Mystery of McHenry County Jail inmate death: Officials decline to give details of man’s demise in July

Mom of Colton Sabo, 31, says she was told he died of natural causes, had enlarged heart

Colton Sabo and his mom Sara Meyer

Authorities remain quiet on details surrounding the death of a man who was found unresponsive in a McHenry County jail cell July 28 and died in the hospital the next day.

Several attempts by the Northwest Herald for confirmation of and details surrounding the death of 31-year-old Colton Sabo – including emails, phone calls and Freedom of Information Act inquiries to local officials – have been unsuccessful.

“I don’t wish [this] on anybody. It is horrible. You should never outlive your children.”

—  Sara Meyer, mother of Colton Sabo

Neither the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office nor the McHenry County Coroner’s Office proactively released any information to relay to the public that an inmate had died after being found unresponsive in his cell.

Following weeks of questions, and nearly three months after Sabo’s death, the sheriff’s department responded to an email inquiry on Oct. 18 by saying the case is still “open and under investigation.” The coroner’s office, in an Oct. 10 email, said “Colton’s cause and manner of death are still pending.”

Both agencies had also said the investigation was being handled by the McHenry County Major Investigations Assistance Team, an organization comprised of police officials from various local departments, and referred questions to MIAT.

However, when reached by the Northwest Herald, the head of MIAT, Marengo Police Chief Nathan Hayes, said MIAT was only “an assisting component” in the investigation and was not permitted to comment.

A Freedom of Information request was submitted to the sheriff’s office asking for incident reports from July 28, the day Sabo was found unresponsive in his cell. The sheriff’s office responded with a statement saying that no such incident reports existed. In response to an earlier Freedom of Information request sent in September, the sheriff’s office said, “At the time this incident occurred, the files were turned over to MIAT to conduct their investigation.” The sheriff’s office at that point also did not release Sabo’s name, the date of his death or how he was found.

Sabo’s mother Sara Meyer, of Loves Park, said she got a call about 6:30 p.m. July 28 from an official in the sheriff’s office telling her that her son had been found unresponsive in his jail cell, that deputies tried to resuscitate him but were not successful, and that Sabo had then been taken to a local hospital.

When she arrived at the hospital that night, she said doctors told her they did not know how long he had been without oxygen. She said she was made to wait for about four hours longer before she was able to see her son, who was in the intensive care unit, unresponsive and on life support.

“They put us in a room in the ER,” she recalled. “The ER doctor couldn’t give us a whole lot of information. [Deputies] didn’t know ... [They said] It didn’t look like foul play but they were still doing testing and collecting evidence at the time.”

She said deputies asked her several questions, such as whether her son had any enemies and if anyone had been threatening him or if there was anyone she considered a threat against him.

“There was a lot of odd questions. ... It seemed to take a long time before we could see him,” she said, adding she didn’t see him until about 12:30 a.m.

“By the time we saw him in ICU, there was probably four to six deputies there. ... I thought that was excessive,” she said. “They tried to explain to me there were people from the sheriff’s office and the jail investigating. It was very confusing to me, to be honest.”

Meyer said she was told her son had no brain activity and she asked a doctor if he could survive on his own. She was told he could not.

The next day, he was removed from life support and he died, Meyer said.

About a week later, Meyer said she got a phone call from the county coroner, who said the office determined her son died of natural causes and that he was found to have had an enlarged heart. She was asked about his medical history, and she said he had complained of stomach pain in the days before his death. She said her son told her when he went for medical care in the jail “they didn’t really do anything for it.”

She said she was told by a doctor that stomach issues could indicate a heart condition.

Meyer said she hadn’t yet received a death certificate and said it “all has been a little strange from the beginning.”

She said that, after Sabo died, she also got a phone call from a friend of his in the jail who also said circumstances around Sabo’s death were strange.

It’s not unusual for sheriff’s offices in the Chicago area to issue news releases within days of the death of an inmate in their custody, and then to have the death investigated by Illinois State Police or another outside agency.

McHenry County, under the predecessor of current Sheriff Robb Tadelman, also issued news releases within days of the death of inmates in April 2021 and in November 2017. Both deaths were later ruled to be suicides.

Speaking generally, not in response to the Sabo case, Christopher Covelli, deputy chief and public information officer for the Lake County Sheriff’s office, wrote that at that agency: “We embrace a philosophy of transparency. Whether we are discussing a threat to the community, a significant arrest, our staff going above and beyond, a community event, an instance where we made a mistake, or anything we feel the community would want to know - we are transparent. In the unfortunate circumstance where someone passes away while in custody, we release all of the information we know, that will not negatively impact an investigation, within hours of the death.”

As for Sabo, his mother said she did not post an obituary for him but held a private ceremony with family and close friends.

“I don’t wish [this] on anybody,” she said. “It is horrible. You should never outlive your children.”

Sabo was being held in the jail after he pleaded guilty to violating probation on an earlier conviction of deceptive practices, court records show. He had been sentenced July 18 to one year in jail.

He was awaiting transfer to Winnebago County to deal with unrelated, pending weapons charges there, including aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, according to Winnebago County court records.

On Aug. 3, prosecutors in Winnebago County filed an order to dismiss the case against Sabo, which included a handwritten note saying “defendant is deceased.”

Meyer described her son as a “charismatic person who loved his dogs dearly.”

“He started racing Motocross as a little boy and his love for motorcycles never left,” she said in an email. “He loved every minute he spent on his Harley-Davidson.”