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A cell at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Sterling, which has reported more than 500 inmates sickened by COVID-19, including three who died. (Gazette file photo)

As he lay in his bunk incapacitated by a COVID-19 infection that ultimately caused his death, 86-year-old David Grosse had only his fellow offenders to rely on, a former inmate said.

They fed him. They carried him to the bathroom. They cleaned him and changed his sheets when he soiled himself.

Grosse, a former Air Force chaplain and Colorado Springs retiree, was serving a 10-year to life sentence at Sterling Correctional Facility in northern Colorado  for child sex offenses, records show. Because he didn’t develop a fever, prison medical ward administrators declined to bring him to the clinic, leaving him in his cell to suffer worsening symptoms for roughly a week, according to former inmate Damien Graves, who said he watched Grosse’s decline in their shared ward for military veterans.

“We would have to go in there daily and check on him to make sure he was still breathing, and wasn’t sitting in poop or pee, and trying to get him to eat,” Graves said.  

“He was in a lot of pain,” he added. “It’s unfortunate what he did — child molestation stuff — but he was a human being, and he was paying his debt to society like any of us.”

On May 1, Grosse died of the illness at Sterling Regional Medical Center in Logan County, his family confirmed. He was taken there only after collapsing and hitting his head on a wall, days after he had become bedridden and unable to care for himself, Graves said.

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The former inmate’s account of Grosse’s final days of incarceration echo longstanding concerns about crowded conditions and substandard care in the state’s prisons, which threaten to devolve into “death traps” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a coalition including the ACLU of Colorado.

Annie Skinner, a Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman, declined to address details of Grosse’s care, citing privacy laws, and didn’t confirm that he was the unnamed 86-year-old inmate whose death was announced earlier this month. But Skinner called Graves’ claims “inaccurate.”

“Not speaking to any specific inmate’s medical situation, I can tell you the Sterling Correctional Facility maintains a medical clinic that provides medical care to inmates for a variety of health conditions,” Skinner said in a written statement. “If an inmate is ill, no matter their temperature, they are provided with access to medical care.”

Sterling prison does not have an infirmary for extended care, and prisoners too ill to be treated at the prison are taken to a hospital, Skinner said.   

Her response clashed with Graves' account of guards making daily phone calls to the medical unit, demanding that Grosse be removed for additional help. 

Among state prisons, Sterling is the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak , which has sickened at least 430 inmates so far and caused the deaths of two inmates. Skinner previously declined to name the second inmate, also citing privacy rules, saying only that he was a 61-year-old man.

Grosse’s death from COVID-19 was confirmed by a son, Dr. Jay W. Grosse, a physician in Clyde, N.C. Family members were notified of his death by the hospital, and later told that he tested positive for coronavirus, but they received no details about his treatment while confined, he said.

“He sent a letter a couple of weeks, or several weeks, prior, and had just expressed that the coronavirus was in the prison system and that he was being isolated and was being as careful as could be,” Jay Grosse said.

Believing his father was safe in isolation, Jay Gross said he was “shocked” by news of his death. 

"We're still kind of reeling," he said of the inmate's family.

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Prison health care providers appeared “overwhelmed” as people throughout the prison of roughly 2,500 inmates began developing symptoms, Graves said.

“I feel bad for the staff,” he said. “They’re in the same unit with sick people that they know are sick and they’re forced to work there. ... (Administrators) give them an N-95 (mask) and tell them, ‘Go to your unit and take care of your unit.’”

Early during the virus’ spread at Sterling, prison medical workers told inmates there was little to be done unless they exhibited a fever of 102 degrees for at least two days, Graves said. Medical care was difficult to obtain as prison operators relied on lockdown measures in an unsuccessful bid to control the virus’ spread, he said. 

Skinner countered that inmates displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are evaluated “multiple times a day,” adding: “There is no ‘102 temperature threshold’ to be seen at the clinic or evaluated by clinical staff.” She said that additional clinical staff members were brought to Sterling to “help assist and ensure that the facility has the resources it needs.”

“The DOC takes the danger posed by COVID-19 very seriously,” Skinner said.

Among those sickened was Graves, also of Colorado Springs. He believes he contracted the illness while waiting to be released after the Colorado Supreme Court declined to review a state appeals court decision overturning his 2015 assault conviction.  

The Supreme Court announced its decision April 13, and Graves was held in the prison for roughly three more weeks, until May 5.

“I had told the nursing staff that I couldn’t taste or smell anything, but their go-to was, ‘Well, you don’t have a fever so you must be fine,” Graves said.

Graves said that guards took the threat seriously and were “trying their hardest” to protect prisoners. Staff members overseeing their unit would call the medical ward “every day” seeking help for Grosse, without success.

Graves and Grosse were incarcerated in a trial ward for veterans. In exchange for following rules while serving their time, they are granted more privileges than other inmates. Graves, for example, was one of four inmates in the unit cleared to help train service dogs for the public, a program that was halted when the pandemic hit.   

After his release in early May, Graves, 43, developed pneumonia and spent four days receiving treatment at Penrose-St. Frances Hospital in north Colorado Springs, he said. He was discharged but is receiving continuing outpatient care for blood clots he developed during treatment, likely from IVs, he said. He expects to be on supplemental oxygen for months.     

Graves is free on a $275,000 bond while awaiting a new trial, court records show.

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Grosse was sentenced in 2013 to an indeterminate, 10-year prison term for sexually abusing four granddaughters, with authorities alleging he coaxed them to accept his touching as part of their "special relationship."

The 30-year Air Force veteran retired in 1993, at the rank of colonel. According to an online biography, Grosse holds an advanced degree from Yale University Divinity School and served as a pastor at churches in Connecticut, Kansas, California and Wyoming.

During his sentencing hearing, Grosse begged for forgiveness, even as the judge and family members confronted him over a record of “lies” in which he minimized his offenses and, in one case, shifted blame to one of his granddaughters.

Jay Grosse said his father sought and received “forgiveness from God for his offenses” and had come to a “place of peace” in prison.

“My father served and completed his prison sentence with dignity,” he said.

Jay Grosse said he was comforted by Graves’ account that his father was helped by fellow inmates.

“When a fellow human being needs help, it’s good to hear that even in prison people step up and provide it,” he said.

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