DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. - More than a year after a sheriff’s office recruit died during his first days on the job, officials changed his cause of death.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation of George Ward’s death uncovered information the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s office did not know existed. After reviewing video of training that took place a day before Ward’s death, officials changed his manner of death from “natural” to “undetermined.”
“I have lost faith and hope that I would ever get any answers to what happened to my son,” Ward’s mother Lorraine Fredericks told Channel 2’s Erica Byfield.
The last time Fredericks saw her 29-year-old son alive was on a trip to Atlanta in early May 2013. Ward was living with a cousin while he prepared to move his children and fiancée to Georgia permanently. Fredericks fussed over Ward, asking him if he was sure he wanted to leave his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands to be a jailor for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s office.
Ward had been a corrections officer in St. Thomas for years.
“I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’” Fredericks recalled. “He said yes he wanted to do it. I said, ‘OK, you have my blessings.’”
After his second day on the job, Ward was dead.
“I just want to wake up after this nightmare,” Fredericks said. “George, please, I just need to know what happened.”
More than a year later, Byfield received numerous tips from DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office insiders who were concerned about Ward’s death. Most had never met Ward, but knew of the jail recruit who did not survive training. The DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s office said Ward died on the job when he succumbed to a preexisting heart condition. Sources told Byfield that was not the whole story.
Videos show intense workout
One source provided a surveillance video showing the early morning events of May 21, 2013 -- Ward’s last conscious hours.
From high above a jailhouse courtyard, the surveillance video depicted recruits in formation. They are seen doing a number of activities: wall sits, pushups, jumping jacks. The video also showed a drill sergeant with a video camera.
After pressuring DeKalb County officials about the camcorder footage, Channel 2 Action News received tapes that gave a glimpse into Ward’s final hours. At first he struggled to keep up -- then he struggled to breathe.
According to timestamps on the footage, Ward was apparently vomiting nearly thirty minutes into the exercises. There are many moments were he couldn’t keep up; he even hunched over while drill sergeants continued to push Ward to perform.
Channel 2 investigators traveled to Ward’s home in St. Thomas, USVI to learn more about the young man with the big smile seen struggling in the videos. Fredericks wanted to meet with Byfield to see what she had learned about Ward’s death.
The Sheriff’s Office had never told Fredericks about the tape. Her eyes darted back and forth across a laptop as she saw her oldest son during his second and final day on the job.
“Are you comfortable with this still playing?” Byfield asked Fredericks.
“Yes, I have to, I want to see it,” she said.
Moments after Ward appeared to vomit a second time on the video, Fredericks saw something that made her sick.
“Why does he have on a pink shirt? Why does my son have on a pink shirt? Did they single him out?” Fredericks asked.
The footage showed drill instructors giving Ward a bright pink hat and shirt. After he put on the clothing, he was pulled away from the group, where instructors appeared to push him harder.
“So my son was humiliated right before he died?” Fredericks asked. “I mean what would be the purpose?”
The footage continued, showing more exercises around the DeKalb County Jail. According to the video’s timestamp, shortly after 8:30 a.m., the recruits piled onto a white bus where they were told to drink water.
There is an hour and a half between boarding the bus and the next footage. Recruits were shown at Panthersville Field performing more exercises. Ward continued to struggle as drill instructors shouted, and called him “Pinky.”
The temperature reached 80 degrees that day, and humidity levels were, at times, 100 percent. Drill instructors and recruits were visibly sweating. Ward’s pink shirt and hat were soaked through.
George Ward's signs of distress
Sources told Channel 2 Action News, while on the field, drill instructors told recruits to circle around Ward as he laid on the ground, struggling. Some placed flowers and weeds on Ward -- mocking a funeral scene.
Channel 2 Action News spoke to several current and past DeKalb Sheriff’s Office employees who would not go on camera for fear of retaliation from the sheriff’s office administration.
There was video of the recruits continuing to exercise until after 10 a.m. The last 30 minutes of activities were not filmed. The last clip of George Ward showed him getting back on the bus. There were two drill instructors helping him walk. Sources and medical records said within minutes of the final video Ward was seizing and unresponsive.
Sources also told Channel 2 that drill instructors did not initially believe Ward was in distress. Ultimately, recruits asked to aid Ward while he struggled on the bus. There were no EMTs present during the morning, but head trainer Major Laura Roscoe did have first-responder training, according to law enforcement records.
After the bus made the 8.5 mile drive from Panthersville stadium to the jail, Roscoe called for EMS. Emergency call logs indicate it took EMS more than 30 minutes to arrive.
According to medical records, Ward was treated for hyperthermia and multi-organ failure at DeKalb Medical Center on May 21, 2013 through the following afternoon. His admitting temperature was 107.1 degrees Fahrenheit. At 1:46p.m. the next day, Ward succumbed to his injuries when his heart stopped.
