Six days into a 23-day sentence for a traffic charge, the pain became unbearable.
During his first five days at the Harford County Detention Center, Norman Miller carried a secret inside him. Seeking favor with his fellow inmates, before entering the jail Miller swallowed two small “balloons”—actually fingers from a latex glove—filled with tobacco, matches, and a match-striker. But the balloons became lodged in his stomach and, as his agony increased, Miller twice sought treatment from the detention center’s privately-contracted medical staff.
The second time, after admitting what he had swallowed, Miller was given a laxative and moved to an isolation cell, supposedly under constant watch. He was left alone for a short time, monitored only by video. Desperate for relief, he shrugged off his prison-issued shirt, tore it into strips, tied it around the top of one of the cell’s bars, looped the other end around his neck, and stepped off the edge of his cot.
Minutes passed before corrections officers realized what Miller had done and rushed to his aid. They were too late to prevent severe asphyxiation, which would result in Miller being taken off life support at a local hospital a few days later.
In his last, desperate act, the ninth person to die at the detention center in a span of five years killed himself trying to live.
Theresa Haladej’s home sits along Main Street in Ephrata, Pa., the type of classic small-town structure that lines main streets across the country. Like many of those homes, it feels lived-in, comfortable, and there’s always an improvement project on hand. On one particular day earlier this summer it is largely darkened, and what light enters comes through the dining room. Appropriate, because that is where Haladej has placed a poster board display showing photos of Miller, her son.
The photos are a collection of anyone’s family moments: older images of Miller with family, shots of him at Christmastime, a few of him and his fiancee Lisa Mays.
Haladej initially left several comments on The Dagger’s coverage of her son’s death before falling silent. In fact, she retained the services of attorney Cary Hansel of Greenbelt law firm Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, a specialist in bringing actions against police agencies. Over the following months and with his help, she strove to learn what happened to her son and force the Harford County Sheriff’s Office to turn over key documents in the incident.
The Sheriff’s Office initially described the death of the 42-year-old Miller only as a suicide attempt. It would be weeks until the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner finally confirmed his death, and further inquiry at the time was directed to Harford County’s lawyer, who declined comment.
Finally, this spring, Haladej sent a long letter to Sheriff Jesse Bane presenting the facts of her son’s death and asking the sheriff to review the detention center’s suicide prevention policies and procedures. You can read her full letter here. As of this writing, she had not received an answer.
At the same time, she reached out to The Dagger to share what she learned and fill in a few of the blanks of her son’s incomplete life.
Before embarking on that story, several disclosures are necessary.
The Harford County Sheriff’s Office in early October directed all questions about Miller’s death to the Harford County Law Department and County Attorney Rob McCord. McCord in turn said in an e-mail to The Dagger on Oct. 10 that he did not feel that he was “at liberty to discuss the details of the incident” as his department received a “notice of claim letter” since The Dagger first broke news of Miller’s death. The letter, dated July 18, 2013 and signed by attorney Jarrod S. Sharpe, is a common legal tool to indicate that a legal claim may be made against a party.
However, Haladej is adamant that she does not plan to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, or the deputies who interacted with him before and after he hung himself on that January afternoon.
Without response from the Sheriff’s Office or McCord, much of the detail that follows is based on interviews with those close to Miller and on a variety of documents, including official statements filed by corrections officers who responded to Miller’s suicide attempt and medical records.
The detention center, always a magnet for criticism, has been a point of contention in the ongoing political race for sheriff of Harford County. However, none of the former or current candidates for the post were consulted in the six-month-long reporting process for this story either on or off the record, nor played any part in bringing it to The Dagger. Rather, Haladej said she approached The Dagger with her story independently due to this website’s ongoing reporting on deaths at the detention center and its coverage of her son’s passing.
Miller’s death brought to nine the number of inmates who had died for various reasons since 2008, and marked the third suicide in the span of a year. Since his death, there has not been another publicly-reported fatality at the prison.
From early adulthood, Norman Michael Miller was not a stranger to the criminal justice system. By the time he was 23, he had been charged in separate incidents for theft, drug charges, and armed robbery in Maryland. In the latter case, his mother said that he used an unloaded firearm. His troubles culminated in nine years in a state prison in the 1990s. According to his mother, while in prison he found religion, obtained his GED, earned the majority of credits he needed toward a college degree, and also taught GED classes to other inmates.
