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Inmate went days without medical help

(Ran East edition of Pasco Times)

John T. Wells was only 43 years old when he was booked into the Hernando County Jail for the last time. He died soon after from a rupture in his brain.

His wife and sister both worry that he was a victim of shoddy care at the jail. His death on Jan. 27 was the fourth of an inmate since November and came on the same day as the jail's third recent suicide.

Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the jail for the county, refused to discuss the specifics of Wells' case. But spokesman Steven Owen said the jail was not responsible for Wells when he died because the State Attorney's Office had dropped charges against him on Jan. 10 when prosecutors deemed him "terminally ill."

Wife Elizabeth Wells doesn't buy that.

"As far as I'm concerned, the jail is responsible," she said. "It's real easy to say he wasn't one of their inmates, but when John went to the hospital twice, he was one of their inmates. He was in a facility that should have taken care of him."

The autopsy report and the Sheriff's Office investigation have not been completed, so there are still some unanswered questions.

But this much is clear: Wells was a troubled man who fell into jail for petty crimes. He suffered tragically and alone.

His last experience with the Hernando jail began on Dec. 20, when he was arrested on charges involving passing a counterfeit $50 bill and possession of a crack pipe.

The jail gave him a medical examination the day after he was booked in and found no problems. But once he was in jail, his head started to hurt.

An inmate in the same cellblock said Wells cried for days.

On Jan. 2, he was taken to Brooksville Regional Hospital. Medical records show that his eye was swollen so much he couldn't open it. He rated the pain 10 on a scale of 10 and told the doctor he had been suffering for the past three days.

A CAT scan was ordered. Sinusitis was the diagnosis. He was returned to the jail that same day with a prescription for antibiotics and a note that he would have a follow-up appointment with jail doctor Robert Blackburn in three days.

But the problem worsened within hours of Wells' return to the jail, according to Blackburn's notes, which are included in medical records obtained by the family:

"Approximately 2.5 to 3 hours later I received another telephone call from the Nursing Staff stating that they had noticed change of mental status with the patient. Apparently he was having difficulty walking. He was unable to swallow his pills and actually kind of spit the antibiotics out. They felt that the patient was having significant changes," Blackburn wrote.

Wells was then taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, where he suffered a brain hemorrhage behind his left eye that would leave him incapacitated and ultimately end his life.

Blackburn, who was unavailable for comment last week, tried to have Wells transferred to Tampa General Hospital for more advanced medical care, but that never happened.

Instead, Wells lay brain dead in his bed for three weeks as doctors contemplated taking him off life support. No one knew he had a wife who worked in Brooksville; a sister, Nancy Shave, in Clearwater; or a brother, Steven Wells, in Sumter County. That was discovered only when the hospital-appointed guardian, Joel Kriley, tracked down Elizabeth Wells on Jan. 24.

Elizabeth Wells and Shave look back in horror as they think of everything that John Wells went through alone.

"John was there for three weeks, and nobody could find any next of kin, but Kriley was on the case three days and he finds me," Wells said. "I said, "You're not doing anything until I talk to his brother.' "

The family gathered in Wells' room at Spring Hill Regional Hospital and talked to Blackburn about the prognosis. They were told there was no chance for recovery.

At 5 p.m. on Jan. 26, Elizabeth Wells signed the papers to take her husband off life support. He died the next morning.

"It was the worst damn thing I ever had to do," she said. "By the time I caught up to John at the hospital, there was no recovery."

Wells' condition drew the attention of fellow inmates. In a phone interview from jail, Steven Masciarelli described how Wells had suffered for days without receiving help.

"He was up in the cell complaining all night long that he needed medical attention. The corrections officer told him, "You're pulling my leg,' " Masciarelli said. "The nurse took him up and said there was nothing wrong with him. . . . Finally they brought him to the hospital."

Who was John Wells?

He stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall with a slim build. In portraits, his cheeks shine.

Wells was born in St. Petersburg, raised in Bushnell, and married twice. He is survived by his 18-year-old son, Justin.

His favorite job was driving trucks, which he took across the country. "He loved the Southwest and the open country," Elizabeth Wells said.

John Wells was a jack-of-all-trades. His interests included cowboy boots, motorcycles and pickups. He drove a '69 Ford pickup painted primer white.

John and Elizabeth were married March 8, 1996. They celebrated anniversaries at Bike Week in Daytona Beach.

At 18, he had tried to join the Army, but failed the written test. Shave described her brother as a good man, but one with his share of troubles.

"He had dreams, but sometimes they were fantasies," Shave said. "John's whole world fell apart when our mother died. John struggled to get through life."

Wells had run into problems with the law before. He was arrested five times on charges of driving violations, including DUI and driving with a suspended license. He was sentenced to two years in state prison as a habitual offender.

"They made an example of him," Shave said.

There were arrests for possession of narcotics equipment, petty theft and small-time fraud. He spent two months in the Citrus jail.

He had been living alone in a house on Florida Avenue in Floral City until he was evicted for failing to pay rent.

Elizabeth and John Wells lost touch with each other.

No one even knew he was back in jail when he drifted in there Dec. 20. He didn't tell anyone he had family. His wife thinks that's because he "didn't want me to go through this."

The first they heard of him was that he was brain dead and laid up in the hospital.

John Wells was cremated in Bushnell and buried Feb. 11.

"We carried him on a motorcycle from the funeral home to the cemetery," Elizabeth Wells said. The 2 miles went by quickly. John's white marble urn was heavy in her arms. Not all of his ashes fit inside.

She remembers the train whistle in the distance during the eulogy. What really stung her was how the preacher called her husband "this one" instead of "John."

When they put Wells into the ground, his nephew popped the top off a beer and poured it in the hole so they could share one last drink. Elizabeth and her brother, Jimmy Cotter, didn't linger. They roared away on the motorcycle.

But the death has taken over Elizabeth Wells' life.

She used to look out for Wells as she drove through Brooksville, just to see if he was okay.

"I still catch myself doing that," she said, fighting back tears.

Her sister-in-law, Nancy Shave, has been absorbed with investigating Wells' death.

"I just want to know what happened, why and how," Shave said. "And if someone is responsible, that part has to be changed so that it doesn't happen again."

Researcher Catherine Wos contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

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