Part Two: A Tragic Death, The Sheriff's Failure, and Jackie Johnson's Protection Of Her Own
Part One of this series on the tragic death of Mr. Kelsey Rayner can be read by clicking here.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson.
If her name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s understandable. Despite her ten-year career as a district attorney, Jackie’s real claim to fame didn’t occur until February 23rd of this year, in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. Three men are currently under indictment for Ahmaud Arbery’s death. One of those men, Greg McMichael, was D.A. Jackie Johnson’s former investigator.
The moment Jackie realized her former employee was one of the perpetrators, she should have recused herself immediately (i.e., legally removed herself from the case). Instead, Jackie or someone in her office speaking on her behalf allegedly advised the police not to make an arrest. Then D.A. Jackie Johnson further complicated the issue by personally choosing another district attorney to handle the case, ensuring her ability to influence the outcome.
It’s been said that history repeats itself.
It took months for the truth to surface after Ahmaud Arbery’s death.
For Kelsey Jerome Rayner, it’s been three years.
Part Two: The GBI Investigation
As promised, the Baxley Informer obtained the GBI investigation for the death of Mr. Kelsey Rayner, including the jail cell footage of his drawn-out and painful passing.
Kelsey Rayner’s last day, July 26, 2017, was spent in constant pain. His behavior was drastically different from when he’d first arrived at the jail, just eleven days prior. Kelsey could be seen clutching his stomach as early as July 16th, but otherwise, he behaved in normal, predictable ways. As his pain progressed, he slept more and showed increasing signs of distress.
July 26, 2017, Kelsey Rayner began stumbling around his cell. This was not normal behavior for Kelsey and should have been a warning sign to every officer who saw him. Kelsey Rayner sat at the edge of his bed, with his elbows on his knees, until he fell onto the floor where he remained the last four-and-a-half hours of his life.
Officer Edwards monitored the video feed from Kelsey Rayner’s cell and noticed Kelsey on his knees, face down. But after his supervisor checked on Kelsey, Edwards was told that since Kelsey Rayner was breathing, he was okay. As an extra precaution, Edwards turned on the intercom to listen-in on Kelsey Rayner for the rest of the night. In his interview, Edwards told the GBI,
“As long as he was making noise, it comforted me to know that he was all right.”
The supervisor’s story? Officer Merced claimed that she and another officer went into Mr. Rayner’s cell to get him off the floor. According to Merced, Kelsey Rayner was ‘being stubborn.’ He looked up at her and refused to speak or get up.
Video footage shows Officer Merced and Officer Griffis walk into Kelsey Rayner’s room about an hour before his death. Kelsey was sprawled out on the floor. The officers came in, looked down at him and spoke a few words, then covered their noses and walked out the door. Neither officer requested medical assistance for Mr. Rayner. Officer Merced told GBI, “There’s no policy that says he can’t be on the floor,” and
“As long as he was breathing, I feel like he was fine.”
That was a common theme among the officers on duty that night. All three officers commented that ‘breathing’ was what they looked for to ensure that Mr. Kelsey Rayner was okay.
If you’re not jumping up and down and yelling by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
Think about it.
The sheriff’s employees have a constitutional duty to provide medical care to inmates under their supervision. When questioned about Mr. Kelsey Rayner’s well-being, their responses have unanimously been that if Mr. Rayner was breathing, everything was fine.
These officers were basically waiting around for Kelsey Rayner to stop breathing. Death was the only way Kelsey would get their attention. Any of those officers could have called for an ambulance. It would have cost them nothing. Yet, no one stepped in to help. They left Kelsey Rayner to die alone on the cold, hard, nasty floor.
Is this the policy of the Appling County Detention Center? Is it the policy of Sheriff Mark Melton? Must these officers wait until an inmate stops breathing before they offer help?
Kelsey Rayner was left to die. He was suffering. He was afraid. And he was on his own.
Almost two hours later, Officer Edwards realized he could no longer hear Kelsey breathing and sent officers to check on him.
When Officer Griffis noticed that Kelsey wasn’t breathing and there was brown vomit in his mouth and throat, he rolled Kelsey onto his side to clear his airway and started CPR.
