The questions are many, the answers thus far few in the death of Danny Ray Whitney in a cell at the Grand Traverse County Jail.
Corrections officers found Whitney, 21, unresponsive in a so-called observation cell on March 2 about 11 p.m., roughly seven hours after he was booked after violating probation on a January misdemeanor theft conviction. Efforts to revive him failed, and authorities pronounced Whitney dead at the jail.
Whitney had been in a community corrections program — an alternative to jail — and was jailed after he acknowledged during a meeting with community corrections officials that he'd used methadone and Xanax.
Whitney was no stranger to drugs; his mother said he'd long struggled with addiction, but she'd recently seen signs her son wanted more out of life. But he died in a jail cell, the aforementioned substances in his system.
Authorities await autopsy and toxicology results; they said Whitney wasn't assaulted in jail and he didn't commit suicide. What's left is death by natural cause, by pre-existing medical condition worsened by the drugs he consumed, or by drug overdose.
Sheriff's officials asked Traverse City Police to investigate Whitney's death, a probe that should consider several angles, including the drugs he ingested and how those substances may have contributed to his death. But they'll also review procedural issues, including whether sheriff's employees adequately monitored their prisoner, and whether the county's contracted medical staff properly did their jobs.
Whitney's penchant for self-medication likely played a role in his death, but the bottom line is this: He died in custody, and he lapsed into what authorities euphemistically call an "unresponsive" state in a cell that perhaps wasn't being closely enough observed.
Medical staff at the jail knew Whitney had consumed drugs; that's why he was in an observation cell. It appears a nurse recorded his vital signs and reported Whitney's status on at least one occasion to an off-site physician. The medical experts decided to leave him at the jail rather than move him to Munson Medical Center for treatment or monitoring, and that decision is sure to attract deserved scrutiny.
Drug addiction, particularly prescription drug addiction, continues to bedevil the Grand Traverse region.
In a way, it's our nasty little secret. Friends, family, and the community at large must be vigilant in the effort to break drugs' grip on users.
And our institutions, including the county jail and its health experts, must do their jobs and ensure that those who have victimized themselves are treated with care and expertise.
After all, they're paid to watch after the Danny Ray Whitneys of the world, the next one of whom might just be your friend, neighbor or relative.