“It wasn’t a totally bad experience in there for him,” Haladej said.
When he got out, Miller’s court records show several additional charges, including burglary, driving under the influence, and an assault charge. But after 2006, there are no further incidents; nor are there any court records of charges against Miller in Lancaster County, Pa., where his mother lives. That coincides with a period of time during which his mother said he came back to her home in Ephrata. While there, she said he was an avid reader of many subjects but especially of theology, and worked on home-improvement projects for friends and family.
“Norm was a homebody, he didn’t go out much at all,” she said. “There was always a project around here.”
During that time, Miller also reconnected with a former girlfriend, Lisa Mays. The two first met when they were 12, Mays said, and after decades of what she described as an off-again, on-again relationship, decided marriage was in their near future.
“We got back in touch with each other after years,” Mays said in a September interview at her home outside Bel Air. “Norman had a special place in my heart, and I in his. We finally got it right.”
Though they continued to have their troubles, the two were on an upswing on May 23, 2012, and Miller spent the afternoon working on Mays’ car at her apartment just outside Bel Air. Though his own license had been suspended, Miller decided to make a quick trip in her Toyota Camry to pick up a needed part that evening while she tended to her mother, who had just undergone a knee replacement. Just after 7 p.m., Miller departed her Greenbrier apartment and made a fateful mistake.
According to a police report, Miller was attempting to turn onto Brierhill Drive from Todd Road when he “failed to yield the right of way to traffic” and collided with another Camry driven by Karen Toussaint. Both Haladej and Mays claim that a bus was stopped just outside the intersection, blocking Miller’s line of sight, and rather than wait until it moved, he attempted to dart across the northbound lanes of Brierhill Drive and collided with Toussaint’s car. By the time police arrived, however, Miller had fled the scene.
The exact reasons why he did so are not entirely clear. Haladej said her son had a beloved dog, Rooney, in the car with him and he feared the animal might have been injured in the crash. She added that a group of youths on the bus who witnessed the crash may also have taunted Miller and intimidated him into leaving the scene. Mays also mentioned both elements as possible causes for Miller’s actions. Toussaint told police that Miller “stated he had to bring his dog home and would be right back,” according to the police report, but did not return.
Haladej said her son was injured in the crash himself, sustaining a concussion and two cracked ribs for which he was treated at a local hospital; she said he passed out in Mays’ apartment after returning there with Rooney. When police reached Mays, she provided them with Miller’s cell phone number; contacted by police, Miller was “very apologetic for his actions, saying he was afraid he would go to jail.” Haladej said a deputy told Miller he could meet with authorities the following day; however, he was charged the next day with several traffic violations, including negligent driving and leaving the scene of an accident.
The case eventually made its way to Harford County Circuit Court, where on Dec. 21, 2012 Miller pleaded guilty to a single count of driving on a revoked license. He was sentenced to a year in jail with all but one month suspended, and would ultimately face a 23-day stint–of the initial 30 day sentence, Miller received two days’ credit for time served when he was arrested, and expected five more days to come off the sentence for good behavior. Haladej said Miller asked sentencing Judge William Carr to postpone the start of his incarceration until the following month so he could be home for the holidays—not an uncommon request at that time of year.
“I kept telling him, you better not be in jail for Christmas,” Haladej said.
Carr agreed, according to court records, and Miller’s sentence was set to start on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.
Miller (right) with his sister and brothers.
Before reporting to the Harford County Detention Center, Miller made some preparations. One of them would lead to his death.
First, he changed his appearance. In most photos, Miller is physically unremarkable: brownish hair swept across his forehead, plain glasses, a muscular physique hidden under a sweatshirt. But in a photo taken the day before his imprisonment, he looks starkly different—his head is shaved, he has grown a goatee, and he is wearing a tank top displaying his muscles and tattoos. If the earlier picture is Walter White, the later image is Heisenberg.
“We had been apart the last two weeks before he went in, over some issues,” Mays said. “When I saw that picture…I just saw Norman. I saw the façade he put up.”
When he left his mother in Ephrata, Miller gave her a supply list for projects he intended to complete when he came back.
“When he hugged me when he was going to prison, he said he’d be home on this [particular] date,” she said. “He left me with a supply list of materials for projects and told me ‘don’t wash my clothes’ because things get lost around here in the laundry.”
