Unhealthy situation? Friends question jailed man's death

It had been over 40 years since Jimmy Gunn had been behind bars, and he was terrified of going back. He began telling friends that it wasn't fair that a 60-year-old with myriad health problems couldn't serve his 30-day marijuana sentence on house arrest. He even called the Hook to complain about what America's war on drugs was doing to him. And six days after entering the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, he was dead.

But a marijuana sales conviction last fall coupled with a 1969 possession conviction may have given authorities little option.

Gunn had a history of poor health. He was bipolar, took medication for panic attacks, and relied on an inhaler to treat his emphysema, according to friends and family.

Still, to his friend Teague Herren, Gunn seemed healthy enough when Herren drove Gunn to court on December 9. They were hoping the judge would consider a motion for home electronic monitoring and a restricted driver's license. Instead, Gunn was taken to jail.

"I dropped him off at court, and a week later he's dead," says Herren, "for a pot charge."

Gunn was an artisan carpenter whose work graced the home of the late Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore. But after a bout of cancer, Gunn had relied on disability insurance, and friends suspect he supplemented his income by selling pot.

According to his attorney, Jessica Phillips, who filed the motion requesting home monitoring, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins and the Commonwealth's Attorney were open to Gunn serving his time at home as long as the jail said he qualified.

It seems that in 1969 Gunn was convicted of possession of marijuana for five grams of marijuana, which is roughly the equivalent of a "dime bag," ten dollars worth of pot. Then it was a felony. Today, it would be a misdemeanor.

Phillips checked with jail officials, and says she was told Gunn was wouldn't qualify for house arrest due to his prior conviction, even though though it was handed down during the Nixon Administration. And even though he was in very poor health, according to Gunn's ex-wife Debbie Davis.

"He wanted home arrest," says Davis. "Given his age and his health, and given it was only for pot, I don't understand why he wasn't given it."

Gunn's recent legal troubles began last year after he sold marijuana to an undercover officer. After that, the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force raided his house and found approximately four pounds of pot in dozens of plastic baggies, according to an inventory sent to a forensic lab. An old shotgun added an additional charge: possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Anyone who is convicted of a reefer offense in Virginia automatically loses his driver's license for six months. That posed an additional hardship on Gunn's ability to get his medications. He'd lived in the same Barboursville cottage for 30 years, but after his October 6 conviction, he was evicted.

When they learned that Gunn's death followed the confiscation of his ever-present inhaler, some of Gunn's friends initially cast blame in the direction of the Jail.

Other jail deaths:
Four other inmates have died in the jail or after they were taken to the hospital in the past 10 years, according to information provided by the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Kenneth R. Banks was in for six months with a sentence revocation/probation violation. He'd been playing basketball in the recreation area September 1, 2009, and was found unresponsive on the ground. He was taken to UVA Medical Center, which notified the jail he died of cardiac arrest.
Jane A. Barbour had been sentenced to 90 days for possession of alcohol by an interdicted person, which means she'd been forbidden to have booze as a result of  other offenses. She came into the jail on June 6, 2006. Two days later, she was found face down and unresponsive in her cell, and pronounced dead by the emergency medical technicians. Official cause of death: accidental choking.
Lloyd L. Fitzgerald was serving a 10-day sentence on the weekends for a DUI when he was discovered dead in his cell when breakfast was served March 13, 2004. The coroner called it cardiac arrest.
Walter B. Ditchkus Jr. was brought in on a public drunkenness charge and tried to hang himself February 13, 2001. He was taken to UVA Medical Center and died February 21, 2001. The jail does not have a cause of death in its records.

However, Colonel Ron Matthews, the Jail superintendent, notes that Gunn had been placed on suicide watch December 12 because he'd tried to harm himself with a plastic fork. It was shortly after 11pm the next day, when Gunn told an officer that he was cold, says Matthews.

"Five minutes later, the officer finished his work and went to check on him," says Matthews. "He was unresponsive."

According to court records, Gunn was in a coma when he was taken to UVA Medical Center and placed on a respirator. On December 14, the charges against him were dismissed, and his family and friends were able to see him. The next day, he was taken off the respirator and died.

