Former cellmate: We called for help before inmate died

11Alive News first told you about a mother of five found dead inside a DeKalb County jail cell. That woman's cellmate is now coming forward to tell her side of the story – and she says what is in the sheriff's office internal report is not the whole story

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. -- 11Alive News first told you about a mother suing the DeKalb County Sheriff's Officeafter her daughter, Shantell Johnson, died while detained in a DeKalb jail cell.

Now Johnson's cell mate is coming forward to tell her side of the story and she says the details in the sheriff's office report may not be the whole story.

"I remember she wasn't feeling good," Hill said. "She was sick."

Two years later, Imani Hill still remembers very clearly the moment she first met her cellmate, Shantell Johnson. As the night wore on, Hill said she noticed rather quickly that Johnson needed a doctor.

"She was coughing, in addition to -- I don't remember if she snored or not, but she was coughing and stuff," Hill told 11Alive's Blayne Alexander. "I kinda commanded her, I was like - you need to press that buzzer and tell them to help you. Tell them it's an emergency."

But when nobody responded, Hill said she got up to help push the button herself.

"So I'm beating the door, hitting the buzzer, hitting the buzzer and no real response and I'm like - what is that about? That's not normal."

The next day, a guard found Shantell Johnson dead inside her cell. The DeKalb County Medical Examiner's report attributed her death to "indeterminable natural causes," but in a lawsuit filed against the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office, Johnson's mother, Vernell Davis, points to a "deliberate indifference to [her daughter's] critical pleas for help."

"They just walked away," Davis said. "As if she didn't mean anything."

Through an open records request, 11Alive News obtained Hill's original witness statement, written March 6, 2013. In it, Hill does not mention pushing the emergency buzzer, nor do any other witness statements in the sheriff's office report.

"I guess I didn't think that was a detail that was necessary," Hill said. "Not to mention, I might have been afraid because I was surrounded by guards of the DeKalb County jail, so I didn't mention anything like that."

But Eric Echols, a private investigator working for the family, interviewed at least two other inmates who said they remembered hearing Johnson's calls for help.

"The girl kept trying to tell them that she needed to see a doctor because she needed her medication," said one former inmate during a recorded interview with Echols, adding: "They wasn't listening to her."

"Everyone I spoke to said that," Echols said. "That she was pushing the buzzer, that the buzzer was going off all night long."

Hill said she came forward because she couldn't continue to "let the story sit on [her] shoulders."

"As much as we pressed the bell that night, somebody should have at least come to the door," Hill said.

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