Proper CPR is performed with the victim flat on his back. Kelsey Rayner was placed on his side, rendering Officer Griffis’s CPR ineffective. Had Griffis gotten the proper training, this may not have been the case.
We received the video footage of Kelsey Rayner’s death through an open records request with the GBI. However, we didn’t feel comfortable posting it without first speaking with Mr. Rayner’s family members. Due to the fear of retaliation from local law enforcement, they asked that we not name which family members we spoke with. The following is their collective sentiment with regards to the treatment of Kelsey Rayner and this video:
“Release the video. Our family wants justice. The world needs to know what has happened. We want these people brought before a judge, and we demand that they be fired. Never again should anyone’s child suffer as Kelsey Rayner did in that jail cell, laying on the funky floor.”
Below are clips from the video footage taken from Kelsey Rayner’s jail cell. However, if you want the unedited, full seven-hour version, it will be available in a few days and we'll include a link to it here.
Desperate to avoid a public outcry, a disturbing lie has recently been spread. The lie—Kelsey Rayner died from drug withdrawals while in jail.
While drug withdrawals would remove a small portion of the blame from the sheriff’s department, it’s simply not the truth.
According to Mr. Kelsey Rayner’s autopsy and toxicology report, the only drugs in Kelsey’s system were trace amounts of hydroxyzine (allergy medication) and marijuana. Neither of which would have killed him.
In laymen’s terms, the autopsy shows that Kelsey’s bowels leaked into his stomach and caused a severe infection. That infection went untreated, causing massive inflammation, organ failure, and death.
Under the Georgia Constitution, Sheriff Mark Melton and his employees had an obligation to provide Kelsey Rayner with medical assistance. Kelsey could not leave the jail to seek help on his own. He was completely at their mercy.
Was this a case of criminal negligence? Or was no one at fault as D.A. Jackie Johnson claimed on December 13, 2017, when she effectively shutdown the GBI’s investigation?
Another coverup for yet another of Jackie’s former employees?
Like Greg McMichael from the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, Sheriff Mark Melton was a former investigator for Jackie Johnson. And like with Greg McMichael, Jackie didn’t immediately recuse herself when she had a clear conflict of interest. In fact, in the death of Kelsey Rayner, Jackie Johnson never recused herself. She presumably reviewed all the documentation, from the autopsy to the videos and interviews, and decided that she saw nothing wrong.
Kelsey Rayner’s death was preventable.
“Given the nature of Mr. Rayner’s complaints and considering the cause of death confirmed on autopsy, it is very likely that had Mr. Rayner been treated in an emergent capacity, he would have survived his condition. His presentation of fever and abdominal pain warranted further investigation. Had Mr. Rayner received even basic blood work in a timely manner, it is probable that an elevated white blood cell count would have prompted radiologic investigation with subsequent diagnosis and treatment of his condition. While Mr. Rayner died of natural causes, it is probable that he could have survived his condition given adequate examination and treatment.”
-Jourdain Watson, MSN, FNP
The details of Kelsey Rayner’s autopsy were quite gruesome. The pain he suffered during his last hours, unthinkable. Fluid had built-up on Kelsey’s brain, which can cause severe headaches, vomiting, irregular breathing, confusion, and difficulty walking and talking. The insides of his chest and stomach had hemorrhaged and were smeared with blood and green pus, including a peach-sized abscess filled with pus in his lower belly. Six days before his death, a urinalysis performed by the jail nurses revealed that Kelsey Rayner had high bilirubin, indicating possible liver issues. It’s no surprise that when the autopsy was performed, Kelsey Rayner’s liver was almost twice the average weight.
Kelsey Rayner obviously hadn’t died from a drug overdose. He died from an infection, and if a simple trip to the hospital could have saved Mr. Rayner’s life, then what happened? Why is Mr. Kelsey Jerome Rayner dead?
Two claims were made almost universally among the officers and nurses during the GBI’s investigation. The first was that they weren’t aware that Kelsey Rayner was in pain. The second was that Mr. Kelsey Rayner had mental health issues.