Prisoners with medical issues "get better care in jail than they do out on the street," says Colonel Matthews. When inmates are on suicide watch, they aren't allowed to have items that they could potentially harm themselves with, like inhalers, and they're checked every 10 to 15 minutes, he says.

"As an administrator," says Matthews, "that's the worst thing that can happen when someone under your care dies."

The medical examiner determined that Gunn died from a pulmonary embolism–- a blood clot from the leg that blocks the main artery to the lungs.

Gunn's emphysema would not have been a factor in the pulmonary embolism, says Dr. Samuel Coughron, who was Gunn's doctor and who had prepared a letter for the jail detailing his patient's condition.

"In general, when something like this happens, you're screwed," says Coughron. "You're dead before you hit the floor."

Jimmy Gunn's family and friends still are grappling with his death, and some remain concerned about whether an inability to get his medications and inhaler could have played a role in his death.

"It was a needless death," says Teague Herren. "He wasn't suicidal."

–updated 11:30am with Gunn's November call to the Hook

–edited 11:25pm on Sunday, January 22


Jimmy did indeed have many wonderful and helpful friends. He wanted to be more independent and less needy. Selling pot was his very bad idea to accomplish this. He couldn't smoke towards the end of his life due to his serious lung disease and had a difficult time with any sort of strenuous activity. He tried to get jobs, but who would hire an old unhealthy guy? A very sad situation.

I had posted a comment lamenting on the sad state of affairs where after all these years marajuana is still a criminal offense. I am guessing that the website mediator saw my 'rantings' as inflammatory and did not post them. Good Job on censorship.

A 60 year old guy whose health has broken and faces life under increasingly straitened circumstances, dies alone in the austere circumstances of a regional jail cell and some of you pile on him as though he were John Wayne Gacey?

My long held suspicions that many who post here are callow punks have been reinforced by the tone of at least half of the posts on this thread.

It was a sad death. Maybe its cause was unrelated to the circumstances of his confinement and maybe not. Should he have been locked up? As they say on Faux News: "You decide"

This story---poof!

To "A Friend"

You say: As a friend of Jimmy Gunns (who doesn’t smoke pot as of this time)

I think dead people don't smoke at all. Furthermore the article says he was dealing pot, not smoking pot.

A Friend --- poof!

Gasbag-I believe it is pretty common (I know it is in California where I am originally from) for the sheriff in charge of the jail to have a good deal of discretion on how inmates are handled. I am not a lawyer, but I think that is why they are in sentenced to the custody of the sheriff or jail, hence it is their decision on how inmates are handled? And who knows, maybe the law says that people with prior convictions are not eligible for that program and the judge didnt know about the rule?

Again, I just don't see the story. Its sad, but I hate the tone of all these Hook and Cville stories that always imply that something must be wrong. Maybe every was done was right and this is just story with a sad ending?

Sounds like he had an unfortunate clot that killed him, but an inhaler or being at home wouldn't have prevented it from happening. I don't see the connection.

Not saying anything about this gentleman whom I did not know, but there are lots of people carrying diagnoses of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, etc. who are chronic substance abusers (alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, Lortab - you name it) whose true medico-psychiatric condition is "substance induced persisting anxiety disorder, mood disorder, etc" (these are legitimate DSM-IV and ICD-9 diagnoses). No way somebody can spend years manipulating their body chemistry and mental/emotional state with alcohol or other drugs and not create these kinds of problems. When they go to their doctor or counselor though, either they conceal their substance abuse or they get the wrong label because most physicians and mental health professionals don't understand substance abuse. (Substance abuse is maybe one lecture in a 7+ year medical education.) Then lots of these individuals who are not handicapped by any physical problem or at least any problem exept those created by their substance abuse apply for and receive Social Security Disability and all that goes along with that. Why does the government not require drug testing for unemployment, disability pension, etc? And how can any society survive which subsidizes its own decay?

Tom, I don't view this story as an attempt by The Hook to drum up any support or sympathy for the Mr. Gunn. It's not like The Hook is saying this is a terrible thing that happened to a totally innocent person.

Dr. Coughron "..When something like this happens, you're screwed.." Now there's a doc who doesn't mince words!

