A Georgia father-of-two was arrested because he didn’t change his address with his probation officer. Three days later, he was found dead inside his jail cell.
Lee Michael Creely, 34, had moved into a new home only three weeks before he died in the Chatham County lockup. His partner, Jessica Hodges, and their sons had outgrown their mobile home and were excited to start a new chapter of their lives. But police arrested Creely, who previously pleaded guilty to drug possession, for a probation violation on Sept. 3 because his probation officer wasn’t aware of the new address.
Now Creely’s family is demanding answers on what happened to him behind bars—and the location of the man’s heart. An independent autopsy can’t be completed because pieces of the organ were missing from Creely’s body, according to the family’s lawyer, who claims state investigators and the county coroner’s office haven’t disclosed where the pieces are.
Five deputies were fired in connection with Creely’s mysterious death inside the detention center, and one of them, Terence Jackson, was charged with one felony count of falsifying documents.
The Chatham County sheriff said Jackson claimed in a jail record that he made rounds to check on inmates 10 times, but that surveillance revealed he never left his desk.
The Chatham County sheriff’s office did not return messages by press time, nor did the agency’s private health care company, CorrectHealth LLC.
“It’s miserable. It’s hard to get any kind of closure from this, to start the healing process,” Hodges told The Daily Beast. “Nothing has made sense.” She said their children, Dawson, 7, and Landon, 12, don’t understand what’s happened, and she has no information from authorities or any way of explaining how their father died.
“Lee was a really easygoing person. Everybody loved him. He wasn’t confrontational at all. I just don’t understand why they would treat somebody like this,” Hodges said.
According to one Reuters report, when jail staff discovered Creely on his bed, his fists were clenched in rigor mortis, and his hands and face were blue.
Internal jail records reviewed by Reuters revealed the facility’s private medical provider, CorrectHealth LLC, only gave Creely his daily medications once in four days, and had stopped checking his vitals after his second day in jail. Creely was taking medications to help manage his withdrawal from heroin and benzodiazepines, the news agency reported. CorrectHealth nurses hadn’t visited Creely’s cell for almost 48 hours before they found his body.
This isn’t the first time CorrectHealth has come under scrutiny in Savannah. In 2017, a year after the firm won a contract, an independent monitor said the contractor should be fined $5.2 million for lapses in staffing and medical care, but the county declined to pursue any action, Reuters reported. Instead, last year, the county gave CorrectHealth a $500,000 bonus due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in increased costs.
One recent investigation by Atlanta magazine and The Telegraph in Macon revealed CorrectHealth was sued at least 79 times between 2014 and 2018 over inmate deaths, with the plaintiffs making accusations of untreated pain and denial of care.
Will Claiborne, an attorney for Hodges and the Creely family, has demanded Chatham County terminate its contract with CorrectHealth, saying, “They have a history of racking up fines and racking up bodies here in Savannah, and it’s time for the county commissioner to fire them.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which is investigating Creely’s death, released the results of an autopsy report on Wednesday.
Nelly Miles, GBI’s director of the office of public affairs, said Creely’s cause of death is fentanyl intoxication. “A complete autopsy was performed and all organs were returned to the body, as per the GBI Medical Examiner's Office protocol,” Miles said in an email. “As a part of a routine autopsy examination, the heart is dissected and very small pieces are retained for microscopic examination, if needed. The case has been turned over to the DA’s office. Please check with them for any further updates.”
Asked why Creely’s family didn’t receive his entire heart, Miles replied, “In this case, a very small portion was retained for examination. As previously stated, this is part of a routine for autopsy exams.”
On Wednesday, hours before Miles’ statement, Claiborne said the family hadn’t received a cause of death or any information besides the reason for his arrest. They’ve learned details only through the media, including the Reuters report.
“How heartless must you be as an investigator or a government official here that you won’t tell this family what happened,” said Claiborne, who is representing Creely’s family through the Fair Fight Initiative. The Savannah-based nonprofit seeks to fight mistreatment in the criminal justice system, as well as systemic racism and abuse of power in the Deep South.
“And literally you’re keeping the guy’s heart, which obstructs us from being able to determine what happened. It’s disgusting, it's macabre, and it’s deeply insulting to this family,” Claiborne added.
On Thursday, Hodges said GBI still hadn't responded to the family or put the cause of death in writing.
She said Creely struggled with addiction and was in withdrawal when he entered the jail and needed treatment. “They were aware of the fact that Lee was going through withdrawal, which can be very dangerous and life-threatening if not treated,” Hodges said. “Instead of treating him, they chose to leave him to die. I think they need to be held accountable for that.”
Adding to the family’s pain, Hodges said, is that authorities initially called Creely’s death a suicide. Savannah news station WTOC-TV reported that at a court appearance for Jackson, one prosecutor said, “The evening that this happened, it’s alleged that he did not check in on somebody that was in a suicidal state. The person ultimately ended up committing suicide…” (Claiborne said the prosecutor’s office later retracted that statement.)
Hodges said she fell in love with Creely more than 13 years ago, when he was visiting Georgia from his native Pennsylvania. “Lee was a good guy. He fought his demons but that was with him; that wasn’t put on us. He had a good heart. He was willing to help anybody, give the shirt off his back,” Hodges said. “He was a really good dad.”
They’d moved from a mobile home temporarily to a motel, then to a new house in Effingham County. “We were happy. The boys were happy. We were looking forward to starting over there,” Hodges said.
Just before Creely was arrested, Hodges sent him to a local Walmart to pick up some supplies for the new house. She said that when he arrived, he called her to make sure he had everything on his shopping list. While they were on the phone, she says, she heard police officers approach him and ask him for his name. Creely apparently placed his phone in his pocket, so she couldn’t hear the entire conversation.
Hodges said Creely was taken to the Effingham County jail, before being transported the next day to Chatham County. She spoke to Creely briefly while he was in booking but never heard from him again. All the while, she says, she tried to get through to him on the phone.
“I kept calling the jail asking if everything was OK because it's not like him not to call,” Hodges said. “I assumed they might have been on lockdown [because of COVID-19]. Then after a couple of days, it didn’t feel right.”
Hodges had a visit scheduled for Sept. 7, but when she woke that morning, a person identifying himself as a Chatham County investigator called and told her Creely was dead. “We were just calling to let you know Mr. Creely passed away last night,” Hodges recalled the person telling her. When she asked what had happened, he allegedly replied, “Ma’am, that’s all the information we have.”
“It was very cold, and short,” Hodges said.
Claiborne questioned why Creely had to be arrested in the first place.
“A failure to change his address with his probation officer resulted in a death sentence because of the medical neglect he suffered in the jail,” Clairborne said. “And because we make a choice to incarcerate people on technical violations, when really, if anything, Lee would have benefited from a treatment program.”
Hodges said she’s been unable to collect Creely’s belongings because GBI investigators put a “hold” on the items, preventing the sheriff from releasing them.
“That might not be important stuff, but when you lose somebody it is,” Hodges said. “You want to hold onto everything. I know that this will never make sense but they need to just be held accountable for what happened.”
“They’ve treated him like he wasn’t a person.”