One day in mid-January, Lyric Murray, 19, wrote down the name of another inmate’s mother while they both were locked up at the Johnston County Jail in Smithfield. The other inmate, Eric Cruz, 23, was being held in a cell across from Murray’s.
Murray says he called his mother, Mele Brock, and gave her Cruz’s mother’s name.
“I told my mom, ‘I think he’s gonna die,’” Murray tells the INDY.
On January 19, prison staff found Cruz, who was booked into the jail on January 13 on burglary charges, unresponsive in his cell, according to Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell.
Bizzell says an autopsy will be performed on Cruz’s body. Cruz suffered from kidney disease.
Murray says he witnessed jail staff neglect Cruz for days, denying him clothes and a blanket and mat to sleep on—Cruz was on suicide watch—and ignoring him as he cried out for treatment.
“He started having [medical problems] the second day,” Murray says. “On the third day, his body shut down and he lost the ability to walk. He would crawl to his door. The COs [correction officers] would just walk by him [as he said] the same thing every day: ‘I need my dialysis. I feel like I’m going to die. I need to talk to my mom.’ The same thing over and over.”
Brock confirms her son’s account.
“You will hear my son begging to help this kid,” she tells the INDY, referring to a call Murray placed to her while he was in jail. “You will hear the disregard in the nurse’s voice. You will hear [Cruz] yelling in the background. They need to get the calls before they erase them.”
The INDY has requested recordings of Murray’s phone calls from the jail.
Sheriff Bizzell says he is aware of Murray’s and Brock’s accounts, which Brock has posted publicly.
“They are putting a lot of stuff out there,” Bizzell says. “[Murray] and his momma are spreading lies.”
Murray says that on the sixth day of Cruz’s incarceration, he was taken off suicide watch and given clothes and a blanket. Murray heard Cruz crying out for help again.
“This time it was quieter,” Murray says.
An officer making rounds walked past Cruz’s cell and saw that he was blue, Murray says.
“The CO called his name, and then went in [to Cruz’s] cell and touched him,” Murray says. “More COs came and tried to resuscitate him.”
Murray was in tears as he watched the officers take Cruz out of his cell and onto the cell block floor at around 10 p.m., he says. Cruz’s body lay there until 2 a.m., Murray says.
Bizzell defended his staff and said they will be cleared of any wrongdoing pending an ongoing investigation into Cruz’s death by the Johnston County district attorney’s office.
“Our deputies did everything they are supposed to do,” Bizzell tells the INDY.
“The [Cruz] family,” Bizzell says, “has been told a lot of misinformation.”
Cruz’s mother, María Cruz Avila, told the Spanish language newspaper Qué Pasa that her son didn’t receive medications she brought for him while he was in jail, nor did he receive the dialysis he required three times a week to manage his kidney condition.
Bizzell says the jail’s medical staff was aware of Cruz’s condition and that medical providers saw him while he was in custody “several times.” He characterized Cruz’s treatment while in the jail as a “medical decision” made by doctors, nurses, and medical technicians who are employed by Southern Health Partners, a privately-owned company that the jail contracts with to provide healthcare to inmates.
The company has not responded to a voicemail left by the INDY on Friday.
Cruz’s death is the latest in a series of inmate deaths at the Johnston County jail over the past two years. In 2019, Christopher Lynn Jones, 40, died at the jail from a drug overdose, and Jeffrey Salhoff, 19, died from suicide. Bizzell told the INDY that another inmate died by suicide in 2020.
A fifth man, Robert Perniciaro, was found hanging in his cell in the jail on January 6. He died at WakeMed four days later. (Another inmate was found with a T-shirt wrapped around her neck in an apparent suicide attempt on January 7 before jail staff intervened.)
“That’s five deaths in two years. That’s a big issue,” says Abe Schewel, a Durham-based civil rights attorney (and son of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel) who was retained by Perniciaro’s family.
Perniciaro, who was 26 and lived in Willow Spring, was arrested on January 4 and charged with stealing building materials from a construction site in Clayton on December 23. Investigators say Perniciaro and another man, Kevin Hackney, were trying to sell the materials on Facebook Marketplace. Perniciaro reportedly told his family the materials were laying next to a dumpster and he didn’t realize taking them would be a big deal.