Remember the saying...until you have walked a mile in someone else's shoes you should not judge. Folks, I am seeing a lot of judgemental views, Perhaps the larger issues are:

Do people that have a diagnosed mental illness/disability receive their medications prescribed by their doctors when in jail? often not. From working with within the mental health field I have seen many fall through the cracks, and can led to poor outcomes as well as additional expense--hospitalization at UVA or MJ is not cheap. As a society, do we just want to punish, ignore, those of us that have fallen on to hard times for whatever reason, illness, out of work...is that really what we want.

Agree, that a jail official should not trump judges as to who serves their sentence how.

Yes, selling pot not such a good idea but if it was legalized and used to help those that have MS, anxiety disorders, cancer and such perhaps the profit motive would be done. Remember many people do whatever they can to cope and survive.

Let us not rush to judge but seek the truth and exhibit compassion.

Wow! I'm saddened by how many people get warm fuzzies over the death of someone they never met. Another Friend described him perfectly - a good man - the negative comments make me wish I was more like him. Bye Jimmy.

I knew Jimmy for thiry-five years,and for the last two months I asisted him to and from his doctors appointments. Jimmy never complained of any new health concerns and he looked fine.The last time I spoke with him was to pick him up and to drop him off at the county court house. I reassured him everything would be fine.As I left him in the hands of what I believed were competant professionals. Seven days later he was taken from the complex after going into cardiac arrest and admitted into the ICU at UVA hospital and in a coma and was put on a respirator and two days later he was dead. I was wrong about my realistic expectations and I am sorry.

Jimmy was a kind, sweet, gentle man who loved his dog, his friends and his music... How dare you judge him if you didn't know him!

To those who knew him, you know we lost a good man.. for those of you who didn't, I wish you had.

What's the problem? The world is divided into 2 groups: Good People and bad guys. If you commit a crime- you are a bad guy and whatever happens to you is deserved.

I'm really ashamed for most of you people who have made comments here. As a friend of Jimmy Gunns (who doesn't smoke pot as of this time) I'm here to stick up for him. I feel most of you are quick to judge and without compassion. Some of you seem very intent with the letter of the law in a case that should be judged in the spirit of the compassion in the law. Jimmy was a sick person. I knew him to be a highly anxious individual. It is strange to see his picture in this article. it was obviously taken from his surrender at the regional jail, and he looks bad. This isn't the Jimmy that many people know and love. I knew Jimmy for 29 years and you couldn't find a sweeter less violent person. But Jimmy was a sick person and pot was a medicine to him. He said it kept his brain chemistry on an even keel. It seemed to, he was worse without it than with it. he smoked it very heavily. Now Jimmy couldn't take being around people much so he lived way up in the hills at the back of a very big farm. there were his cats and dogs, and garden (veggies). There also were rabid raccoons and squirrels and such. Hence the shotgun which I have never seen but only heard of. When a small timer like Jimmy (who really did only have disability to live on; around $600 dollars I think. ) sells some pot the money goes right back into his community. usually for food, Prescribed medications, electricity, car repair (old truck), gasoline. This isn't some huge cartel using pot profits to fund other more nefarious and criminal activity. Anyhow Please don't be so quick and harsh to judge Jimmy. It's hard to hear you all talk about , "people like this". for you it is impersonal and from the photo he looks like some "bad" person but to those who knew him, he was a real person who was harmless. He deserves better than what the tone of some of your letters imply. What he really deserves is to have Marijuana made legal or accessible for personal use without fear of criminal prosecution. Right after that I would settle for a sounder investigation of what went on in the jail. I wonder if he was given his medications? A number of medications they won't administer at the jail. I know he took a controlled medication for anxiety. when he didn't get them he de-compensated rapidly.

George Allen to the rescue!

To JeffD - Goodbye already

Thank you Matthew Meyer, Becca, Harry D, Frust.

I had lost faith in mankind from the first few heartless comments. Pot laws ARE unjust. Most of the people that are against pot probably drink alcohol. Their drug of choice.

May you rest in peace Mr. James Byrd Gunn.
You will not be forgotten by me.

Why is the HOOK the only newspaper that covered this story? Why did the other papers in this area ignore this?

