Details emerge in jail drug death

Growing number of suspects consume, hide substances to avoid detection

A nationwide trend of individuals swallowing or hiding drugs in body cavities to avoid police detection is reflected in the overdose death of a Bartholomew County jail inmate last fall.

Angela Blair, 42, of Elizabethtown, overdosed on methamphetamine in the jail Oct. 7 after obtaining the drug from another female inmate, who had hidden it along with heroin in a bag placed in a body cavity before she was arrested, court documents state.

The arrests of two Columbus women were announced by the Indiana State Police over the weekend in relation to Blair’s overdose in the medical wing of the jail.

Probable-cause statements filed in Bartholomew Superior Court 1 state that State Police Detective Christopher Howell interviewed the two women, Debin P. Gabbard, 27, and Mary L. Snyder, 19, both of Columbus, shortly after Blair’s death.

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Gabbard told the state police she was a heroin user and that she had been arrested Oct. 5, court documents state. Gabbard told investigators she had used methamphetamine in the past, but preferred heroin.

Just prior to her initial arrest Oct. 5, Gabbard grabbed a bag that contained heroin and methamphetamine and hid it in a body cavity as police approached her home, the probable-cause document states. The drugs were not detected when Gabbard was first booked into the jail, she told the state police.

While Howell was interviewing Gabbard soon after Blair’s Oct. 7 death, she told him she still had some heroin stored inside her body, court documents states. A female jailer took Gabbard to another room and Gabbard gave the suspected heroin to the jailer, court documents states.

Two days earlier, Gabbard was in Medical Unit 1 with Snyder after her Oct. 5 arrest, according to court records. Gabbard told Howell she had given the methamphetamine she had brought into the jail to Snyder, who had put the drug into a hair conditioner bottle, court documents state.

Snyder was transferred to Medical Unit 8 with Blair on Oct. 6, according to the probable-cause affidavit. A video of the transfer shows Snyder moving her belongings into the cell and placing a bottle, which appears to be the conditioner bottle, on the floor of the cell, the court document states.

In the video, Blair is observed picking up the bottle and taking it with her to her bed, the court documents state. Blair turned her back to the camera and investigators could not tell what Blair did with the bottle, the affidavit states.

The next evening, Blair collapsed and became unresponsive just after jail staff arrived at her cell to give her medical attention, said Sgt. Stephen Wheeles, public information officer for the Indiana State Police post in Versailles.

Although emergency treatment was provided and an ambulance summoned at 10:49 p.m., attempts to revive Blair were unsuccessful, Wheeles said.

Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting said he pronounced the woman dead at 11:12 p.m. Oct. 7.

Gabbard was arrested Friday on felony charges of dealing in methamphetamine, felony trafficking with an inmate, possession of a narcotic drug, and possession of methamphetamine, court documents state. She is being held in the Bartholomew County Jail.

Also Friday, Snyder was charged with felony possession of methamphetamine and is incarcerated at the Rockville Correctional facility, where she is serving time on an unrelated charge, state police said.

Warrants for the arrest of Snyder and Gabbard were issued Friday in Bartholomew Superior Court 1, court documents state.

Nolting later ruled Blair’s cause of death was methamphetamine intoxication. The amount of methamphetamine found in Blair’s toxicology report was one of the largest the coroner said he had ever seen. The Elizabethtown woman also had heart-related issues that contributed to her death, Nolting said.

Nolting declined to release the amount of methamphetamine in Blair’s toxicology results at the request of the Indiana State Police because of the agency’s investigation of Gabbard and Snyder.

Jail procedures

Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said he could not talk specifically about the Blair overdose case or the arrests of Gabbard and Snyder, but could discuss jail procedures involving contraband, trafficking and searches.

The jail does not conduct strip searches or body cavity searches of inmates unless jail staff have a reason to believe it is necessary. If suspicion exists, a search warrant is obtained to perform the search, he said.

Investigators are finding that some people who are arrested are attempting to eat drugs rather than be caught with them, or they are hiding drugs in places where police can’t find them, Myers said.

“This is going on in jails throughout the nation,” Myers said.

Police are now learning that some males who travel to Indianapolis to purchase heroin are taking their girlfriends and placing the drug in the girlfriend’s body cavity to avoid law enforcement detecting it in a traffic stop, he said.

The sheriff’s department is considering purchasing a body scanner for the jail that would allow jail staff to detect hidden drugs during the booking process, Myers said.

The main drawback now is the potential cost of the machine, although the Indiana Sheriff’s Association is working with companies that sell the body scanners to see if the equipment could be available at a reduced rate.

Cost can range from $130,000 to $230,000, although warranties, possible lease arrangements and other details affect the potential cost, Myers said.

The jail recently instituted a new inmate-mail policy designed to keep drugs from being trafficked in on letters and envelopes. Jail staff have found mail, paper and tape coated with drugs.

Bartholomew County Jail staff have increased the number of shakedowns in the jail, in which jail staff look through everything in each cell, and search each inmate, Myers said. The searches are random and by surprise, he said. In keeping with that, Myers said he could not say how often jail staff conduct the shakedowns.

Small amounts of methamphetamine and suboxone have been found during the searches, he said.

The county’s K-9s who alert to narcotics also are being used to walk through the cell blocks to determine if drugs are present, the sheriff said.

Sheriff’s deputies in Bartholomew and Jennings counties have recently arrested two people who are accused of attempting to conceal drugs.

On Feb. 5, Bartholomew County Jail staff discovered that inmate Stephanie G. Cecil, 29, 1507 Lafayettte St., had hidden narcotics and a syringe in a body cavity. After a search warrant was obtained, Cecil was taken to Columbus Regional Hospital, where she cooperated and retrieved a bag which contained methamphetamine, a syringe and a lighter.

In Jennings County, Justin W. Jarrell, 26, of North Vernon, led deputies on a Jan. 30 pursuit for about a mile as officers observed him moving around in his Jeep and digging into the center console. A police canine alerted to drugs in the vehicle, but none were found in the Jeep. A short time later, Jarrell reported feeling ill at the jail and told jail staff he had consumed 3 grams of methamphetamine during the pursuit.

Hospital staff and law enforcement were able to recover a bag that Jarrell vomited during treatment at St. Vincent Jennings Hospital, deputies said. Jarrell was later flown via helicopter to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis, where he was placed in intensive care.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.