1. No Pain
Kelsey Rayner was arrested on July 15, 2017, and according to the civil suit, by July 16, he was already running a 99.9F fever.
On July 20, Kelsey attended sick call, complaining of lower back and stomach pain. Urinalysis showed that Kelsey Rayner’s bilirubin was high, indicating liver issues. This prompted the nurse to schedule blood work to be performed at a later date.
During her interview, the GBI agent asked Nurse Newberry if Kelsey Rayner had complained about being in pain. She claimed she had been told that Mr. Rayner had complaints, but he hadn’t spoken to her about it. “Nope, he didn’t say nothing. I didn’t even hear him say he was in pain.” When asked if she saw Kelsey make a grimace or act like he was in pain, Nurse Newberry repeated her statement that Kelsey never said anything about being in pain, altogether avoiding the GBI Agent’s question.
July 22, 2017, was the day Kelsey Rayner’s blood was scheduled to be taken for testing, but it was never done. Why? Because the more experienced nurse called in sick that day, and the new nurse wasn’t comfortable performing the test. When their supervisor was called, instead of coming to the jail herself and assisting, she had the tests rescheduled for July 27, five days later.
Is it unreasonable to have medical tests delayed a week?
No, of course not. It happens all the time.
However, this instance is different. Mr. Kelsey Rayner wasn’t like you or me. When we have medical tests delayed, we still have the option of going to the emergency room if our condition worsens. Because of Sheriff Mark Melton and his employees, Kelsey Rayner did not have that option.
The day Kelsey went to court, July 24, he told the judge that he’d been passing blood and that he needed to get out of jail to get medical treatment. The court transcripts seem to indicate that Kelsey Rayner was desperate and would have agreed to almost anything as long as they let him go, even making the comment that he felt like he’d been tricked. Still, even so, Kelsey signed the papers.
Kelsey Rayner’s comments were clear enough for the court recorder to understand, so it stands to reason that the officer who escorted Kelsey Rayner into and out of the courtroom should have heard them as well. According to Nurse Newberry, the officer who escorted Mr. Rayner to the courthouse was Officer Bell.
Even Sheriff Mark Melton noticed Kelsey Rayner had his hand around his stomach and claimed he’d asked Kelsey what was wrong. Sheriff Melton claimed that Kelsey mumbled incoherently. No action was taken to ensure Kelsey Rayner was actually okay. July 24, 2017, Sheriff Mark Melton had a clear opportunity to take action but chose to do nothing.
Kelsey Rayner's medical issues started long before July 26. His sickness should have been obvious. Every officer that saw Kelsey curled up on the floor, or hunched over on his knees and elbows in obvious pain could have sounded the alarm, but didn’t. Had Kelsey Rayner irrationally refused to ask the officers for help? Or had Kelsey realized that these officers took direction from the leadership of Sheriff Mark Melton, and no matter how desperate his cries, no one would help him?
It’s easy to pass blame by claiming that Kelsey Rayner never asked for help. Even easier when there’s no one to testify otherwise.
However, in their GBI interviews, both EMS responders mentioned that Kelsey Rayner’s stomach had been severely distended.
“His stomach was very swollen. It was the first thing I noticed when I walked in the door. And it was not like when you’ve got people who’ve got a little belly on them…it was like if you stuck a basketball under your shirt. It was very round. He was not just fat. And when I spoke with the nurse, she said that was not normal for him.”
For the officers who’d been observing Kelsey Rayner for over a week, it should have been obvious that something was wrong. And yet, no help was called for Mr. Rayner, even after two officers entered his cell, saw him lying on the floor, engulfed in a stench so bad it had them covering their noses.
That putrid stench should have been another warning sign to these officers. But no, according to one officer, Kelsey Rayner was “just a stinky person.” It must not have occurred to him that what he smelled may have been an infection that was actively killing Kelsey Rayner.
Officers ignored sign after sign that Kelsey Rayner was in distress. Kelsey was on the floor for hours, engulfed in a disturbing stench. His belly was severely distended and was so visible it was the first thing medical personnel noticed when they entered Kelsey Rayner’s cell.
