FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. – The family of a man who died while in police custody blames a broken system that led to his last breath behind bars.
Chris Cox, 43, was found dead in his Franklin County jail cell on April 22, 2023, hours after he was involved in a car crash.
Chris’ parents, Jeff and Catherine Cox, said their son was constantly trying to get help for drug addiction.
“He was probably in high school, and he just started to have trouble,” Catherine said. “I thought it was something that would go away eventually.”
Catherine said they did not realize the grip it would have on Chris and his life.
Beginning of the End
A newly-released bodycam video captured the moment officers started interacting with Chris on April 21. St. Clair Police responded to a single-car crash on I-44 where the driver drove off the interstate and into a tree line.
“I think there’s something up with you. So, we’re going to take some field sobriety tests,” the officer said.
Chris could barely stand and nearly fell over at one point.
“Watch out,” the officer warned, because Chris couldn’t keep his balance.
The 43-year-old had been clean for a year. He just got paid from his job as a chef, hours before relapsing.
“He was involved in the rehabilitation at the time of his death,” his mother said.
Chris could not complete the field sobriety test.
The officer is seen on the bodycam snapping his finger, telling Chris to wake up.
“You can go ahead and turn around,” the officer said.
Chris was taken into custody and transported to the St. Clair Police Department.
Surveillance video from inside the police station captured officers tell Chris to stay awake.
“Chris, don’t fall over,” one officer said. “Chris, pick up a little bit.”
Chris is spotted on camera, barely able to keep his head up. He nods off time and time again. One officer was concerned he might go into a medical emergency.
“If you’re about to overdose, I’d prefer to know way ahead of time,” the St. Clair officer said.
Fit For Confinement
Police took Chris to Mercy Washington Hospital for a fit for confinement evaluation. It’s a medical review ultimately clearing the way for Chris to be booked into the Franklin County Jail.
Jacob Goff, the family’s attorney, compared the fit for confinement from to a parent completing a field trip permission form.
“It’s a checked box and signature by a potentially very busy emergency room doctor that has a couple police officers standing in his lobby,” Goff said.
Chris arrived at the jail 31 minutes later. A deputy commented how ‘heavily intoxicated’ he appeared to be.
“I commented about making sure there was a Fit [for confinement] due to the impairment,” a sergeant wrote, according to investigative records.
Chris’ parents question how he was medically cleared.
“I don’t know why he was allowed to leave the hospital,” Catherine said.
The FOX Files obtained jail security footage showing Chris walk into a padded cell wearing his original clothes.
Around 8 a.m. on April 22, a breakfast tray is delivered. Chris would eat some of the food and about ten minutes later, deputies note he appeared to hold a small item within his finger tips and adjacent to his mouth and nose.
Investigators said it’s consistent with a person inhaling particles through the nostril, but detectives are unable to confirm if Chris took anything.
“Nothing was recovered from the scene,” Goff said.
Chris died wearing the same clothes he was arrested in. His family questions how well jail staff searched him.
“Cox had not been fully booked into the Franklin County Jail due to his level of intoxication,” the investigative file shows.
“It doesn’t matter why you’re in there, they should always be protected,” Jeff said.
Jeff and Catherine think their son, who would’ve been coming down from his high, belonged in a hospital bed instead.
“They knew how bad he was,” Catherine said.
But the fit for confinement form was signed.
Missouri Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Kevin Merritt said it’s a very difficult situation.
He doesn’t know the specifics surrounding Chris’ death, but previously worked in a detention facility.
“When they say fit for confinement, I believe there is a disconnect between medical personnel and the level of supervision and care that goes on in a jail,” Merritt said.
Merritt said there’s no perfect definition for what fit for confinement means.
“What does it really mean?” Merritt said. “Do we look at fit for confinement from the standpoint of what are their odds of dying in the next 24-48 hours?”
Mercy Hospital has released the following statement to FOX 2:
“Our sympathy goes to the Cox family and our prayers are with them. While we cannot comment on specific patients due to federal privacy laws, our role in the “fit for confinement” process determines if a person requires hospital-level care. Once it’s been determined that someone in custody does not need hospitalization, it’s up to the accepting law enforcement personnel to ensure the inmate receives subsequent medical care.”
Dying in Jail
Merritt said the state has seen a ride in overdoses in county jails.
Franklin County Sheriff Steven Pelton reports three deadly overdoses in the jail since 2019. Pelton said there were 12 non-fatal overdoses where aid was rendered.
Pelton said he could not comment on Chris’ death due to the potential pending litigation.
“It seems there’s been a pattern of those who come in under the influence of drugs are dying in jail from the drugs they had in their system when they got there,” Merritt said.
Law enforcement agencies, including jails, are required to report in-custody deaths to the Missouri Department of Public Safety. The data is then sent to the Department of Justice.
The FOX Files requested the statistics by county to determine where the most in-custody deaths have occurred. Despite the Department of Public Safety obtaining the data, the state does not keep count.
Missouri Department of Public Safety Communications Director Mike O’Connell said the Department of Public Safety does not have authority to regulate county jails.
“While DPS does not have the authority to oversee or regulate jails or sheriffs’ offices, including confinement procedures, the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 requires DPS to transmit in-custody death data to the federal government on behalf of the state of Missouri. Federal law (34 U.S.C. §10231(a)) bars disclosure of any statistical information that is identifiable to any private person. DPS complies with both of these federal requirements.”
Merritt said the state could do better at tracking in-custody deaths.
“The fact that the sheriffs are already reporting the information to the state, I’m a little surprised the state doesn’t have it in a reporting form, so there is room to do better,” Merritt said.
The FOX Files requested data on in-custody deaths from Jefferson County, St. Louis County, St. Louis City, and Lincoln County in Missouri, plus St. Clair County in Illinois. Data was not provided by Lincoln County or St. Clair County.
According to data provided by the St. Louis Justice Center, there were three in-custody deaths in 2019, four in 2020, one in 2021, six in 2022, and three this year as of early November.
Help is Here
Parents are not supposed to bury their children.
“No parent would want this,” Jeff said. “You have a strong-willed child, it’s very difficult to make them do what you want.”
Jeff and Chris know they did everything they could to save their son.
“It’s an illness,” Catherine said. “One of his favorite things that I think about when I think about him, is his love for baseball.”
There’s been a steady increase in the number of drug overdose deaths in Missouri, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services:
Resources are available for people who may be struggling with substance abuse. Click here for resources or call the 24-hour national hotline: 800-945-HOPE (4673).