‘I feel like I lost the battle for my husband,’ widow of dead Cook County Jail detainee says

Nickolas Lee, 42, was the third detainee to die after contracting COVID-19 at the Cook County Jail.

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Cassandra Greer-Lee (left), widow of former Cook County Jail detainee Nickolas Lee, stands with activist Carolyn Ruff outside the Cook County Jail on Thursday, April, 16, four days after her husband died.

Cassandra Greer-Lee (left), widow of former Cook County Jail detainee Nickolas Lee, stands with activist Carolyn Ruff outside the Cook County Jail on Thursday, April, 16, four days after her husband died.

Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Nickolas Lee was struggling to breathe, much less hold up his end of the conversation as he talked on the phone with his wife Saturday night from a Stroger Hospital bed.

“I told him a lot of people are beating this thing, and he was going to be one of them,” Cassandra Greer-Lee told her high school sweetheart.

The 42-year-old, who had been transferred to Stroger from the Cook County Jail just six days earlier, died Sunday morning.

Lee ended up in jail in February for a 2018 armed robbery — a case he thought he had a good shot of beating.

But in March, he noticed two detainees on his tier had the flu-like symptoms that sounded like what his wife had been telling him were telltale signs of an illness spreading across the globe. A few days later, he came down with a sore throat. Chills, muscle aches and a loss of sense of smell and taste followed. He tested positive for COVID-19. A week later, he was transported from the jail’s Cermak medical facility to Stroger, where he died of cardiac arrest likely caused by complications related to coronavirus.

He was the third Cook County Jail detainee to die after contracting COVID-19.

“I feel like I lost the battle for my husband,” Greer-Lee said Thursday as she stood across the street from the jail. “I never expected my husband to be let out of jail because of [COVID-19], but I did want him to be kept healthy and breathing.”

Reviewing her phone bill for the last few weeks, Greer-Lee counted 132 calls to the sheriff’s office, a jail sergeant’s desk line, the jail hospital and others. She said she warned anyone who would listen that there were sick detainees on Lee’s tier and asked that either they or her husband be moved. She grew more desperate when she saw the news reports about the first two detainees who died.

“My husband did not come into the jail with coronavirus. My husband’s death could have been prevented. I understand there is not room at the jail, but in a pandemic, you have to make room,” she said. “They should have got him away from those two inmates, or got them away from him.”

As of Thursday, 342 other Cook County Jail detainees have tested positive for the virus in one of the largest single-location outbreaks in the U.S., according to a New York Times analysis.

Sheriff Thomas Dart has defended his staff’s response to the outbreak at the jail, which has seen the head count of detainees fall to record lows, in part, due to the release of low-risk offenders. In an impassioned interview this week with WTTW, Dart berated reporting on his handling of COVID-19 precautions as “inaccurate and irresponsible.” Inmate advocates have filed a federal lawsuit, seeking expert oversight of the jail’s coronavirus precautions.

“Everything the Cook County Department of Corrections has done since before the virus started spreading in the Chicago area was in an effort to prevent the loss of life due to this deadly virus,” Dart said in a statement. “DOC staff have worked tirelessly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, including aggressive cleaning and disinfecting of all tiers, screening and taking temperatures twice per day of detainees who may have been exposed to the virus, and ensuring that those who are symptomatic are isolated from other detainees.”

Dart’s statement also lists the charges Lee was facing, including armed robbery, aggravated unlawful use of a weapon and aggravated assault of a police officer stemming from the October 2018 incident. Unmentioned was that, at the time, Lee was on probation for federal bank robbery charges — he stole more than $400,000 from four banks during a 14-month span in 2006-2007, according to court records. Lee was moved from Cook County Jail to federal custody for violating probation shortly after the 2018 armed robbery and only returned to the jail on Feb. 4 — three weeks before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported at the jail.

Greer-Lee said she didn’t know why her husband’s criminal records and those of the other two detainees who died at the jail have to be mentioned in every news story.

“That is not even the point, what these men are charged with,” she said. “Yes, my husband made bad choices. A judge was going to take care of all that. Did he deserve to die?”

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