He made the choices and got what he deserved, if it was that bad he should not have been dealing and should have cleaned his act up.

Well, there goes the Best Tact in the Comment Section award for 2011.

He had friends? Well, perhaps waiting for the pot.......

I also knew Jimmy from my time in Charlottesville. I feel I was lucky to have known him as he was a private person. His kind and humble ways always impressed me. We do need more folks with his disposition in the world. It is sad he is to be remembered with this news story, photo and unfeeling comments. No mistake, Jimmy was one of the "good guys" trying to deal with his issues the best as he could. Rest in Peace dear man.

It is one thing that he knowingly violated the law, but to charge him with various other things which are perfectly legal, and such is what makes Virginia a lousy place for everyone to live.

Grow a brain, officials. Beg, plead, whine about wanting more money, th3n give people reasons to avoid Virginia like the plague.

I agree with Friend. Too many people here quick to
judge and lacking compassion. We all walk a razor's
edge and should never forget it. Anyone can fall through
the cracks. Anyone.

to "A Friend"- Where were you when he needed you? Friends recognize when things are not going right for someone and take action to change what is happening, for the betterment of a person. Friends do not to stand up for someone after the fact...good or bad.

Well, obviously you didn't read all the replies above. The story is the judge and commonwealth attorney didn't have any objections to house arrest. Who in the world gave a jail employee the power and authority to say otherwise? Do we need judges and commonwealth attorneys any longer? Let's simply transport the people to the jail and let the jail do what they think is best.

I have been lurking on the side lines and reading the comments. Obviously I'm pro Legalization. that is not the argument here.
I think the focus is how the jail handles various types of prisoners. I know it is a hard job and often limited by lack of proper funding. it is also hindered by the lack of understanding, training, and insight by the people who run the jail. I have been to our jail. No, I wasn't doing a research project. I was an offender in my past life. The are some people there who are kind and there are also some very callous mean people who seem driven by their own pathologies to extract a type of vengeance upon the prisoners.
the jail likes to mess with you and immediately let you know who is in charge. they cancel all your meds until you have been interviewed by their nurse. not a doctor. it may take days or even weeks before you see someone who can re-start your medications.
Jimmy saw a shrink on the outside with regularity.. he never lied about his use of pot or the extent of his use. he was counseled by professionals and friends but he choose his own way. He was on high doses of benzodiazapines and other meds. Jimmy was really a sick person, no B.S.
I want to know if he was being properly medicated while in the jail. the embolism may have been connected to something else. But if he wasn't getting his meds I know he was both amping up while very depressed. I think he, for lack of a better term, "popped his cork". which probably wouldn't have happened if properly medicated. when the jail incarcerates a mental patient shouldn't he be in an area with a higher level of interaction with the correctional officers. or better yet, medical personal. I have seen mental patients in jail and prison and they get often get treated badly and taken advantage of by other inmates. Jimmy really wasn't a suitable candidate for the jail. he was supposed to get home detention. But someone their decided to play God and go out of their way to "Punish" Jimmy. instead of a punishment he got a death sentence. it isn't right. the punishment is supposed to fit the crime, not be a crime.

Friend, it's almost impossible to believe that the jail can cut off a person's medications for "days or even weeks". I just don't believe there's any way whatsoever they could ever get by with this for any extended period of time.

If you're correct, this needs to be investigated and corrected immediately!

A Friend- welcome to Obamacare.....unless you are a Congresswoman. Even the repubs would not give up their healthcare if the repeal were to pass- voted down last week.

Yup, they are all elitists. What is good for us, is not good for them.....

To all you jerks with your ugly, harsh comments that did not know Jim I say, your loss! If this world had more people like Jim we would all be a lot better off. Jim never hurt anyone or anything. As for the shotgun, he would not even shoot a snake in the yard. As for the four pounds of pot he was caught with - why don't you put two and two together and realize that the pot belonged to someone else? Go back to The Hook and read the original article from last January. And then check out the Albemarle Circuit Court website for case status. Regardless of what he might have done wrong in the eyes of some people he did not deserve to leave this world like he did.

I consider Jim to be one of the truest friends I ever had or ever will have.

