint chair. The order to use pepper spray, according to officers, came from Sergeant Robert Heaps. Deputy Houldson complied with the order, but told investigators he didn't agree with it.
"I did not want to even spray this guy," he told Internal Affairs. "I didn't need to. I'm a big guy, controlling this guy was not going to be an issue for me at all. He was a fragile guy as it was."
Immobilized in the chair, with nylon straps tight across his arms, legs and chest, Linsinbigler began to produce a large volume saliva and mucus – a reaction to the pepper spray. To prevent getting contaminated by the fluids, officers covered his head with a nylon and mesh hood – a so-called "spit mask."
What happened next depends on who's talking. At least three inmates say Linsinbigler began pleading for help.
According to Farr, in the cell next door, "He started complaining that he was having chest pains: 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe, get this hood off. I'm going to behave … Just let me get some air I have to be able to breathe.'"
Inmate John Jarvis, in an adjacent cell, gave a similar account. "He was begging to have [the hood removed], gasping, saying I can't breath[e]." (Jarvis says one officer responded, "If you can talk, you can breathe.")
Accounts from corrections officers differ. None recalled hearing Linsinbigler begging for help, though his chair was outside the guard station, in the middle of the cellblock. None of the officers recalled specifically what he said in his final hour. All say he was monitored every 15 minutes, as required by jail policy.
Shortly after 9 am, Linsinbigler stopped yelling and moving. His eyes and mouth hung open, his skin turned ashy gray. Corrections officers removed him from his chair and began CPR. When that failed, they called 911. Despite those efforts, Linsinbigler was unresponsive. He was taken to Orange Park medical center where he was declared dead.
"Sir, they killed that boy," inmate Jarvis wrote in a letter to the Public Defender's Office. "He was gasping and begging, stating over and over, 'I can't breathe. Roll back the cameras -- I only wanted a pencil.'"
Why? asks Jacksonville attorney Mike Marrese, who is representing the family. "When you put all of these measures, the chest strap, the mask, potentially the Taser – why? How much more restraint to you need of a 19-year-old, 140 pound kid?"
The Clay County Sheriff's Office has expressed condolences to the family, but insists jail officials did nothing wrong. Investigators from the State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Law enforcement also found no criminal intent.
But the state determined Daniel's death was no accident.
"I have a death certificate that says homicide," says Valerie Linsinbigler. "This means someone killed my son. I want to see them punished."
Marrese echoes that thought. "The Medical Examiner ruled this a homicide. Meaning a human killed another human. Why is no one being punished?"
The family has sued the jail and eight of its employees.
But to date, none has been disciplined or fired. "I don't understand how these trained officers let this happen," says Merissa Linsinbigler through tears. "Why are they still working there? Why haven't they gotten written up or anything for this?"
"When you go into jail you're not supposed to come out dead 10 days later at the hands of the police," says Marrese. "It's not supposed to happen."
Not one of the officers on duty that day mentioned anything about Daniel calling out for help or showing signs of medical distress. But figuring out just what happened the morning has been difficult. Although the jail apparently uses cameras to monitor inmates, officials say they do not record with them, and there is no surveillance tape. Attorney Tom Robenalt, who also represents the family, finds that implausible.
"What happened to the videotape? Why it is not preserved? Why is that critical evidence not here for us to evaluate? …. "It is surprising. … To me it is a very serious problem."
The case has just entered the discovery phase, and it could be a year or more before it gets to trial. In the meantime, his family tries to keep his memory alive, even as they struggle not to think about his death.
"Every day after work I go out there and I just talk to Daniel and I play with the sand," says his mom. "And I ask God to hold him until I can see him again …. When I think about him I don't think about him laying on that cold floor naked I just I can't. It will kill me if I do."