Teen likely died after seizure at Safety Harbor migrant shelter, sheriff says

Shelter staff had records on the teen’s epilepsy but did not read them, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, 17, of Honduras, died May 10 at the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Children Services shelter for migrant children in Safety Harbor.
Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, 17, of Honduras, died May 10 at the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Children Services shelter for migrant children in Safety Harbor. [ Riccy Hernandez ]
Published May 16|Updated May 16

Days before 17-year-old Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza died, staff of the Safety Harbor shelter for unaccompanied migrant children where he was staying received an email from his cousin stating he had epilepsy.

While a case manager uploaded the teen’s medical history into the online system, she did not read the information, leaving staff unaware of his condition, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Espinoza did not tell staff about his epilepsy and did not have medication on him when he arrived at the shelter on May 5, Gualtieri said.

Espinoza died on Wednesday, five days after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement placed the teen at the shelter run by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Children Services. Federal and local officials had so far only disclosed that he was pronounced dead after being found unconscious in bed.

Although the autopsy is not yet final, Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that the ongoing Sheriff’s Office investigation indicates Espinoza died after having an epileptic seizure in his sleep, evidenced by a laceration found on his tongue.

Although the staff’s failure to read the records sent by Espinoza’s cousin poses “a legitimate issue” for Gulf Coast and the Department of Health and Human Services to look into, Gualtieri said “it’s definitely not a criminal issue” and that no charges are forthcoming. He said the Sheriff’s Office investigation has uncovered no concerns about how the shelter is run.

“Transparency is very important,” Gualtieri said. “People need to know what the facts are and what they are not. A lack of transparency breeds suspicion and people start talking, so I think it’s better we get it out.”

When Espinoza left his mother’s home in Olanchito, Honduras, on April 25 for a journey across the border into the United States, he had three months’ worth of medication to treat his epilepsy, his mother told investigators, according to Gualtieri.

Gualtieri said his investigators are still trying to determine from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol whether Espinoza had his epilepsy medicine or medical records when he crossed the border at Reynosa, Mexico, on May 3.

The Department of Health and Human Services told the Times on Friday that it was conducting an investigation, but it did not respond to questions Monday about the information Gualtieri provided.

The sheriff said Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials placed Espinoza on a plane to Florida on May 5 to travel to the Gulf Coast shelter. He was in the process of being placed with his cousin in Tampa — his sponsor in the U.S.

During an assessment at the Safety Harbor shelter on May 6, Gualtieri said that Espinoza denied to staff that he had any medical condition and said he did not have any medicine on him.

However, Espinoza’s cousin, Riccy Hernandez, told the Times that when she spoke to her cousin for a few minutes that same day, he told her he had his medicine.

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On May 7, Hernandez emailed a family reunification packet to Gulf Coast. This packet included information about Espinoza’s epilepsy and that he had seizures, according to Gualtieri.

Gualtieri said staff acknowledged receipt of the email but relayed no comments on her information. The next day, the cousin re-sent the same packet.

Hernandez said she got a response: “Muchas gracias.”

An hour later — at 1:15 p.m. May 8 — a case manager for Gulf Coast uploaded the form into the portal, “but she did not read it, so did not notice that it stated he suffered from epilepsy and has convulsions,” Gualtieri said.

“Now I understand why my cousin died, basically because they didn’t read my emails,” Hernandez said.

On the same day, Gulf Coast took the boy to West Coast Family Medical Care on McMullen Booth Road for a physical exam. Gualtieri said Espinoza did not tell the doctor that he had epilepsy or took medication.

“Of course, they didn’t make the doctor aware of the form from the cousin, either, because nobody read the form,” Gualtieri said.

When he went to bed May 9, Gualtieri said, Espinoza warned his two roommates that he snores and not to wake him up.

Around 4 a.m. May 10, Gualtieri said the two roommates woke up “to what they described as snoring and gasping for air.”

“But because he told them he snores and don’t wake him up, the kids didn’t do anything about it,” Gualtieri said.

At 8 a.m., Gualtieri said the roommates woke up and found Espinoza in bed with no pulse and he was not breathing. Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the District 6 Medical Examiner Office, told the Times that Espinoza was pronounced dead after being transferred to Mease Countryside Hospital.

Gualtieri said Espinoza likely died after having an epileptic seizure in his sleep and becoming unconscious. Espinoza “had a serious laceration on his tongue,” an injury consistent with a seizure.

Gulf Coast President and CEO Sandra Braham did not respond to a text seeking comment but previously said she was not authorized to talk about the death or federal shelter program.

Migrants seeking asylum sometimes hide medical conditions for fear that the additional burden will result in them being deported, said Danielle Hernandez, an immigration attorney with a law practice in Ybor City.

She said she’s had clients who did not want to reveal they were cancer survivors or were battling other medical conditions. It can take time and patience to coax that information out of refugees.

“It sounds like he fell through the cracks in an overburdened system,” she said. “You don’t know when you’re 17 that your health won’t be held against you when you’re seeking asylum.”

Related: Death of migrant teen from Safety Harbor shelter cast as immigration issue

Ana Lamb, a Wimauma immigration rights activist, said the boy was likely frightened to reveal his condition to staffers at the shelter. The passage of tougher immigration laws at federal and state levels has added to that climate of fear, she said.

“All the laws being implemented in this state are terrorizing people,” she said. “We will see more of this if we don’t take care of people coming in.”

Hernandez said her cousin dreamed of becoming a soccer player and wanted to leave Honduras to seek better medical care. He had two younger siblings. His mother has been destroyed by his death, Hernandez said.

“This is a terrible situation, and we are all very sad,” Hernandez said. “She loved her son very much. ... His mother is devastated.”