May you rest in peace, Jimmy Gunn. You were one of the kindest people I knew and you had a rough time of it in this world. I hope the next one treats you right.

harryd- "so wheh you see someone rotting on the corner, and you are an acquaintence of that person, you walk by? You do nothing at that point? As a friend you do not work on that friendship? You let them sell and use pot? Huh????"

Rotting on the corner?

I do help my friends when they need. I do NOT "let" them do anything. My friends are adults...

Well the verdict(s) is in. So to summarize:

1. Sell pot in 1969 and again 40 years later--you're scum and deserve no compassion. Tom, BB, and FamilyValues all have spotless conscience and are justified before God and the General District Court. Bully for them.

2. The Hook can put a title on a story and fail to substantiate with any argument. Which friends have which questions regarding any conditions leading to death? Other than mentioning that an ex-wife questioned whether jailed was necessary or not you haven't presented the story that the title promises. Oh wait Mr. Herren is quoted as saying "needless death". But you haven't presented his insights into the aetiology of the embolism or why it was needless (and by implication related to being jailed). But perhaps he doesn't have any deep physiological insights or anything to say about the standard of care received at the jail.

Compassion for a sad end notwithstanding, there's no story here.

Gasbag, people die every day in jail, ever hear of a life sentence? Again, all I am saying is this story implies something was done wrong but provides no evidence. So where is the story?

I know it is, Donald. But it's been my experience as a former court officer for decades that the judge refers the person to the jail so as to allow the jail to make the necessary arrangments for home arrest. The timetable is still not clear to me. I would have to wonder now if the judge and commonwealth attorney even knew that house arrest was denied. Did Jessica Phillips go back in front of the judge and advise them of the denial - before Gunn reported to jail?

It seems like to me that a drug treatment program would have been more appropriate in this case. House arrest was not the solution because anybody can continue to deal drugs out of their home.

It's all over and done with now. But I think the judge and commonwealth attorney might take a different approach in the future rather than letting an employee at the jail make the final decision next time. Especially when such poor health is involved.

Snakehead- so wheh you see someone rotting on the corner, and you are an acquaintence of that person, you walk by? You do nothing at that point? As a friend you do not work on that friendship? You let them sell and use pot? Huh????

Yes, there is a story here.

Part of it is about the Commonwealth's failure to consider JD's health status.

The larger story, though, is about the fact that this person was treated the way he was because of five grams of (likely very lousy) weed from 1969.

That's maybe five joints, depending on seeds and stems.

Cannabis was prohibited in 1937 on the basis of racist lies, and subsequent attempts to produce scientific knowledge to justify this prohibition have made a travesty of our public health policy.

The bottom line is that this man would not have died in jail were it not for an unjust law.

The jail is no longer responsible for his hospital bills if he is not in custody.

My question is why were charges dismissed once he was in a coma?
and who had the authority to dismiss them.
Was it the same person that sent him to jail in the first place

But what was the justification for dismissing the charges when he was convicted? I understand they do not want to be responsible for the hospital bill, but they knew of all his health problems prior to jailing him.

Other than the obvious, IMHO - namely, wanting to relieve the state or jail of the responsibility of his hospital bills - I guess it's something the judge or commonwealth attorney would have to answer.

Maybe they dismissed the charges because they didn't want Gunn in jail in the first place and felt house arrest was OK.

Maybe the jail asked the judge to dismiss the charges - again, as I said, to get the jail off the hook as far as paying the hospital bills.

It is an interesting question.

I feel that there should be an investigation about what really happend? Maybe there needs to be policy changes or more training for the staff there. A person died & it needs to be taken seriously. Maybe he would have died from the same thing at home, either way it is very sad. I hope that his family & friends can pull together & get through this & that they can have some closure.

The guy knowingly violates the law (apparently, more than once for drug-related charges), and has to go to jail, where he dies from a condition that affects thousands of other Americans each year (and most of them are law-abidding). The loss of a driver's license is a known condition of using pot (for the obvious community safety reasons), and should have given this person pause before he lit up.
The previous conviction denies him the right to a gun, which he also chose to ignore.
The tone of the article is that we should feel sorry for this loser, and tries to make excuses for his actions. I'd love to see an article where the Hook takes someone to task for their own bad choices.

