Cause of McHenry County jail inmate’s death is ‘undetermined,’ coroner rules

Colton Sabo, 31, died in July after he was found unresponsive in his cell

Colton Sabo and his mom Sara Meyer

Almost six months after the death of a McHenry County jail inmate, the coroner announced Friday that his office has not been able to determine a cause.

Colton Sabo, 31, of Poplar Grove, died July 29 at Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, where he was taken from the county jail in Woodstock the day before after he was found unresponsive.

McHenry County Coroner Michael Rein announced Friday that the cause and manner of Sabo’s death are undetermined.

Rein said in a news release that extensive toxicology and other testing “were noncontributory to Mr. Sabo’s death.”

While in the hospital, Sabo was found to have anoxic brain injury, which refers to a loss of oxygen to the brain, and cerebral edema, or brain swelling, but “this was determined to have no significant cause to Mr. Sabo’s death,” according to the release.

The coroner’s office said Sabo “did have a history of seizure disorder and polysubstance abuse.”

The coroner’s determination deepens the mystery surrounding Sabo’s death, which the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office declined for months to confirm and did not announce at the time.

The development comes as a lawsuit is pending over the handling of the 2022 death of another inmate and also after three other inmate deaths that occurred within a span of about two weeks in November and December.

At the time of his death, Sabo was serving a one-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to violating probation on an earlier conviction of deceptive practices, court records show. He was awaiting transfer to Winnebago County for pending weapons charges against him there, including aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, court records show.

His dad, Todd Sabo, said Friday that he’s “very frustrated” with the time it has taken to get information about the cause and manner of his son’s death.

“I feel like I am always put in the dark, that nobody would give me any answers, especially about the well-being of my son,” Todd Sabo said. “I feel like they didn’t take me serious.”

Todd Sabo said he talked to his son three days before he died, noting that he was “very happy, upbeat,” and looking toward getting his legal troubles behind him and potentially being home for Christmas.

Colton Sabo’s mother, Sara Meyer, said she, too, is “disappointed” in the way her son’s death was handled.

Both parents said they were not aware their son had a seizure disorder.

Reached Friday, Sheriff Robb Tadelman said he had not been aware of the coroner’s news release and had not yet seen the report from the the McHenry County Major Investigation Assistance Team, the agency investigating Sabo’s death.

He declined to comment ahead of the release of that report except to say, “We will continue to work with MIAT and the coroner’s office for closure on this case.”

McHenry County Sheriff Robb Tadelman talks about how cashless bail is going to be implemented during a McHenry County Bar Association on Tuesday Aug. 29, 2023, at the McHenry County Sheriff's Office.

After receiving a tip that an inmate had died, the Northwest Herald submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information.

The sheriff’s office denied the request, writing, “At the time this incident occurred, the files were turned over to MIAT to conduct their investigation.”

The office at that point also did not release Sabo’s name, the date of his death or how he was found.

The Northwest Herald submitted another FOIA request in October 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: “After a thorough search of our files, it has been determined that the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has no records responsive to your request. [The] McHenry County Sheriff’s Office has no reports or contact in regards to Colton Sabo.”

Since then, the Northwest Herald has obtained more than a dozen pages of incident reports filled out by 13 jail personnel about Sabo’s death that detail the moments after Sabo was found unresponsive in his cell.

Those reports indicate that Sabo was found in his assigned cell, No. 125 in section 2, about 3:44 p.m. July 28 during a regular tour of that block.

An officer wrote in the report that he saw Sabo “slouched down on the lower bunk with his legs out in front of him and his right hand to his side.”

The officer said he “thought the posture was strange,” and he “stopped and backed up to look through his cell window.”

Sabo’s “head was tilted forward and off to his right side a bit, his eyes were open, and his skin appeared pale white/purple,” the officer wrote.

He said that he then ordered other inmates in the dayroom to go to their cells and walked to an intercom, where he “asked the officer(s) in control” to open Sabo’s cell door and contact medical staff and a sergeant.

McHenry County Jail

The officer then returned to the cell and entered “while calling out loudly to the inmate.”

“As I got closer, I could see no signs of life in him,” the officer wrote. “There were no signs of breath, and his eyes were glassy.”

The officer said in the report that he then “left the cell to go to control and get more help in the cell,” at which point he was told that medical staff had been notified, but contact had not yet been made with the sergeant.

The officer called the sergeant “and told him there was a medical emergency in the block,” and he returned to the cell, according to the incident report.

The sergeant and another officer as well as medical staff arrived, and Sabo was moved “gently” on his mattress to the floor and the officer began chest compressions.

Others arrived and helped provide lifesaving measures to revive Sabo, including rescue breaths and chest compressions. An automated external defibrillator was brought into the cell and placed on Sabo’s chest, but it did not activate because his heart was in a nonshockable rhythm, according to the report.

Nurses also checked his vitals, according to the incident report.

Lifesaving measures continued until emergency medical services arrived. He was taken from the county jail to the hospital at 4:16 p.m., records show.

“Great communication and teamwork by officers and medical staff,” a sergeant on duty wrote in an incident report.

At the hospital, a still unresponsive Sabo was placed on a ventilator and admitted to the intensive care unit, according to an incident report.

While at the hospital, nurses worked “expeditiously.” Labs were done, and Sabo was “considered medically brain dead,” according to an incident report.

Meyer, of Loves Park, previously told the Northwest Herald that she got a call about 6:30 p.m. that day from an official at the sheriff’s office who said 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.

He was removed from life support the next day, his mother said.

Since Sabo’s death in July, three other jail inmates have died while in custody: Sean Grendel, 51, of McHenry was found dead in his cell Nov. 21, Randall B. Little, 59, of Harvard died while in hospice care Dec. 3 after suffering a terminal illness, and Timothy Mumford, 74, of Johnsburg was found unresponsive in his cell and later died Dec. 5.

Separately, the sheriff and the jail’s outside medical provider, Wellpath, have been sued by the family of Donald Hamer, a 56-year-old Marengo man who died while in custody in 2022.

The lawsuit claims that he did not receive proper medical care before he was moved to a hospital.

Tadelman was not yet sheriff at the time.

After Mumford’s death, the sheriff released a statement saying that the office “faithfully serves the community, promoting the safety and equal protection of all,” and has been “fully transparent in providing information in conjunction with McHenry County Sheriff’s Office general orders, policy and procedures, state laws and the consideration of affected families.”

The office “empathizes with member of our community and the families affected by these losses,” according to the statement.