Alex Billmeyer was panicking when police swarmed a house in Dubuque, Iowa on May 26, yelling that people were shooting at him. The 29-year-old (pictured above) had entered the house illegally, after leaving a Qwikshop just across the street where he had previously been hiding. His family members, including his mother Carmen Billmeyer and sister Rachel Brown, were at the scene, calling for him to come out.
Eventually, four police officers carried him out of the house, according to witnesses, who observed that Billmeyer could barely stand on his own. “His eyes were bulging out of his head,” said Carmen Billmeyer. “I don’t know if he swallowed the bag of dope. I don’t know what exactly happened.” One thing she did know, though, was that he needed medical attention following his most recent use of methamphetamine.
Alex had been using the stimulant frequently for the past few years. His mother had checked him into drug treatment facilities in Iowa City and Waterloo multiple times. In the hours leading up to his death, he was visibly high and was paranoid—“window peeking,” as Carmen called it. For her, she said, it was self-evident: The effects of the meth that he was experiencing seemed life-threatening.
She begged the officers to not take him to jail. “This kid needs help. He needs to go to the hospital,” she recalled pleading. Both she and Brown told Filter that Alex appeared to be having visual hallucinations, asking his mother why her untouched face looked like it had black and blue bruises.
The police did not listen to her pleas for medical care for her son, she said; instead, an officer moved her down the street.
Billmeyer was booked into the so-called “drunk tank” of the jail around 4 pm that day, according to the police report for the incident. “He was in a paranoid state when he came in,” confirmed Sheriff Joe Kennedy of Dubuque County. “His mugshot and fingerprints were not taken. When he got up to the jail floor, he was becoming uncooperative. Generally, they put them in the cell and wait until they come down from their high. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to that time.”
A little over an hour later, at 5:10 pm, he was found dead in Dubuque County jail.
The Sheriff’s Department reported that the preliminary autopsy reports came back, but were not conclusive enough to determine the cause of death. Toxicology results are pending and the Department declined Filter’s public records request for video footage of the jail at the time of death because the incident remains under investigation. The sheriff announced that the final results may “not be available for several months.”
The Community Demands Answers
But Carmen Billmeyer believes that the cause of death is clear: negligent behavior by law enforcement towards someone experiencing a drug-related health crisis.
Daphne Lynn-Rodriguez was also arrested on May 26, and was detained in the “drunk tank” five hours after Billmeyer’s death. “The jailers were laughing and giggling. I had no clue somebody had died,” she recalled.
Lynn-Rodriguez also shared with Filter what she heard from Chondra Grigler, who had been jailed in the drunk tank at the time of Billmeyer’s death: “Yeah, yesterday this boy screaming: ‘Help me! Help me! I’m having a panic attack! I can’t breathe!’ Just pounding and pounding on the door.”
Lynn-Rodriguez said that Grigler told her, “They wouldn’t help him.”
“They basically throw you in there and hope you don’t die.”
Iowa law requires that correctional officers check on incarcerated people every hour, and Sheriff Joe Kennedy told Filter that Dubuque County Jail requires staff to do checks every 30 minutes.
“I think Alex was checked on three or four times,” he said. “The deputies saw [Billmeyer in a paranoid state] when they checked on him—until they found him sitting in the corner of the cell where he ultimately died.”
Sheriff Kennedy declined to comment on any other details of how Billmeyer was behaving in his cell prior to his death.
According to Billmeyer’s sister, Rachel Brown, Alex had overamped before on crystal meth—a distressing and potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms of meth-induced “mental distress” can include panic, hallucinations and extreme paranoia. Physically, effects may include a racing pulse, irregular breathing and convulsions. People who are overamping can die from cardiac arrest, strokes and/or overheating.
When Billmeyer previously overamped, he was treated differently. “The ambulance he’s called before, when he did so much meth, he would have panic attacks,” Brown said. “This was the only time they didn’t take him to the hospital.”
Brown said that someone else whom Billmeyer knew had also been using drugs that day. “There was another kid, named Dallas, from the halfway house that day with Alex. He overdosed,” she said. Unlike Alex, “They took him to the hospital.”
From 2013 to 2017, Iowa overall saw a 38 percent jump in treatment admissions for meth, while Dubuque County saw a 13 percent increase. In a 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment, issues related to “mental health” and “substance abuse” were two of the highest ranked challenges facing the community’s health.
In the the city of Dubuque, where Billmeyer lived, poverty—a significant social determinant of health—has increased in recent years (16.3 percent in 2017, compared with the national rate of 12.6 percent). Billmeyer lived in the census tract that, in 2015, had the highest rate of people living below the poverty line across all racial categories: According to the latest census data, a quarter of white neighborhood residents, half of black residents, and 82 percent of Latinx residents were in poverty. Billmeyer himself was unemployed.
“The lights don’t go off. It’s impossible to get sleep. And when you’re trying to detox, you don’t have any water.”
Meth “will never go away,” said Rick, who requested that his name be changed due to fear of retaliation. What’s more, he said, meth in Iowa is routinely cut with fentanyl.
Rick was born and raised in Dubuque, and told Filter that he is related to someone involved with the cartels that cut the stimulant with the potent opioid. “Pretty much all the meth is laced with fentanyl,” he claimed. Bruce Reeve, an administrator for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Criminalistics Laboratory, confirmed in an interview with a local newspaper that fentanyl is found in the seized stimulant supply. Because of this, Rick has observed that “People doing meth are overdosing.”
