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UPDATED: AG report finds no charges in case that left Manchester man paralyzed

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 09. 2014 9:35PM


MANCHESTER — Manchester resident Fern Ornelas, the Elliot Hospital psychiatric patient paralyzed in mid-October, punched and head-butted the door of his cell while being held at Valley Street Jail, according to a report on his injuries by criminal prosecutors.


Released on Wednesday, the report said the injuries suffered by Ornelas were not a crime. Rather, the report said Ornelas was subjected to a justified use of physical force at both Elliot Hospital and the jail.


The two prosecutors who oversaw the report — Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice and Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance — stressed that the investigation only dealt with whether Ornelas was the victim of an assault.


The report does not pinpoint when Ornelas received the injury that led to his paralysis. Nor does it render any judgment on care provided by the Elliot or the Valley Street Jail.


“I would not be surprised if there were a civil lawsuit, ... but that’s completely out of our purview,” Rice said Wednesday.


LaFrance called the incident tragic. “Mr. Ornelas went to the hospital seeking help. All I can say it is tragic what happened,” she said.


The investigation details what happened to Ornelas between an Oct. 16 visit to the Elliot Hospital emergency room and the morning of Oct. 17, when Valley Street Jail returned him to the hospital with a fractured neck.


The attorney general’s report gives a first account of what happened after Manchester police took Ornelas to the Valley Street Jail:


• At 2:30 a.m., Ornelas told a nurse that his neck hurt. He could not turn his head, and a squeeze test showed unequal strength in his hands. The nurse offered him Tylenol.


• About 5:30 a.m., he charged his cell door and head-butted it twice after a corrections officer told him to stop wetting the floor of his cell with toilet water. He swore and continued to punch and head-butt the door.


• Additional corrections officers and a nurse were called to remove Ornelas from his cell. One corrections officer was told to videotape the event, but the camera malfunctioned.


• Three times, corrections officers pepper-sprayed into the cell. When several officers entered the cell, Ornelas jumped on the bunk and punched and kicked at them. He was brought to the ground, continued to fight and was put in hand and leg restraints.


• Ornelas was showered and strapped to a restraint chair. A nurse started regular checks at 5:45 a.m. Initially, Ornelas was cooperative and talking. At 7:30 a.m., he appeared less alert and somewhat incoherent. At 8:25 a.m., he was less responsive.


• At 8:45 a.m., he was still less responsive, cold to the touch, and his pupils did not react to light. He slumped forward when uncuffed. Jail officials called 911.


Jail Superintendent David Dionne was not available for comment on Wednesday. The Hillsborough County Commissioners oversee the jail. Commission Chairman Toni Pappas said the case is not over and she’s been told by lawyers to say little.


“I appreciate the thoroughness of the attorney general’s report,” Pappas, R-Manchester, said.


Rice would not discuss a medical condition that made Ornelas susceptible to spinal damage, citing Ornelas’ privacy.


The report said Ornelas’ sister took him to Elliot Hospital after a car accident on Oct. 16. He was placed in the Psychiatric Evaluation Program unit, pending transfer to the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord.


That evening, he grabbed the shirt of hospital security officer Lawrence Bolduc and punched him several times in the face. Bolduc used pepper spray, and punched and elbowed Ornelas after the patient dug his fingers into Bolduc’s eyes. After the situation was under control, the hospital did a CT scan of Ornelas and found everything normal. The scan went down to the C1 and C2 vertabrae.


After Ornelas returned from the jail, an Elliot CT scan revealed a fracture through the disc space at the C4-C5 level, the report said.


In a statement Wednesday, Elliot extended its “sincere empathy” to Fern Ornelas and his family.


“We hope that he is recovering from any physical, mental and emotional issue that he has faced and we wish for his full recovery,” the statement reads. The hospital praised its staff, including security officers, for their work.

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