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Report: Northern Minnesota inmate drank windshield washer fluid before dying

WALKER, Minn.—A 54-year-old jail inmate, found March 15 unresponsive in his jail cell in Walker in north-central Minnesota, allegedly drank windshield washer fluid while in a transport vehicle to a Bemidji hospital prior to his death.

The death of Darren Benais of Cass Lake is under investigation by the Cass County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch said the investigation is pending and referred all comments to attorney Jason Hiveley of Bloomington. Hiveley represents the sheriff's office through the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Hiveley declined to comment on the investigation but provided the documentation of the case considered public by state law.

"There is a pending internal employment investigation and a pending DOC investigation that prevents me from providing anything else at this time," Hiveley stated in an email.

According to the primary report written by Cass County Investigator Robert Stein, at 10:30 a.m. March 15, a 911 dispatcher notified him of a death in the jail and Lt. Chris Thompson was requested to assist.

Stein arrived at the jail a few minutes later and was briefed. Thompson stated Benais slept all morning and was snoring during the morning checks of his holding cell. On the last check, it was immediately noted he was not snoring, and it was discovered he was unresponsive.

Benais had a history of mostly untreated diabetes and heavy alcohol usage, the report stated. Officials reported Benais had previously drank toilet bowl cleaner in the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd and drank windshield washer fluid March 14 in the Cass County transport van.

Stein spoke with Burch about the death and the sheriff advised he wanted Benais to have a medical exam even if the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office protocol did not require one.

In a March 21 report filed by Thompson, Thompson stated he overheard a shift supervisor at the jail discussing with the jail nurse about Benais consuming windshield washer fluid while he was transported back to the facility March 14 after his doctor visit in Bemidji.

"It should be noted that I had been working with (a probation officer) and the Wellness Court to have inmate Benais released from custody to some sort of treatment or committment," Thompson stated in the report.

"Darren (Benais) had a dirty (urinary analysis) after returning from a medical furlough recently and I also was made aware that Darren had drank (sic) the water from his toilet in Crow Wing after a cup of non-toxic toilet bowl cleaner was dumped into it."

Thompson stated he learned the day prior of an opening as early as March 15 for Benais in a nursing home-style treatment facility. Thompson stated he was informing the team of the inmate's status when he learned an ambulance was summoned for the unresponsive Benais.

"I returned to the jail and found that CPR was in progress," Thompson stated. "I was informed ... Darren had not moved for an extended time and that it was visible that there was a lot of drool around inmate Benais' face and the loud snoring ... had diminished. ... The jail nurse examined him and found a weak pulse and shallow breathing and requested an ambulance to be summoned."

Benais was pronounced dead at 9:38 a.m. March 15.

Thompson investigated and learned from the correctional officer windshield washer fluid was stored in the transport van behind the front seat, between the seat and the outside of the transport cage. The correctional officer stated he could only speculate how Benais, confined to a wheelchair due to a partial leg amputation, obtained the bottle, as it was not captured on video. The correctional officer believed when Benais was wheeled to the two-man compartment on the passenger side of the transport van, the inmate grabbed the jug of fluid when the officer turned to return the wheelchair to staff at the hospital.

The officer discovered the bottle in the transport compartment when he unloaded Benais at the jail. The officer asked the inmate if he drank the fluid and Benais stated he had not. The officer believed he consumed the fluid because the bottle was unopened before. The cap was askew on the bottle and it appeared Benais was intoxicated.

"(The officer) stated he did not believe the washer fluid was toxic, but (he) did not read the label on the bottle to verify that," the report stated.

Thompson spoke again with the shift supervisor, who said she learned of Benais consuming the fluid and his apparent intoxication, but she also did not believe the fluid was toxic.

"Precautions were taken by removing Benais from his wheelchair so he did not fall and the mattress was placed on the floor for Benais to lay on," the report stated.

Thompson's report also stated Benais did not make suicidal comments, and it was unclear if the consumption of the washer fluid was an attempt to take his life or a means of getting intoxicated.

According to Benais' obituary, he was born in Red Lake and lived in Cass Lake most of his life. He loved playing his guitars and listening to music. Benais like to tell stories and play cards. He cherished his family and loved his kids and grandkids.

Benais returned back to the Cass County Jail at 5:08 p.m. March 14 and fell out of a wheelchair at 5:46 p.m. Benais fell asleep in his cell at 6 p.m. and staff conducted cell checks throughout the night and early morning, indicating life. Staff notified the jail nurse at 8:30 a.m. March 15 of complications with Benais. The ambulance was summoned to the jail at 8:48 a.m. and Benais was pronounced dead at 9:38 a.m.

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