Inmate died of heart damage not drug overdose, coroner rules

Earl Colston
Earl Colston MCSO

A jail inmate who died Feb. 27 after being found on the floor of his county jail cell died from natural causes with his blood free from even a trace of narcotics, the Monroe County medical examiner has ruled.

Michael Gunderson, 28, who had a history of illegal drug use and was in jail after an arrest on heroin and cocaine charges, died from dilated cardiomyopathy, Dr. Thomas Beaver said.

“He had heart failure on the basis of dilated cardiomyopathy,” Beaver said in a recent interview. “He does have a dilated heart.”

But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement hasn’t closed the case on Gunderson’s death, according to state officials in Tallahassee, who said the investigation is still open. The FDLE now has two inmate deaths in Monroe County to investigate.

Earl Colston, 61, of Miami Gardens was found not breathing in his cell in the sick bay area of the jail on Stock Island Sunday morning and later pronounced dead at Lower Keys Medical Center.

“He had been in sick bay for most of the time he’d been jail due to medical conditions he suffered from prior to his arrest,” said Deputy Becky Herrin, the spokeswoman for the Monore County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail system.

Colston was arrested by the Florida Highway Patrol on June 5 and charged with driving with a suspended driver’s license, third or subsequent offense, which is a felony.

Like with Gunderson, deputies do not suspect any foul play.

Gunderson’s urine screen indicates he was metabolizing fentanyl, marijuana and cocaine at the time of his death, but his blood test was clean, according to the toxicology report by the University of Florida Pathology Laboratories in Gainsville.

The fact that Gunderson spent four days in the county jail on Stock Island before dying doesn’t affect the blood test’s accuracy, Beaver said.

“The process of elimination stops at the time of death,” Beaver said. “Whatever is in the blood stays there.”

After Gunderson was pronounced dead at Lower Keys Medical Center, Beaver found signs of drug and needle use on his body and believed the cause of death would be related to a drug overdose.

“I thought that’s what it was going to be,” Beaver said. “Everybody did. He does have some drugs in his urine.”

But while Gunderson didn’t die directly from drugs, the heart failure he suffered is common in people who combine alcohol with cocaine. It is also found in athletes who overdo physical activity.

Gunderson, of Sugarloaf Key, was arrested Feb. 23 during a traffic stop in the Lower Keys after motorists had reported he was driving erratically.

Immediately after Gunderson died, jail officials said they believed the inmate had suffered a seizure in his cell.

According to Herrin, Gunderson was found about 11:30 p.m. on the floor of his cell. He was in the cell alone. Herrin said a guard opened the door and told Gunderson to get back on his bunk. When Gunderson didn't respond, nurses on duty and firefighters responded and he was taken to the hospital.

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen