By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Debbie Jardine of Sun Lakes was preparing a dinner of liver and onions for her visiting grandson, Joey, on March 30, 1999. Joey had never had liver, and his doting grandmother was pleased to oblige.
"The phone rang about 6:45," Debbie recalls. "A lady comes on and says, 'Mrs. Jardine, this is the ASU police. Does your son Johnny have some kind of medical problem?' I told them he had epilepsy and diabetes. She put me on hold. She came back and told me that he had had a seizure and that they were taking him to Tempe St. Luke's Hospital."
Trips to the hospital to retrieve her 37-year-old son were nothing new for Debbie. Epilepsy had bedeviled Johnny since he nearly drowned when he was 3. But Johnny had persevered, undergoing two frontal lobectomies and employing a pharmaceutical cornucopia over the years to gain some control over the seizures that wracked his body. Johnny had been enrolled at ASU for eight months, and was doing well. He'd only had two seizures in the preceding year. He was feeling good about himself, with newfound purpose.
"My husband, John, didn't want to go to the hospital to get Johnny," Debbie continues. "So I was going. My grandson Joey said, 'Grandma, I'll go with you.' He was thinking we'd just pick up Uncle Johnny and come back home."
When Debbie and Joey arrived at Tempe St. Luke's, they were ushered into a tiny room. A doctor and a nursing supervisor came in. Debbie describes the atmosphere as "icy cold," and what occurred thereafter as an "interrogation."
"The doctor asked me did I know why Johnny would test positive for opiates. I said, 'You should just ask Johnny, because he knows better than anyone about the medication he's taking.' The doctor said to me, 'I can't ask him, he's dead.'"
The doctor told her that Johnny had suffered a "widowmaker" heart attack.
It was a devastating revelation, callously told, to a woman who had devoted her life to nurturing and providing some sense of normalcy and happiness to her disabled first-born. Now, gripped by grief, she had her 10-year-old grandson clinging to her in his own confusion and trepidation.
"I asked to see my son," she says. "They said I shouldn't, that he looked terrible. So they said to give them some time to get him ready.
"Joey and I walked in the room. Johnny was the color of your blue jeans. I kissed him on the forehead and I took the sheet back to hold his arms, and I saw the dark rings around his wrists. The nurse told me they were from tying off IVs."
It was one of many untruths Debbie would hear.
Someone from the hospital told Debbie that she could request an autopsy, but that she would have to pay for it. None was required because Johnny had died in the presence of medical personnel, she was told. Debbie demurred, saying that her son had suffered enough in his life.
But unbeknownst to the Jardines, an autopsy was performed.
The next day, Debbie took another call at her home from a pathologist at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office.
"She told me, 'I want you to listen and listen very carefully to what I'm going to tell you. I see no real evidence of a heart attack. I'm suspicious that your son suffered excessive brutal force. There are areas of bruising and ligature marks.'"
Debbie asked what "ligature marks" meant.
"She said, 'Handcuffs,' and my heart just broke.
"I hung up the phone and I went in and woke my husband up. The question was, What should we do about this information? We decided we'd find out the truth."
That, of course, involves lawyers. The Jardines retained Michael Manning, the Phoenix attorney who won an $8.5 million settlement from Maricopa County over the death of jail inmate Scott Norberg. The Jardines have sued the hospital and the agencies involved in Johnny's "rescue," including ASU, the City of Tempe and Southwest Ambulance. They are seeking $20 million. They say it's not about the money, but holding people accountable and ensuring that another epileptic never suffers needlessly, as their son did.
According to the complaint filed by Manning, Johnny felt a seizure coming on as he sat in his evening geography class at ASU. He tried to leave the classroom. His classmates saw his distress; some recognized that he was suffering a seizure. One of them called 911 on her cell phone, and the dispatcher instructed the students not to restrain Johnny.
Emergency personnel arrived and found Johnny outside the classroom. They put him in a chair next to a window. He was disoriented. When Johnny stood up, the emergency medical technicians tripped his feet out from beneath him, restrained his arms and applied pressure to his back. An ASU Department of Public Safety officer handcuffed Johnny's wrists behind his back, put his knee in the middle of Johnny's back and pinned him down. An EMT straddled his back.
Johnny was 5-foot-10 and weighed 260 pounds. In the best cases, grand mal seizures leave the sufferer gasping for breath. The added weight on top of Johnny, the position of his arms and his obesity made it difficult for him to breathe.