“He didn’t think it was a crime,” says Perniciaro’s sister, Bhriel Perniciaro. She says her brother loved dumpster diving. “He would say, ‘Look. This is so cool. I can’t believe they threw this out.’ It was like his little treasures.”
Bhriel says her brother was high on heroin on the night of his arrest and would face withdrawal in jail. She says her parents, Tom and Liz Perniciaro, told arresting officers repeatedly that her brother was suicidal.
“They had an extensive conversation with them, and told them all the reasons he was suicidal,” Bhriel Perniciaro says. “They were begging [the deputies]. My dad, he made it very serious.”
Perniciaro says her brother had attempted suicide in the past. She says he was worried that his past criminal record—mainly drug convictions—and the fact that he was on probation could land him in prison “for a good amount of time.”
“When Robert was in jail in 2018, they knew he had drug issues and had experienced suicidal ideations at the jail,” says Schewel, who confirmed that Perniciaro’s parents told the arresting detective their son was suicidal and would be withdrawing from heroin while in custody.
“From that point on, they should have treated him with a higher level of care,” Schewel says.
Schewel says he is considering filing a Monell claim against Johnston County, alleging a pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct based on repeated failures to supervise inmates with medical needs, or suffering from drug addiction or withdrawal, at the jail. Schewel says his office requested that the jail and county sheriff’s office preserve Robert Perniciaro’s medical records to determine whether Perniciaro was screened appropriately.
“My brother was hanging long enough to be brain-dead,” Bhriel Perniciaro told the INDY. “They revived his heartbeat at the jail and took him to WakeMed.”
Perniciaro says she later learned from inmates at the jail that they heard her brother going through drug withdrawal in his cell, “crying, and crying out for help.”
Bizzell says he has “no idea on that whatsoever.”
“There was no foul play or nothing that the staff did,” says Bizzell. He says the jail staff was “visibly shaken” after the incident, but “were able to bring [Perniciaro] back” before he died at the hospital.
The last time family members heard from Perniciaro was on the same day that he hung himself.
“He called my parents on Wednesday, the 6th, and left a message,” Bhriel Perniciaro said. “He asked my mom to call his lawyer because he wanted to see him that day.”
Perniciaro says a Johnston County sheriff’s detective also called her parents that day and told them not to bond their son out of jail because there might be more charges filed against him.
“After what happened that night, it was traumatizing,” she says. “We could’ve gotten him out.”
Bizzell said he “does not believe Perniciaro was under a suicide watch.”
“I do know that the detective who interviewed him said they talked about what’s going on in America, and he was really upbeat,” the sheriff said. Bizzell said when jail staff found Perniciaro hanging, they administered CPR before transporting him to the hospital.
“He did not die at the jail,” Bizzell said. “I do know that the staff there, at no time, was at fault. They did everything they could do.”
Bhriel Perniciaro says she’s not surprised her brother seemed upbeat. He was high the night of his arrest.
“But my parents reiterated multiple times about his mental health, his past suicide attempts, and they told the officer that he would be withdrawing over the next couple of days,” she says. “They begged for him to be put on suicide watch.”
Bhriel Perniciaro remembers her brother as a “funny, incredibly talented artist” whose work was “intricate, complicated, and really beautiful.”
“He did everything,” Bhriel Perniciaro says. “He wrote poetry, he did clay sculptures, he did carpentry. He was all into it, and he loved science. When he was a kid, he would carry snakes around. At his wake, everyone who stood and spoke said he was the nicest person. He was a good kid.”
Eric Cruz’s family launched a GoFundMe for Cruz’s mother, Maria Cruz Avila, to cover her son’s funeral expenses. The page doesn’t mention how Cruz died but says he was disabled due to kidney disease. On the page, family members describe Cruz as “a kind young man” with a “loving heart” who “would do anything for anyone.”
They say they “will never forget his smile and his laugh.”
As of Sunday evening, the GoFundMe has raised $1,443.
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.