On the night that Mays drove him to the Detention Center, Miller swallowed two “balloons”; the fingers of a latex glove, cut off and filled, one with rolling tobacco and the other with striker-paper and matches. The practice, known as bodypacking, is common among those transporting and smuggling drugs. Haladej said that research she conducted after her son’s death indicated that most individuals who use latex gloves cut the finger covering off at the first knuckle. Miller’s balloons, however, ran the full length of the finger.
“I think he had a little bit of understanding,” Mays said, “but I think on the whole he was winging it.”
But why take such an extreme step? Haladej cast his decision in terms of fear, claiming that he believed gangs were prevalent at the detention center, and that he had read about the previous deaths and suicides there over the preceding few years. She said he swallowed the cigarette materials as a way to possibly gain protection from other inmates. However, Mays said Miller’s choice may have been a bit more practical in tone–he simply believed he could use the tobacco to build goodwill with other inmates, she said.
“It wasn’t necessarily protection,” Mays said, “it was an ‘in’ to make buddies. He was very aware of the dark side of jail.”
Mays dropped Miller off at the Harford County Detention Center shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18. He underwent an initial medical screening the next day, conducted by a nurse with Conmed, the jail’s privately-contracted medical service. Based in Hanover, the company has been retained by the Sheriff’s Office through June 2018 to provide medical care at the jail.
Miller’s initial medical screening turned up nothing unusual. Crucially, the nurse conducting the examination checked “no” for the question “Does Arrestee report being suicidal?” and otherwise determined Miller displayed “appropriate” behavior, was “alert,” and appeared “neat/clean.” Miller reported that he had not consumed alcohol in four years, but that he smoked marijuana the night before entering the prison. He was cleared to enter general population.
Miller’s exact whereabouts over the next few days are not perfectly clear. Based on descriptions provided by Haladej and Mays, Miller may have been housed in either a maximum-security cellblock, or a medium-security dormitory-style room, rather than a direct supervision unit an area with separated rooms and a common area reserved for minimum security inmates. An incident report written after Miller’s death states that he was “pulled out of A-block,” the jail’s maximum security wing.
Haladej claimed that her son was uncomfortable at the Detention Center from the start. She said he spoke of other inmates who would keep him up at night with loud noises and yelling as “the banshees”–a term Mays also said he used. His mother also said Miller told Mays that he would go long periods without seeing guards, and that while sleeping in a plastic “boat”–a long curved sled-like object used as an overflow bed–other inmates would move around him, step over him, jostle him. He feared that other inmates were planning to attack him, she said, or tamper with his food.
But, as the days passed, Miller faced a more tangible problem. The balloons he swallowed had become lodged and impacted in his stomach, and would not pass through his intestinal tract. When Mays went to visit him at the detention center on Wednesday, Jan. 23, she said Miller complained of having problems with his stomach, and said he had not yet passed the balloons.
The two also talked of the future, and their recent disagreements.
“I was a little stern with him, because of the breakup we’d had,” she said. “I was a little wishy-washy, a little stern. I was so in love with him. But it was hard.”
While imprisoned, Mays said Miller composed a long letter to her in which he attempted to describe his feelings and his hopes for the future. In it, he broached the idea of marriage. The letter was not delivered to Mays until after Miller’s death.
During her visit, Miller was in pain but not suicidal, according to Mays, who said she has dealt with repeated suicide attempts and a final, successful attempt by a member of her immediate family.
“I think he was exhausted,” she said. “I don’t think he thought he was going to die. He wanted to get medical attention. He had to do something.”
The following evening, Thursday, Jan. 24, Miller was taken to the facility’s medical suite with severe abdominal pain. According to notes kept by a registered nurse with Conmed who treated Miller, many of which are nearly illegible, he arrived in a “rant” about things he read in a book he received from a jail book cart, but “did not make any sense”–a far cry from the composed inmate evaluated by medical staff just five days earlier. His eyes were closed tightly, and he rolled on the floor with his legs pulled to his chest, according to the notes.
Miller eventually told the nurse that he had not had a bowel movement in a week, but was found to have soft, non-distended, and “active bowel sounds,” according to the nurse’s notes. Miller was eventually given 30 cc’s of Pepto-Bismol, the common over-the-counter substance used to treat minor digestive system maladies, and walked back to his cell under his own power.