How does someone buseted with four pounds of pot and gun get 30 days in jail? He ratted someone out! Its funny, you call him an artistan carpenter, but you forgot to add drug dealing rat.

a 60 year old drug dealer with cancer and emphysema dies of a blood clot? Where is the freakin story here?

@Wog: "most physicians and mental health professionals don’t understand substance abuse"

Wow this is quite a finding Wog. Maybe you should publish in the Lancet.

There's many stories here if some of you wanted to think about a few of the angles rather than whine about what the The Hook does all the time.

Let's start with just one angle. After the man is tried, convicted and sent to jail.... how and why were the charges dropped? IMHO, the charges were re-opened and dropped so the state wouldn't have to pick up the tab for his hospital stay. I have seen it done many times. All of a sudden the crime is not as important as the jail sentence may have suggested it was?

When the judge and commonwealth attorney have no objections to house arrest, how can an employee at the jail trump their desires and claim Gunn isn't qualified? Who in the world gave the jail employees the power and authority to override the desires of a judge and a commonwealth attorney? Perhaps this is a serious problem that needs to be looked into.

Next, where are the records that would set out a timetable here? I doubt very seriously if Gunn voiced a concern about being cold and was found unresponsive 5 minutes later. What was the temperature in his cell? Was his complaint of being cold handled immediately, or did the jail employee go off and do other work as the article reads? We're not talking about a healthy 20 year old thug who was sent to jail for 30 days. We're talking about a man with many underlying health issues. Are jail employees properly trained in dealing with issues involving older unhealthy people versus those concerns of healthy young inmates?

Moving on, as Wiki says, "the risk of Pulmonary embolism is increased in various situations, such as cancer and prolonged bed rest." Being placed on suicide watch and tossed in a small cell by himself is not much different from prolonged bed rest. The jail knew he had had cancer, did they do him justice by then prescibing prolonged bed rest?

I could go on and on and on. But I'll end by saying once again that I place no faith in any press release or facts within from a city, county, state or federal agency! If anything was done wrong, do you really expect an agency to admit it? I have seen so many spins placed in press releases that it would make you throw up if I wrote a book about all of them.

The officer said he went back in 5 minute to check on him,hmmmm. I don't think nobody slip into that deep of a coma in 5 minutes. A crime in 1969 shouldn't even matter now. Maybe if the people that is sick and old could get more help from the system instead of giving it to the young people that can get up and work,getting hundred of dallor in food stamp and medcaid maybe Mr.Gunn wouldn't have to sell pot. Alot of the comments (Duh,Otheroad,biffdiggerance) that was made was heartless. Are you sure some of your family isn't doing the same thing. I hope the others that are jailed get look at more offten.

Sorry Otherroad, Your comment WAS NOT one of the ones that should have been in my list of ones that are heartless. Two that also should have been on the list if being mean is Harry D and Are you kidding me.

My point was, why is this even a story? The guy was 60, he wasnt healthy and people with his medical conditions die every day. I am sorry for the family, but I don't see a conspiracy here...I dont see why this a news story.

Besides, he had 4 POUNDS of pot...that is a lot of weed! I am 100% certain no one in my family is running around with 4 POUNDS of pot.

There is a story to be told any time a person dies while in the custody of a city, county, state or federal agency.

To Biff - I don't publish in Lancet since they rejected my article on pre-traumatic stress syndrome.

I'd call this a SLOW NEWS WEEK. The courts and jails are crammed with people like this.

Yeah, when I need harryd to tell me what "friendship" means: I have drifted way too far from the shore...

Gasbag: it's relatively common for judges to give a conditional approval of something like electronic home monitoring, and defer to the administrative criteria that the custodial authority requires.

To those commenting on the harshness of the charges and the sentence: if the story is accurate about the evidence, then the prosecutors could have charged him with violation of Virginia Code 18.2-308.4(C), which would trigger a mandatory 5-year sentence. By comparison, a 30 day term is pretty reasonable. And I say this as someone who, given the choice, would legalize marijuana.

Having said that, I cannot endorse the callous comments of Tom and others, suggesting that this is not newsworthy or that he got what he deserved, etc.