DeKalb County's response to George Ward's death
The DeKalb County Medical Examiner said Ward died of a heart condition: probable ischemic heart disease due to complications of multifocal myocardial fibrosis. They said the manner of death was a natural one.
Channel 2 Action News asked the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office for more information about Ward’s death. According to department’s Office of Professional Standards Policy from 2009, allegations of misconduct must be investigated. It even noted the hospitalization of an employee is an investigable event.
The DeKalb Sheriff’s Office did not provide Channel 2 with any witness statements or signs of an investigation. Thomas Brown was the sheriff when Ward was a recruit, but newly elected DeKalb Sheriff Jeffery Mann was second in command at the time. Sheriff Mann officially declined to answer questions about George Ward’s death, but released this statement:
“We continue to grieve the tragic loss last year of Recruit George Ward, and our sympathies are with his family. However, we can see no constructive purpose in re-opening the wounds by participating in a discussion of this unfortunate incident in the news media,” DeKalb County Sheriff Jeffrey L. Mann.
Fredericks said sheriff’s officials also refused to answer her questions about Ward’s death.
“I’m heartbroken that the same system that my son wanted to work for and give it his all has turned its back on him and his family,” Fredericks said. “If there is nothing to hide about what happened, why can’t he just answer the questions…that statement doesn’t give me any satisfaction.”
Byfield continued to push for specific questions about Ward’s death to be answered, including why there was no formal investigation, with no response. Byfield caught up with Mann outside of the jail to ask him about her questions in person.
“Sheriff, I want to know why there wasn't an investigation? Why was he in a pink outfit?” Byfield asked Mann.
“How many times do I have to tell you, we don’t investigate those types,” Mann told Byfield.
“Really?” She asked.
“The medical examiner's report speaks for itself Erica,” Mann said.
With the permission of Ward’s family, Channel 2 gave Ward’s autopsy report and medical records to veteran forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. Wecht has more than 40 years of experience as a medical examiner and consultant for high-profile death cases.
“Upon entry to the hospital they diagnosed this as a multi-organ system failure was made that’s rather classical when you have someone who develops this kind of heat stroke, this total exhaustion,” Wecht said of the emergency room records that document Ward’s last moments. “That means the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, everything fails.”
When Wecht studied the DeKalb Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, he expressed a number of concerns. He said he agreed with their findings of scaring on Ward’s heart, but he found no other symptoms of ischemic heart disease -- the listed cause of Ward’s death.
“The autopsy report, interestingly while attributing the death to ischemic heart disease, which means lack of oxygenation, does not find any evidence of hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis, nor does it find an enlarged heart,” Wecht said. “This was not a classical case of a heart attack in any respect.”
Ward’s mother said she also had concerns about the medical examiner’s findings. She claimed Ward received physicals every year, and never showed symptoms of a heart condition.
“If he had something and y’all said he died of a heart attack why wasn’t he being treated for a heart attack?” Fredericks asked. “Y’all were treating him for a heat stroke, this doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
Ward also passed a mandatory state physical exam before he began training.
Chief Medical Examiner for DeKalb County Gerald Gowitt sat down with Channel 2 Action News to discuss the findings of Ward’s autopsy report. Gowitt said he stood behind his department’s findings.
“I can understand why you have questions. I hope you understand that people can look at this and have different opinions,” Gowitt told Byfield. “There are always controversial deaths, Ms. Byfield, that nobody agrees on.”
Gowitt said the scarring found in the autopsy was evidence of a heart condition. After looking at medical records Gowitt said Ward’s admitting temperature of 107.1 degrees was “anomalous.” He also noted some of the physical activity Ward participated in that morning -- a far shorter list than what appeared in the video obtained by Channel 2.
Byfield offered the medical examiner a copy of the video the Sheriff’s Department did not provide them at the time of Ward’s death. Gowitt said his office never closes an investigation.
“Do you not think that maybe the heat was a larger factor than what you’re saying?” Byfield asked.
“Not yet, but we’re willing to re-look at it… let us look it over again with the new evidence that you have here and we’ll give you another answer,” Gowitt said.
After reviewing the video, medical examiners reanalyzed Ward’s death. They provided a statement explaining their new findings, including the fact that they were previously unaware of the extent of his physical activities and the video illustrates Ward was struggling. The report also stated there is no evidence of what happened in the hour between Ward needing assistance getting on the bus and when he received medical attention.
Ultimately, Ward’s cause of death was changed to “myocardial fibrosis aggravated by physical exertion” with “hyperthermia of unclear etiology” listed as another significant condition.
His manner of death is now listed as “undetermined.”
For the family Ward left behind, the changes help unanswered questions. But for Fredericks, those questions are now replaced with anger.
“It doesn’t give me any closure. It definitely can’t bring back my son,” Fredericks said. “What responsibility are they going to take for killing him, because that’s what they did— they killed him.”