The next morning, Friday, Miller was evaluated by a professional, though the name written on the “evaluation and treatment plan” is nearly incomprehensible. While the individual placed “Ph.D” next to their name, it is unclear whether they were a medical doctor, a psychiatric professional, or something else.
In addition to noting Miller’s previous convictions for armed robbery, burglary, and fleeing custody, this report places his marijuana use at “1 joint” daily and also notes daily use of alcohol. Haladej strongly contested those claims; she said neither was true and that Miller drank only occasionally, and doubts her son would have told the interviewer otherwise. The report also cites his previous use of the anti-depressant Celexa, claiming he last used it in 2009 and quoting Miller as saying “I didn’t like it, so I stopped using it.”
However, the Conmed evaluator found no evidence of suicide ideation in Miller seven hours before he he hung himself, and determined that he was “in no acute distress.”
According to Conmed treatment notes and Sheriff’s Office incident reports, Miller was again brought to medical shortly after 4 p.m. that afternoon, again complaining of severe abdominal pain and again seen by a registered nurse and a licensed practical nurse, though it is unclear either are the same individual who treated him the night before. This time, Miller admitted to swallowing balloons with tobacco and paper matches, saying he didn’t mention prior to that time because “I didn’t want to get in trouble.” It’s an explanation his mother found plausible.
“He didn’t want to admit to swallowing the bags on Thursday [Jan. 24], because he would get an infraction,” and the resulting consequences, Haladej said.
According to an incident report written by Cpl. Jonathan Jenkins, which provides much of the narrative surrounding Miller’s death, Miller was given 100 mg of Colace and 10 mg of Dulcolax, constipation relievers. A nurse told Jenkins that Miller’s abdominal area and bowels sounded normal, and he was moved to Isolation Cell number six for observation—more specifically, to be watched until he passed the balloons.
A short time later, Jenkins confronted Miller about his claim of swallowing the balloons. According to Jenkins’ report, he asked Miller whether he had really done so, or “was just trying to be moved out of A-block.” Miller then claimed he was “not sure whether he had swallowed any balloons.”
“Cpl. Jenkins advised inmate Miller that we needed to know the truth, to make sure we were taking the appropriate steps,” Jenkins wrote. “At this time, Cpl. Jenkins noticed that inmate Miller began to act agitated with the questioning and bumped his head on the wall twice, while stating ‘I just don’t remember if I swallowed them or not.”
Haladej said she believed her son’s response was not meant to be taken literally, and that he may have been speaking flippantly to the deputy. Mays also granted the possibility.
According to his report, Jenkins instructed Miller to lay down on his bunk, and said he would return in a few minutes to see if he had passed anything after completing his rounds in another area of the facility.
At this point, the exact details of Miller’s actions become unclear.
Among the materials turned over to Haladej by the Sheriff’s Office was video footage of the isolation cell containing Miller which depicts his last moments; Haladej described the video’s contents but did not offer to show it to The Dagger for independent confirmation.
A holding cell at the Harford County Detention Center similar to those used for isolation.
According to her, a chair was placed in front of Miller’s cell for a deputy–likely Jenkins–to sit in while waiting for him to pass the balloons. Shortly after, a deputy begins delivering dinner trays to the isolation cells, she said, and Miller spends approximately five minutes with his hands over his eyes–praying, Haladej believes.
“When my son prayed, it was like that,” she said. “As soon as I saw his posture, I knew what he was doing.”
Additionally, inmates in isolation are under a constant watch, but in the absence of input from the Sheriff’s Office, it is not known whether that watch consisted solely of video monitoring, and whether video feeds in the nearby control room are always on each cell, or rotate between views of each.
In Haladej’s interpretation, her son believed that the deputy delivering trays would return shortly, and discover him hanging before too much time passed. However, according to information she received, she said that that deputy apparently “forgot something” and did not return in the timeframe Miller may have planned.
Haladej said the actual moment that her son climbed onto his bunk, tied the pieces of his shirt around the cell bars, and hung himself was not a violent act. She believes he intended to make it to the hospital.
“He didn’t jump,” she said. “It was so soft, he just stepped off.”
It was Jenkins who found Miller hanging from the bars, though the exact timing of when that occurred is also unclear. According to his incident report, Jenkins’ brief conversation with Miller took place at approximately 4:35 p.m. Incident reports filed by eight other deputies place the time of an “all available officers” call to Isolation Cell 6 at between 4:45 and 4:50 p.m.
