WATCHDOG: Jail inmate overdoses continue with little action from Marion County leaders

Will Schultz snorted two lines of fentanyl.

The 33-year-old Hillsboro man had been in the Marion County Jail for six days.

He laid down to take a nap in his cell, a detective later told Schultz’s former wife. He never woke up.

Schultz died a day before Thanksgiving in 2022. He’s one of at least two inmates who have fatally overdosed in jail since 2021.

Law enforcement agencies have a duty under Oregon law to care for incarcerated people in their custody. County governments must house, feed and protect inmates in their jail.

Yet records show county officials have done little to investigate or stop the illegal trafficking of drugs into the jail.

An outside investigation into Schultz’s death dragged on for almost a year. Officials have been mum about the results, declining to release records related to his death.

The county did release to Salem Reporter 147 pages of medical records related to inmates in the past two years who have overdosed in the jail or immediately after being released. They show drugs were being trafficked into the jail as recently as November.

Many of the documents were handwritten and redacted to conceal personal medical information. That made it impossible to tell how many inmates have overdosed in the care of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Nick Hunter, whose office oversees the jail, did not respond to written questions about why his office hasn’t investigated how drugs are being trafficked into the jail.

His office could produce no record showing any investigation into the jail drug trade. The agency hasn’t produced a single incident report about overdoses in the past two years, according to John Pettifer, Marion County assistant legal counsel.

The silence comes as overdoses have soared across the state in recent years, killing thousands of Oregonians. The state’s handling of addiction and overdoses in the criminal justice system is a key political issue for legislators this year.

Marion County Commissioners Colm Willis, Kevin Cameron and Danielle Bethell are among the elected officials who have repeatedly called for the repeal of Measure 110, which decriminalized user quantities of street drugs in early 2021. In a newsletter mailed to county residents earlier this year, they called the measure a “massive failure” and said the increase in overdoses since the measure’s passage was “heartbreaking but not a surprise.”

Yet the county could produce no record showing its elected leaders were ever notified of Schultz’s death, or that they have communicated about the issue of drug trafficking in the jail even after two inmates fatally overdosed.

A sudden, quiet death

Will Schultz was social, outgoing and loved telling stories about his life. 

“He thinks he’s funny,” his former wife, Ashley Schultz, said jokingly.

She said her former-husband struggled with methamphetamine addiction since getting out of prison in 2015. 

The couple divorced in 2020, but they still cared for each other and kept in touch.

Will Schultz was most recently working in construction about a year before his death.

He came to Salem 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 of possessing methamphetamine and a gun as a felon.

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

Around 7 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2022, Schultz’s cellmate found him unresponsive in his cell and alerted deputies. The sheriff’s office made the announcement a week after Schultz died, and only after Salem Reporter sought information about his death.

The office has made no mention of drugs being connected to Schultz’s death.

But Ashley Schultz said a detective told her soon after his death that he had overdosed on fentanyl, and that authorities almost immediately suspected other inmates of providing the drugs.

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

Jail overdoses continue

Schultz is one of seven Marion County Jail inmates who have died while in custody since the start of 2021, according to deputy Jeremy Schwab, sheriff’s office spokesman. Of those, three died in the jail.

The rest suffered medical emergencies in the jail and were taken to a hospital, where they later died. At least one died of a fentanyl overdose, according to an outside investigation by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t readily produce information on the number of drug overdoses in the jail, which can hold more than 400 inmates.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office has body scanners, a mail scanner and a drug-sniffing dog on hand at the jail to stop drugs from being smuggled in, said Operations Division Cmdr. Jeremy Landers, who responded to questions from Salem Reporter on the sheriff’s behalf.

Landers said the scanners were installed during the 2021-22 fiscal year but could not identify when. 

He otherwise declined to answer questions about what steps the office has taken to stop drug trafficking.

“The Sheriff’s Office does not comment on security reviews and measures taken at the jail, it is dedicated to keeping all its facilities safe and drug free,” Landers said.

The sheriff’s office in January 2023 also started providing medication-assisted treatment at the jail, which allows inmates addicted to opioids to go through withdrawal safely while in custody. 

Those measures haven’t stopped drugs from being trafficked in the jail.

Medical records released by the county showed that drug use remains active in the jail. At least two inmates were hospitalized last year after swallowing bags of drugs to sneak into the jail.

In May 2023, an inmate swallowed a bag of powdered fentanyl before arriving at the jail. He was hospitalized four days later, telling medical staff that he had “not passed it yet.”

A month later, an inmate was sent to the emergency room to treat abdominal pain. She said she had swallowed “baggies of meth” before being booked into jail.

The jail’s body scanner didn’t detect the drugs when she was booked but showed “abnormalities” in her abdominal area when she was later re-scanned.

Another inmate was found lying unresponsive on the floor of their cell on Oct. 21. Medics administered three doses of Narcan, which stops overdoses, and used electric shocks from a defibrillator to revive the person.

In November, an inmate who had been in jail for four days reported he had taken fentanyl that morning. He became unresponsive but survived after being given Narcan.

Before Schultz’s death, another inmate died in July 2021 after overdosing in the jail.

Frederic Ferguson, 24, died in the jail of an apparent overdose of oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl which he consumed while he was in his cell. 

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office were brought in as outside investigators. They questioned inmates and jail deputies and issued a report less than a week later.

The lead investigator said they searched Ferguson’s cell and found what appeared to be drugs, according to records released to Salem Reporter. 

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

That investigation took just six days.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Schultz’s death lagged for months.

Outside investigators from the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office in late October turned over their findings to prosecutors. 

The case remains under review for criminal prosecution as of Tuesday, according to Marion County Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy. He provided no additional details.


A year later, Marion County jail death remains a mystery

Man died Nov. 23 after being found unresponsive at Marion County Jail, deputies say

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

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

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.