A mentally ill inmate was severely beaten in the Beltrami County jail last month — and then abruptly released from custody by a judge so the county would not have to pay his medical bills, according to documents obtained by the Star Tribune.

The judge also failed to ensure that the inmate would be returned to custody — and receive proper psychiatric care — after being released from the Minneapolis hospital where he was treated, according to court officials.

When Theran Stai, 43, was discharged from the hospital about two weeks after the beating, he had to hitchhike 215 miles back to Bemidji, where he has no listed address, according to his sister. He was taken into custody for a mental health commitment hearing and is now receiving treatment at a behavioral health hospital in Bemidji.

The episode has outraged the county’s chief public defender, who said local officials placed budgetary savings before the welfare of a vulnerable adult.

“This was an abuse of power,” said attorney Kristine Kolar. “They had a moral, ethical and legal obligation to take care of this man.”

Beltrami County Judge John Melbye said in an interview that he granted a furlough to Stai after doctors at a Bemidji hospital told jailers Stai had to be transported to the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis for reconstructive surgery on his broken jaw. Melbye said that a deputy seeking the release order contacted him at home and that he made his decision without reviewing Stai’s criminal and mental health file.

“This is just how we’ve done it in the past,” Melbye said. “It’s irrelevant who’s going to pay the bill, to me. This was about medical necessity.”

But he acknowledged that prisoners like Stai can be transported for medical care without being released from county custody.

Beating on Sept. 10

Under Minnesota law, a jail is responsible for the health care costs of inmates while they are in custody. But in a strategy designed to avoid that obligation, jails can request that a judge grant a “furlough” to an injured or sick prisoner in order to shift expensive treatment costs back to the prisoner’s previous health insurer.

Stai was injured on Sept. 10 while being held in the general population section of the jail. No jail videos recorded the assault, although inmates with mental illness typically are held in areas where they can be closely monitored.

Melbye admitted that he made the furlough decision based on extremely limited information and acknowledged that he didn’t review Stai’s recent court records “because more red tape could slow it down.” He said he was “not certain” that Stai could be classified as a vulnerable adult, despite his mental illness.

Melbye also said that at the time, he didn’t consider Stai a public safety risk because, he said, Stai had been jailed on a misdemeanor charge.

“If it was a felony offense, I would’ve looked at it a little longer,” he said.

But records and interviews show that Stai was jailed on a felony drug charge and that he couldn’t make his $30,000 bail because another judge had put stringent conditions on his release.

Additionally, Stai has a long criminal history that included felony domestic violence, terroristic threats and assault. Two years earlier, court records show, Melbye had presided over Stai’s domestic abuse case, which involved particularly violent events.

Melbye, who never practiced law in a courtroom before running for county judge, has been on the bench for seven years and said he’s granted furloughs “a half-dozen to a dozen times.”

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.”

‘Hasty’ e-mail

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.”