Jenkins in his report described reaching through the bars to attempt to support Miller’s body weight and take pressure off his neck, while simultaneously calling for backup. As other deputies arrived, they were unable to tear or untie the shirt, according to the various incident reports, until one ran to the Supervisor’s Office to get scissors. None of the deputies carried a cut-down tool, nor was one available nearby.
The same two Conmed nurses who treated Miller just more than a half-hour before also responded to the cell block. Miller was lowered to his bunk but was unresponsive and not breathing. An Automated External Defibrillator, or AED, device was also not present—two deputies reported dashing to medical to retrieve such a device as well as an oxygen tank. EMS personnel eventually arrived and took over Miller’s care, transporting him to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center at approximately 5:20 p.m.
Senior Sheriff’s Office staff were contacted between 5 p.m. and 5:35 p.m. that night according to one deputy’s report, including Col. Gregg Carlevaro, who had been appointed as the nominal supervisor of the jail in the absence of a warden at the time. Detectives and crime scene investigators also responded to the isolation cell block to gather evidence and interview corrections officers who were present at the time.
When Miller was admitted to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, he was “unresponsive to any stimuli,” according to hospital records. While on life support over the weekend, Miller was formally released from the custody of the Sheriff’s Office on Friday, Jan. 25. Such a step is commonly taken in dire medical situations to allow an inmate’s family to make choices regarding their treatment. According to court records, in a letter dated Feb. 1 to parole and probation authorities, Judge Carr wrote that he was informed on Jan. 26 that Miller was considered “clinically dead.”
On Monday, Jan. 28, Miller’s family elected to “pursue comfort measures,” according to his medical files, and spoke with a representative of The Living Legacy Foundation, an organ donation organization. He was removed from life support a short time later.
“It was bleak from the start,” Mays said of Miller’s prognosis. “It was almost like his soul was already gone, but he was hanging on.”
The Harford County Sheriff’s Office provided basic details of the incident the day after Miller hung himself, but soon ceased responding to inquiries. Edward Hopkins, the agency’s chief spokesman at the time and now its colonel and second-in-command, on Saturday, Jan. 26 responded to questions from The Dagger with Miller’s age (but not name) and basic details of the reason for his incarceration and his suicide attempt.
Subsequent questions went unanswered until Jan. 29, 2013, when Hopkins said the agency had implemented a new policy at the direction of Sheriff Bane, under which it would provide initial details and refer all further requests to the county’s Law Department and McCord. The reason for the new policy, Hopkins said, was concerns over “possible future litigation” in such cases. Miller’s death was not made public until Feb. 6, when The Dagger confirmed his fate through the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
More than a year after her son’s death, Haladej leveled no small amount of blame at him for swallowing the fatal items in the first place.
“First and foremost, I hold my son responsible for his poor choice of body-packing,” she said. “I know he was in extreme pain, alone and afraid and still trying to get to the hospital.”
She claimed to have no plans to level a lawsuit against the county, Sheriff Jesse Bane, or the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, despite her attorney’s belief that they could bring a successful claim. Haladej said she is “not after Harford County’s money.”
“I don’t want their money, I don’t want death money,” she said. “I wanted the truth, once I had that, I felt so blessed to receive answers that all parents deserve but do not get.”
Still, perhaps not surprisingly, Haladej is unsparing in her criticism of the Harford County Detention Center and its staff.
“Norman needed an ‘A’ team,” she said. “I’m convinced if he had an ‘A’ team he had a chance. He had a ‘B’ team.”
However, she said she hopes to use her son’s death as impetus for change at the Detention Center, including additional training for corrections officers and the installation of equipment such as cut-down tools and AED devices in locations at which they can be more quickly accessed.
Mays said she believes the detention center’s staff hears complaints from inmates and deals with such frequent medical “complaints”—most probably made in the hopes of getting a few hours or days away in a more comfortable hospital room—that they may not give inmates with genuine medical emergencies the attention they deserve.
“They [corrections officers] don’t know what their circumstances are,” she said. “They’re so quick to judge…they don’t treat them as human beings. They’re just a ‘criminal.’”
In a corner of her bedroom, she still keeps an assembly of trinkets and photos of Miller, a small shrine to a man she loved, despite the difficulties.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t dealt with all of it,” Mays said. “Norman’s death has been too hard.”