‘He’s at home on a box on my shelf;’ GR mom raises questions about son’s prison death

Joan Johnson on a mission.jpg
Glasses and an unknown substance found in Lott's eyeglass case.jpg
Posted at 2:25 PM, Mar 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-23 00:46:13-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Joan Johnson said she’ll never forget the phone call she had with her son Ventron Vaneke Lott on December 8, 2021.

“He was fine. He was just telling me that I needed to call because they wasn’t giving him his medicine,” Johnson said during an interview with FOX 17 in late February. “By the end of the call we was joking. We was joking because he wanted me to go and take pictures off his wife's Facebook page or whatever. But, there was nothing wrong with my child.

Johnson said her son was serving his second stint in prison, this time for attempted armed robbery and attempted carjacking. However, he’d been suffering from seizures, and taking medication for it, since he was 10 years old.

In December, Johnson never got a chance to call Macomb Correctional Facility about his medication.

“Before I could call, the day before I got the phone call, my son died in his sleep. That’s all I was told. Nothing else,” Johnson said. “It came to my attention that the bunkee turned over and seen blood and foam coming out his mouth.”

Since then, Johnson said she's has been on a mission trying to find out what happened to her son on December 9, 2021. She reached out to officials at Macomb Correctional Facility and no one responded.

“When I called Macomb, after he died I asked them you know ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ You know ‘Are you guys going to help me?’ They literally said ‘We’ll burn him, cremate him, and send you the ashes,’” Johnson said. “But, you know, I need to know what happened.”

Then, she said she got a phone call from another inmate.

“I was told that my son was given fentanyl,” Johnson said before taking a long pause. “Upon going to receive my son’s stuff after attempting I guess two months later, I went to receive my son’s stuff from the prison this is what I received from the prison.”

When FOX 17 met with Johnson back in late February, we met at Commissioner Robert Womack’s radio station. At this point in the interview, she walked over to a short stack of boxes that contained documents, several notebooks with pages ripped out, his shoes, and his eyeglass case.

She then poured out what was inside the case onto a countertop. It was his eyeglasses and a white substance that was wrapped in plastic.

“It’s white powder in a plastic bag with some blacks,” Johnson said. “I don’t know. It’s still in there. I put it back where it was.”

Johnson didn’t touch it. She used the glasses to scoop it back into the eyeglass case.

Johnson said she believes it to be illicit drugs, and she wondered how did drugs get into the prison.

“There’s really only a few ways that that can come in obviously,” said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “That’s certainly been hampered because of COVID because obviously when visitors come in that’s certainly one way in which drugs can be introduced.”

Gautz spoke to FOX 17 via a Zoom interview in late February. He said there are three main ways for drugs to get into prison: over the fence, through the mail, or through the gate with either visitors or staff.

“People throwing it, literally throwing it over the fence using drones or some other procedure. We’ve even seen potato guns be used in some cases to shoot it over the fence, stick it into a basketball or throw the basketball over the fence or a football.”

Gautz added that the correctional facility has changed its mail policy. They now photocopy it first and then send the picture to the inmate before giving it to them.

When asked if the prison staff could be involved, he said that it’s happened in the past and when it does they seek “swift and severe punishments.”

“In the case of prisoner Lott this was something that occurred back on December 9 shortly before 7 a.m.,” Gautz said. “His cellmates approached our custody staff to let him, to let our staff know that prisoner Lott needed assistance.”

Gautz said whenever a death happens, Michigan State Police immediately investigate. FOX 17 obtained the incident report via a Freedom of Information Act request.

It stated that:

  • 11 p.m. / 12 a.m.: Cellmate says he heard Lott snoring … cellmate tried to wake him up to roll over
  • Lott was on the top bunk
  • 6:45 a.m.: Cellmate calls for the guards because Lott was unresponsive … The inspector arrives to the cell
  • 6:45 a.m.: An officer arrives on the scene and performs CPR in the hallway

“Not long after EMTs arrived they also administered several more doses of Narcan and then he was eventually pronounced deceased about an hour or so later by a doctor at the local hospital,” Gautz said.

At 7:36 a.m. Lott was pronounced dead.

FOX 17 also received the autopsy report via FOIA and it stated that his cause of death was "combined effects of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl with associate acute pneumonia."

Michigan State Police said in an email to Fox 17 on Tuesday that the investigation is still open.

Commissioner Womack, who was at the interview with Johnson, said what happened to her son was a "travesty."

"They’re already depressed. So, if you put drugs into the prison, they’re very susceptible to using those drugs, susceptible to that," Womack said. "We’re going to do all we can to help alleviate that problem."

Womack has been helping Johnson get an attorney and is determined to help her get justice. She said she’s been turned down many times.

Womack also said that he’s been speaking with an inmate who has a deeper knowledge of Lott’s death. He said he does not want to reveal who that person is out of fear of retaliation.

Johnson said she’s grateful for both Womack and the inmate’s help. Her mission won't stop, she said, until she finds the truth.

“Even though my child had a past, it does not give anybody the right to do any harm to him. If you have loved ones that is locked up, check on your family. Check on them. Everything that they’re saying is not false. It’s not,” Johnson said. “My son went in there with a target on his back and they did just what they said they was gone do. He’s at home on a box on my shelf.”