A fourth person dies in Allegheny County Jail custody

By Brittany Hailer

Victor Joseph Zilinek, 39, died Wednesday in the Allegheny County Jail, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, marking the fourth in-custody death this year.  

Past notifications to the Jail Oversight Board have included details of the circumstances leading to the death and the individual’s age. In the case of this death, the only details provided to the board by Warden Orlando Harper in an email were:  “A medical emergency was called for an unresponsive incarcerated individual at the ACJ.  The individual was declared deceased by a medical provider at the ACJ.” 

County Jail Spokesperson Jesse Geleynse confirmed the death, but would not provide further information outside Harper’s initial email to the board.

Three other men died after entering the jail this year. 

Paul Spisak, 77,  died in January in a hospital after the court released him from Allegheny County Jail custody following an incident which  left him unresponsive in his cell on Jan. 22.  The medical examiner determined that his cause of death was blunt force trauma. The manner of death was ruled an accident.

Gerald Thomas, 26, died in March at UPMC Mercy where he was taken after he suffered  a medical emergency in the jail. Thomas died of a bilateral pulmonary embolism, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office.

Jerry Lee Ross Jr., 48, died at the Allegheny County Jail in April. No details were given about the individual’s medical emergency. CPR was conducted by employees at the jail and he was declared dead by a medical provider at the jail, according to an email from jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse. Ross’s cause and manner of death has not yet been determined by the medical examiner.

Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, 15 men have died after entering the facility. The Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism published a timeline of 13 in-custody deaths in March.

Five deaths occurred in 2020. Six deaths took place in 2021, with three happening in September. Four more men have died in 2022. The majority of the men who died had not been convicted of a crime and were awaiting trial.

Bethany Hallam, Allegheny County Councilor At-Large and Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board member, expressed outrage after learning of another in-custody death at the jail. She also pointed to an op-ed written by Harper, published today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Harper wrote in the op-ed, “Because there are so many positive things happening, I’m extremely frustrated when false narratives surround the jail. Take, for instance, an ongoing conversation that the deaths at the county jail have exceeded the national average.”

“Mere hours after someone under his care died … an op-ed published in which he complained about unfair treatment in the media regarding the crisis of deaths. The irony is cruel and biting, and his actions and continued denials of reality are abhorrent,” Hallam wrote, “The Allegheny County Jail is once again on pace to reach an unforgivably high number of deaths of our community members in their custody.”

Brittany Hailer can be reached at Bhailer08@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.

This story was updated on July 14 to include comments from the Allegheny County Jail spokesperson and Allegheny County Councilor At-Large Bethany Hallam.

This story was updated on July 15 to include the name of the man who died in custody.