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In a statement, jail officials said they did not consider Stai to be a risk at the time they sought the furlough. They also said Stai need not be considered a vulnerable adult — even though the law defines persons with diagnosed mental health issues as falling in that category.
They also said they might not have sought a furlough if Stai could have been treated at the hospital in Bemidji.
“We could have then guarded him in the medical facility,” the statement said. “Most facilities do not have the manpower or the budget to provide security and detention outside their jail for more than short time frames.”
Kolar, who is chief public defender for the 17-county Ninth Judicial District in northwestern Minnesota, says the incident represents several failures.
“The jail is responsible for the safety of the inmates,” Kolar said. “But they allowed a mentally ill inmate to be assaulted. Rather than accept responsibility, jail staff called the judge and asked him to furlough Mr. Stai … to avoid the cost of treating the injuries they were responsible for allowing to happen.”
Just four days before the beating, Stai’s psychiatric diagnosis had been reviewed by attorneys and Judge Paul Benshoof, who was presiding over the case at the time. Benshoof said he made it clear he wanted to accelerate the process for getting Stai out of jail and committed to psychiatric treatment.
The morning after Stai’s assault, Benshoof wrote an e-mail informing the attorneys about Stai’s status:
“I just was told by Judge Melbye that he was called last night at home by the jail about Theran Stai. Apparently Stai was beat up badly in the jail and, according to M, he had to be airlifted to Mpls for reconstructive surgery on his face/jaw. Judge M told the jail to release him and give him a report date (so the county wouldn’t have to pay the medical bills.)
“Fat chance that Stai will come back voluntarily,” the e-mail continued. “It’s terribly unfortunate a commitment petition wasn’t filed immediately. Perhaps it still would’ve happened, but he didn’t belong in jail.”
Benshoof said in an interview he regrets using that language, and that the e-mail was written “in haste.”
“When I wrote about the county not having to pay costs I didn’t understand all the facts,” he said. “I was wrong when I made that assumption.”
Asked why Stai needed to be furloughed to receive medical care, Benshoof referred the question to Melbye, then said: “Do you furlough a person? Or do you have a corrections officer with Mr. Stai at all times? Would there be enough room on a plane for a corrections officer? I doubt it. I don’t criticize at all Judge Melbye’s decision.”
Benshoof said the “fat chance” remark was simply an attempt to explain the depth of Stai’s mental illness.
“Mr. Stai had been in my courtroom. Clearly he was not competent. He was ranting, in need of treatment.”
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745