A year later, Marion County jail death remains a mystery

Marion County officials are staying silent about the results of a nearly year-long investigation into a death of a jail inmate.

Will Schultz, 33, of Hillsboro, apparently died a day before Thanksgiving in 2022 of an overdose of fentanyl he took while in the Marion County Jail.

Outside investigators concluded their work in late October, turning over results to Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. Her chief deputy said the investigation was being reviewed but would not share any additional details.

Meantime, Marion County officials insist they can’t talk about the death, including why the investigation lagged for months when a similar investigation in 2021 took just six days.

The Schultz death raises questions about the flow of lethal drugs into the jail and how seriously those in charge of protecting inmates take their duty.

Marion County Sheriff Nick Hunter’s office reported it had no record of investigations into drug trafficking into the jail. The sheriff’s office also reported it had no record of actions taken to stop the trafficking.

Hunter’s office also couldn’t readily produce information on the number of drug overdoses in the jail, which can hold more than 400 inmates.

Hunter didn’t respond to written questions.

Marion County Commissioners Kevin Cameron, Danielle Bethell and Colm Willis have yet to release documents under a public records request to show what they know about the jail drug trade. County officials concluded that releasing such records wouldn’t serve the public interest and insisted on payment of $214 to cover their costs.

“Filling this request would place a burden on Marion County,” according to John Pettifer, county assistant legal counsel.

Jail deaths are increasingly an issue across the U.S., particularly those attributed to drug overdoses.

In Portland, a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy recently was charged with official misconduct, accused of failing his duty on the day a jail inmate died of a fentanyl overdose, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

In Marion County, seven inmates have died since early 2021 while in the county jail.

In July 2021, 24-year-old Frederic Ferguson died of an apparent overdose of oxycodone he consumed while he was in his cell. When abused, the drug can create the same effect as using heroin.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office was brought in to investigate in the event that jail employees had some link to the death. Investigators questioned inmates and jail deputies.

In reports the office released to Salem Reporter, the lead investigator said they searched Ferguson’s cell and found what appeared to be drugs.

“The drugs were crushed blue and white pill laid out in a line for consumption by inhalation,” the report said.

Investigators learned that Oyxcontin, a brand of oxycodone was “being distributed in the pod.” One inmate shared that “the Oxy had been in the housing unit for a few days.” Another told detectives that he “knows stuff gets smuggled in” without elaborating.

At the time, oxycodone laced with fentanyl was being distributed throughout Ferguson’s jail pod, Marion County prosecutors said in a later court filing.

The lead detective concluded in his report that ”the Marion County jail staff committed no crimes” and that a Marion County sheriff’s detective “is going to follow up on the overdose and drugs that were being passed around in the pod.”

The results of that effort couldn’t be readily established, but an outside police agency was once again brought in after Schultz’s death. This time, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office took on the investigation. That office didn’t respond to questions about why that investigation took months.

But Ashley Schultz, the dead inmate’s former wife, said she was told soon after his death that authorities almost immediately suspected other inmates of providing the drugs. 

Will Schultz (Ashley Schultz)

Schultz died on Nov. 23, 2022, after he was found unresponsive in his cell. The sheriff’s office made the announcement a week later – and only after Salem Reporter sought information about his death.

He was transferred six days earlier from the Multnomah County Jail, where he had been held on charges of kidnapping, robbery, coercion, unauthorized use of a vehicle, menacing and theft. 

He had posted bail to get out of the Portland jail, but jail staff learned he was wanted on new charges in Marion County.

Schultz was moved to the Salem jail on Nov. 17, 2022. He died six days after arriving.

In the hours before he died, he made three calls to his former wife, she said. Ashley said she was at work and couldn’t answer the phone.

“I wish I could’ve, because that would probably answer a lot of questions,” she said.

Around 7 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2022, Schultz’s cellmate found him unresponsive in his cell and alerted deputies, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release at the time. 

Deputies and medical staff started performing CPR while awaiting an ambulance.

“Ambulance personnel took over and continued life saving measures of Mr. Schultz, for a considerable amount of time and effort however he was pronounced deceased,” according to the sheriff’s office.

Ashley said investigators told her within days that they knew he had died of a fentanyl overdose. She said they otherwise provided her conflicting accounts of what led up to his death.

She recalled a Marion County detective telling her the morning after Schultz’s death that his cellmate had watched him snort two lines of fentanyl. Schultz then told his cellmate that he was going to take a nap.

When inmates gathered later that day for their medications and Schultz was not present, jail staff checked his cell and found him dead. They found fentanyl in his possession, Ashley recalled the detective saying.

She said she later spoke with a detective from Clackamas County, who confirmed Schultz had overdosed on fentanyl. But she recalled that detective telling her that no one had witnessed Schultz take the drug. When Ashley told him the previous detective had told her otherwise, she said he responded that the cellmate did witness it, but inmates are not obligated to report drug use.

The detective also told Ashley that two inmates, including his cellmate, had admitted to giving Schultz fentanyl, she recalled. But when she asked whether they would face charges, she said the detective told her investigators still weren’t certain if those inmates supplied Schultz with the drug.

The detective told her that fentanyl was being trafficked in the Marion County Jail and many inmates were overdosing, but most were surviving, she recalled.

Marion and Clackamas County officials have declined to release any of their records chronicling the investigation, saying the matter remained open. Citing the criminal investigation, the State Medical Examiner’s Office declined in February to release its autopsy and investigative reports for the death.

Meanwhile, Ashley said she wonders whether anyone will be held accountable for the death and why the investigation has dragged on so long.

“Nobody will give me any information,” she said. “I’ve heard nothing.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.