Rick has frequently been jailed in Dubuque County—he estimated around 50 times since 2014, usually for drug-law violations—and described his painful experiences. “There’s no clock. There’s one toilet. The lights don’t go off. It’s impossible to get sleep,” he said. “Most drunk tanks are painted neutral colors; [this one is] painted white. It drives your mind crazy. And when you’re trying to detox, you don’t have any water. There’s been times when I was detoxing or withdrawing from alcohol and I couldn’t walk to the fountain to get water.”
While there, Rick said he didn’t feel like the jail staff cared about his wellbeing. “They basically throw you in there and hope you don’t die.”
For Drug Users, Dubuque County Jail Seems Dangerous
Billmeyer is far from the only person whose life has reportedly been put at risk because of the jail’s alleged negligence, especially towards people who use drugs.
“My friend overdosed in there. He didn’t die though. They did nothing,” described Aaron White, who has been in and out of the county jail an estimated 10 times. “They were pouring water on him. They were just standing there.”
White said that he has also experienced this disregard first-hand. “One hundred percent of the time I was high or on withdrawal.” One time, White said he was withdrawing from benzodiazepines. “I was shaking. I was having seizures. It felt like I had stuck my finger in a wall outlet.”
According to people with experiences of overdosing in the jail, medical staff there are ignorant of the needs of people who use drugs. “The nurses there are unprofessional. I don’t even know if they know what they’re talking about half the time,” said Rick.
“The nurses treat addicts like crap. The nurses are real prejudiced against people,” agreed Lynn-Rodriguez, who has also been incarcerated at the jail many times.
But it is these nurses who have the power to arbitrate whose needs are pressing and whose are not. “We rely on medical staff,” said Sheriff Kennedy, so “if medical staff tells us they are okay to be here, then they stay here.”
Billmeyer did not live long enough to even see a medical professional in the jail.
Outside the Dubuque County Jail. (Photo via Google Earth)
People who’ve been incarcerated at the jail further allege that their medications for substance use disorders are withheld—a widespread reality for incarcerated people across the United States. “When you’re withdrawing in Dubuque County Jail, the narcotics you need to help you with withdrawal, they won’t let you have,” said Rick, who claimed that they’ll only give out Tylenol to help with symptoms.
Stephanie Toth, a local drug user activist, has also been incarcerated at the jail. She has a prescription for benzodiazepines, but when she has been there, “They will not let you have it in jail. My psychiatrist has actually called down and said that I needed to have my medications while in jail and they refuse.”
Though Sheriff Kennedy stated that the jail works to connect people with their prescriptions if they are there for an “extended period of time,” he added that “overnight” stays are not accommodated. “Generally we tend to take care of their medical needs but we don’t make it a practice because we don’t let them bring medications into the jail, because you never know if they are tainted.”
One time, Toth recounted, she fell from her top bunk bed and broke her hip. When she finally saw a doctor, she said, he declared that she was fine. After more than two weeks of not receiving treatment, she was released and went to the hospital. There they confirmed that her hip was broken.
“They called me ‘junkie.’ They said, ‘See you in a ditch, Pinkie.’”
In addition to allegedly failing to keep people safe while detoxing or withdrawing, staff at the jail are accused of exhibiting a general disregard for the wellbeing of people who use drugs.
“Jails are universally cold. But they’re especially cold there. The way they talk to people, is so out of control,” said White. “They called me ‘junkie.’ They said, ‘See you in a ditch, Pinkie.’”
Likewise, Rick recounted correctional officers saying, “I hope you die, you piece of shit junkie.” For him, “They don’t view us as humans. They see us as ‘piece of shit junkies.’”
That attitude is reportedly not limited to people who use drugs. “I’ve heard them make racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic shit,” said White. “A lot of it is more racist. Dubuque has a mindset that all our problems come from Chicago and Milwaukee.”
Recently, the Police Department of the city of Dubuque has been hit with a lawsuit by a police officer alleging gender discrimination, misogynistic behavior and blatant disregard for racism in the workplace.
“I’ve never received any complaints of that nature,” said Sheriff Kennedy, regarding White’s claims of verbal abuse. “Don’t believe everything you hear. We run a very good facility, you hear? We just won an award from the state. I’m pretty confident that these are just people who are trying to get some attention for themselves. But I can’t say for 100 percent certainty.”
Justice for Alex
Members of the community are demanding that the jail and Sheriff’s Department be held accountable for Billmeyer’s death. Toth organized a protest outside the court house on June 2, demanding that his cause of death be swiftly determined and publicly released.
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Toth
“Autopsy or no autopsy, Alex Billmeyer’s death never should’ve happened,” wrote Nino Erba on his 2019 City Council campaign Facebook page. “Nothing less than a full audit of the Sheriff’s office is the acceptable way forward. And if this current Sheriff has any decency left in him, he should resign immediately.”
“I still think the police are responsible,” said Billmeyer’s sister, Rachel. “When they seen him acting like that, they should have taken him to the hospital. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, another doper up the street’. They need to start treating people like humans when they’re being arrested.”
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Toth
Top photo courtesy of Carmen Billmeyer.