Jailed Homeless Activist Died Of Fentanyl Overdose, Says Medical Examiner

Apr 20, 2016

Jeffrey Pendleton

The state’s Medical Examiner has concluded that a man found dead at the Valley Street Jail in early March died of a fentanyl overdose. The death was ruled an accident.

  Twenty-six year old Jeffrey Pendleton worked at Burger King in Nashua, and was often homeless.  In 2015, Pendleton received $17,955 from settlements in two civil rights cases against the town of Hudson and the city of Nashua. In Hudson Pendleton argued police were detaining and harassing peaceful panhandlers like him.  In Nashua, he argued police jailed him for 33 days for walking in a park.  

When Pendleton died, he was being held at the Valley Street jail in Manchester on a misdemeanor marijuana charge. He couldn’t afford his $100 bail.

Pendleton was found dead in his cell four days after his arrest, on March 13.

Jail Superintendent David Dionne says Pendleton is the first person to die of an overdose inside Valley Street Jail. Still, he says, heroin and fentanyl are constantly smuggled in.

“Do we catch it all?” Dionne says, “No. We can’t do body cavity searches, they know that.”

Now that the medical examiner has concluded Pendleton died of a fentanyl overdose, investigators will look into how he got ahold of the fentanyl – which, the autopsy shows, Pendleton likely snorted or swallowed.

New inmates at Valley Street are screened for drug use during intake.  Pendleton wasn’t known to be using drugs when he arrived, according to Dionne.

And – another question remains.  Should someone be incarcerated pre-trial because they can’t afford $100 bail?

Superintendant Dionne says – no. “If he paid the hundred dollars, he would be out.” Clearly, Dionne says, Pendleton was not deemed a risk to the community.

ACLU legal director Gilles Bissonette says the state’s bail policies mean poor people serve sentences before they are found guilty.

“Jeff would have stayed in jail until his next court date, which would have been in approximately one month,” Bissonnette explains.  “He would have served 30 days in jail before he had any ability to even contest the charge that he was arrested for.”

On the last day of March, many of Pendleton’s Burger King coworkers protested his death in front of the Nashua Police Department. At the protest, Pendleton’s manager Robert Mercier said he had no idea Pendleton was homeless.

“He seemed like a down to earth kid.  He came in every day, he basically didn’t bring his problems to work with him,” said Mercier. “I didn’t realize anything like this was going to happen.”

Pendleton was an activist. He not only won civil rights lawsuits against local police departments, but also protested with Fight for $15, for a $15 minimum wage.  Another colleague, Andy Fontaine, rallied alongside Pendleton. “He was one of the newer, and one of the most enthusiastic out of all of us,” says Fontaine.

Few of Pendleton’s friends and coworkers expected to learn he died of a drug over dose. And many may still be wondering: if he could have afforded his $100 bail – would he be alive today?