2. Mental Health Issues
“He said he was schizophrenic a little bit, or bipolar,” Officer Merced told the GBI. When asked if Kelsey Rayner acted differently than he had in the past, she stated, “He was a different person. When you’re schizophrenic, well, you know how they behave…he didn’t say anything about him hurting.”
Officer Griffis was asked if it was uncommon for Kelsey Rayner to be lying on the floor. He acknowledged that Kelsey had been on the floor all day. “If you knew this inmate,” Officer Griffis stated and laughed, “he’s very strange.” Officer Griffis then said he believed Kelsey Rayner had been diagnosed with mental health issues.
We scanned through the video of the last eleven days of Kelsey Rayner’s life. While he did lay under his bed once, it appeared he’d done it in an attempt to escape the air blowing directly down on him. Another time was when he seemed to be trying to peek under the door. Anyone with experience as a prison guard can attest that this is a common practice among inmates. With only one small window to look through, inmates find other ways to communicate with each other and see anything outside their small cell. At no point in his eleven-day incarceration had Kelsey Rayner laid out on the floor in a manner resembling that of the day he died. That was completely abnormal behavior for him.
The officers present the day of Mr. Rayner’s death acknowledged that this was unusual, but attributed his change of behavior to mental health issues. They believed that because Kelsey Rayner hadn’t asked for help, he obviously didn’t need any.
These officers witnessed Kelsey curled up on the floor. They saw him on his elbows and knees and noticed how he’d barely responded to them. Officer Griffis even mentioned that Kelsey Rayner had been refusing meals.
Is this the treatment that a mental health inmate can look forward to in the Appling County Detention Center? Does being ‘crazy’ mean that your pain isn’t real? Will your suffering constantly be dismissed as the strange responses of a lunatic?
Things should not be this way. When an inmate is in distress or their behavior changes, it shouldn’t be ignored. A mentally impaired inmate can not be relied upon to voice their medical needs. It is the officers’ duty to monitor them and provide medical attention when it’s needed.
What is the policy for monitoring inmates with mental health instabilities such as Mr. Kelsey Rayner’s?
According to Sheriff Mark Melton, Kelsey Rayner was in the medical segregation unit, in which the inmates are required to be checked at a minimum of every thirty minutes.
Either Sheriff Melton was lying or didn’t know his own jail’s policy because the policy states that “Inmates who are suicidal, assaultive, escape risks, mentally/emotionally disordered, or recovering from intoxicants shall receive in-person surveillance of at least every fifteen minutes.”
Furthermore, these required checks were not being performed at the required intervals. When a check is performed, it is required to be documented. The Appling County Detention Center has an electronic system to track each cell’s surveillance check. Kelsey Rayner was in cell Seg S4. From 6am until his death that night, Kelsey Rayner’s checks were performed, on average, forty minutes apart, which is well beyond the minimum of fifteen minutes. Additionally, there was one surprisingly long lapse of two hours and three one-hour lapses.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson recently attempted to set a new precedent for prosecuting officials who didn’t fire employees who violated policy. She’d done this to Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, claiming that by not terminating those employees, Chief Powell violated his oath of office.
It’s interesting that D.A. Jackie Johnson applied her flawed logic to Chief Powell, and not to her buddy, Sheriff Mark Melton.
Sheriff Mark Melton never terminated any of these officers for their policy violations or for their lack of concern for Mr. Rayner. In fact, Officer Griffis and Officer Edwards were both promoted to deputies shortly after this incident, neither officer having served more than two-and-a-half years as a jailor.
The Baxley Informer put in an open records request to the Appling County Sheriff’s Department, requesting the personnel records of his deputies and jailors. Our intent was to determine if any disciplinary action was taken for the treatment of Mr. Rayner. The request was emailed to the sheriff’s office on July 9, 2020, and we still have not received a reply, despite the law requiring a three-day response.
All the secrecy, from failing to publish a press release on the circumstances of Kelsey Rayner’s death in 2017 to not responding to journalist’s open records requests, gives Sheriff Mark Melton the appearance of someone with something to hide.
Or maybe it’s just a move he learned from his old boss, Jackie Johnson. Jackie has recently been called out on the internet for giving reporters the runaround and charging exorbitant fees for records.
At the start of this article, we mentioned D.A. Jackie Johnson and her involvement in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting. If the similarities of Jackie Johnson’s treatment of Greg McMichael and Sheriff Mark Melton aren’t clear, here’s a list:
1. The people involved were previous employees of Jackie Johnson. Both Greg McMichael and Sheriff Mark Melton were former investigators for Jackie.
2. Jackie Johnson remained involved even though she had a clear conflict of interest. For Greg McMichael, she recused herself but found a back-door way of keeping influence over the case. In the case involving her friend, Sheriff Mark Melton, Jackie never recused herself at all.
3. Jackie Johnson allegedly had someone from her office tell the police not to arrest the men responsible for Ahmaud Arbery’s death. Similarly, before the GBI’s investigation was complete, Jackie Johnson sent a letter to the GBI, effectively shutting down their investigation.
The similarities between the past and the present are striking, showing a clear pattern for District Attorney Jackie Johnson that should not be ignored.
As for Sheriff Mark Melton, it is his leadership and ethics that have come into question. Considering the video evidence, how did Sheriff Melton see fit to promote two of the officers involved? Did he approve of their actions that night? Or did he just not care?
Other leadership and ethics issues arise for Sheriff Mark Melton from two bits of interesting information recently leaked to the Baxley Informer.
The first was that the sheriff has been illegally tracing phone calls and attempting to find the writers for the Baxley Informer. We’ve been told this wasn’t the first time he’d abused the public’s trust in this way. While we can’t swear to this information, we did check-out our informants, and they are credible.
The second bit of information was about a secret meeting held shortly after July 4, 2020, when the Baxley Informer’s first article on Kelsey Rayner’s death was published. According to sources, Sheriff Mark Melton told his employees to keep their mouths shut because their job depended on it.
Sheriff Mark Melton might want to look at the Georgia Whistleblower Act before another one of his meetings.
Georgia Whistleblower Act 45-1-4(d)
(1) No public employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any policy or practice preventing a public employee from disclosing a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation to either a supervisor or a government agency.
(2) No public employer shall retaliate against a public employee for disclosing a violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation to either a supervisor or a government agency, unless the disclosure was made with knowledge that the disclosure was false or with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.
While he’s at it, Sheriff Melton might also want to review the state statutes he has possibly violated. By failing to train his employees properly, not upholding his own policies, and exhibiting poor leadership, Sheriff Mark Melton holds possible liability for Mr. Kelsey Rayner’s death.
These aren’t just ‘lose your job’ statutes. Some of these are ‘lose your freedom’ statutes.
1. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 16
According to 16-2-1(b), Criminal negligence is an act or failure to act which demonstrates a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby.
2. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42
(A) Per 42-4-4(a), it is the sheriff’s duty to provide inmates with medical aid.
Sheriff Mark Melton has a legal duty to provide inmates with medical aid. He can’t pass that responsibility off. It is the duty he signed up for when he ran for sheriff in 2016.
According to Georgia law, any sheriff who fails to comply with this mandate shall be fined for contempt and is subject to removal from office.
(B) Per 42-4-1(a), in the eyes of the law, all sheriffs are jailers, which creates additional responsibility for the sheriff because jailers take an oath to treat prisoners humanely.
Any violation of that oath, spelled out in 42-4-5(a) as “guilty of inhumanity,” carries a steep penalty. Violation of that section is punishable by removal from office and one-to-three years in prison.
3. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42
According to 42-4-32(d), the sheriff shall ensure each inmate is observed daily, and a physician be called immediately if there are indications of serious injury, wound, or illness. Per state law, any person who violates this article shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
4. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42
In this section, the “officer in charge” is defined as the sheriff, and states that he is required to provide sick inmates access to medical services.
There are quite a few things about this case that still don't add up. Depending on whether we can obtain the information we're seeking, the Baxley Informer may publish a Part Three to this series.