Family: Sheriff's Office Wouldn't Let Dying Inmate Donate Organs UPDATED

Christopher Hendricks's family learned the details of his suicide through a Harris County Sheriff's Office press release.

On June 17, 37-year-old Hendricks hung himself in a shower inside the Harris County jail's medical detox tank, where, his sister says, he was likely placed because he suffered from alcoholism. According to the Harris County Sheriff's Office, Hendricks had no pulse when they found him, but medical personnel were able to restore his vitals. He was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph's Medical Center — where, almost immediately, doctors knew he would likely never wake up.

His family wouldn't find out what had happened to Hendricks until two days after he was taken to the hospital.

“That's probably the part that hurts the most,” said his sister, Tamara Moe.

What followed was what the family says were a succession of cold blows from the sheriff's office as they grappled with accepting they had lost their son and brother. First, when the family tried to find out more details about his suicide, they said inmate relations told them officials did not yet know the details and it was “under investigation” — only to send out those details for the world to see later that night. Then, Moe says, deputies guarding Hendricks's hospital room door mistakenly wouldn't allow her and her husband inside, only to later apologize. But it all culminated when, Moe claims, HCSO denied an organ donation group authorization to harvest Hendricks's organs because he was still technically an inmate in custody.

The sheriff's office denies this.

According to Moe, once doctors were certain Hendricks would never regain consciousness, the family started discussing taking him off life support — they knew he would never have wanted to live the rest of his life in a vegetative state, Moe said. They also knew he was a registered organ donor, and so on June 23, they met with LifeGift about donation options.

But hours after the family gave LifeGift consent, Moe says, the organization pulled them into a conference room at the hospital, telling them there was a problem: For whatever reason, the sheriff's office would not allow LifeGift to start the blood tests, part of the donation process, because Hendricks was still in custody, Moe remembers. To relinquish her brother from the jail, Moe says, the rep told them they would either have to bond him out, ask the court for an emergency hearing to drop the charges or wait until he was declared brain dead.

“We had finally come to terms with realizing he was not going to survive — he was not going to come out of this,” Moe said. “It gave us comfort and closure he would be saving the lives of others; if he couldn't survive, somebody else could because of him. The sheriff's office took that comfort away from us.”

Unable to afford to bail Henricks out, the family opted to wait. They contacted the Texas Civil Rights Project in hopes the nonprofit could help them navigate the system and regain the rights to their son. After attorneys with TCRP sent an urgent letter to the sheriff's office, HCSO contacted the Harris County District Attorney's Office, and charges were promptly dropped against Hendricks the following day, Saturday, June 25.

Deputies arrived at the hospital with a bag of clothes to turn over to the family. Two hours later, Moe says, doctors declared her brother brain dead — and LifeGift finally proceeded with full organ donation.

Not a single entity involved — the sheriff's office, LifeGift or the Texas Civil Rights Project — could provide or confirm full details on what exactly happened. Really, it's because they don't know.

Attorney Amin Alehashem with the Civil Rights Project called the HCSO policy “absolutely absurd” in his emergency letter asking for charges to be dropped — but sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan told us he agreed with Alehashem: No such policy exists.

Sullivan said the sheriff's office had “absolutely zero contact with LifeGift. As a matter of fact, nobody even knew what LifeGift was until Saturday. What I can say definitively is there is absolutely no policy or precedent for the sheriff's office or any law enforcement agency intervening in medical procedures or what a medical professional is saying to do.” Sullivan claimed that it was most likely LifeGift that was confused, that it had perhaps mistakenly believed it couldn't go forward with the donation because Hendricks was still in custody.

LifeGift's spokeswoman, Claudia Sanchez, at first told us: “In this case, I think the sheriff's office was trying to hold back, because they needed time for the investigation — that's what we're trying to figure out, why Harris County didn't proceed. It's outside of our control. We can just approach and talk to them. Why did they say [we couldn't proceed]? We don't know yet.” In a follow-up phone call, though, Sanchez essentially recanted, saying that this is only what she has heard from media, and LifeGift cannot confirm or deny what happened in Hendricks's case because of confidentiality laws.

None of the explanations change the fact, though, that at the center of the confusion is a family who was unable to say good-bye to a loved one they lost to suicide, whose only wish at the end of the mess is that authorities would have been a little nicer.

Update, 7:45 a.m.:

LifeGift on Friday morning sent us the following statement:

"Since prospective organ donors who are inmates are in the custody of law enforcement until they are declared deceased, LifeGift works cooperatively with law enforcement in performance of its statutory duties."

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn