Another In Custody Death For The Kern County Sheriff's Dept. — The Third In Four Months

from the usual-tools:-handcuffs,-batons,-coroner's-reports... dept

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department has no problem taking people into custody. It just seems to have trouble keeping them from dying. For the third time in four months, an arrestee has died while in custody.

Back in May, Kern County deputies responded to a call about a possibly intoxicated man sleeping in someone’s yard. The man’s combativeness (not much of which is shown on the available video of the “arrest”) apparently could only be handled by nine law enforcement officers, who deployed batons and a police dog in order to restrain him. By the time it was all over, the man (David Saul Silva) had “become unresponsive” (nice use of the passive voice) and was rushed to the hospital, where he died.

According to the official coroner’s report, the batons and attack dog, along with the weight of any number of officers on his back, had nothing to do with his death. The coroner’s call? Heart disease.

On July 1st, Kern County deputies arrested 51-year-old Ruben Ornelas for heroin possession and took him to Central Receiving in downtown Bakersfield. At 1:30 am on the 3rd, Ornelas was “found unresponsive” in his holding cell and rushed to Mercy Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A Sheriff’s Department spokesman said Ornelas was in a cell with others, but there was no sign of a struggle or trauma. The official cause of death?

The sheriff’s department says there were no signs of foul play, and the coroner’s office told The Daily News that the cause of death was determined to be “hypertension due to cardiovascular disease.”

And now, there’s a third person who hasn’t survived the department’s policing.

According to a press release by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, deputies responded to the Walgreens store at 2629 Mt. Vernon Ave. at about 8:35 p.m. regarding suspicious persons. Two males were inside the store acting strangely, and both were possibly under the influence of a controlled substance.

Officials said Ledesma became uncooperative when the deputy attempted to detain him. Ledesma resisted arrest and fought with the deputy for approximately two minutes before additional deputies arrived, including a K-9 unit.

Here’s more, straight from Sheriff Donny Youngblood.

“Mr. Ledesma was resisting, kicking the officer. He was struck with a baton several times to gain compliance. He would not submit to the arrest. He was warned that the K-9 would be placed on him if he didn’t stop resisting,” said Sheriff Donny Youngblood.

Sheriff Youngblood says when a deputy arrived to a call at Walgreens on Mount Vernon Avenue, he found Ledesma in a nearby park and believed he was under the influence of PCP. The deputy called for backup and the sheriff says five deputies tried to subdue Ledesma, including the K-9 officer on patrol near the scene.

“They said they struck him with batons. There’s no mention that he was struck in the head with a baton,” said Youngblood.

No mention, eh? By who, his deputies? Not surprising, as hitting people in the head with batons is against department policy. Here’s the video the Sheriff’s Department has made available, captured by a bystander’s cell phone.

This, too, is “under investigation” and the department is still waiting for the full coroner’s report. A preliminary toxicology report has been released, and unsurprisingly (read that however you want), the coroner found several drugs in Ledesma’s system.

[R]eport revealed Ledesma had PCP, amphetamines and Benzodiazapine in his system.

My guess is that this death will also be ruled “accidental” at worst, or chalked up to a preexisting heart condition. Being beaten, restrained and attacked by a dog will have had nothing to do with it. There’s a pattern here and it goes back further than the last four months.

In December of 2010, three deputies arrived at Jose Lucero’s house to speak to him about the repeated bogus 911 calls he’d been making. According to Lucero’s family’s lawyer, Lucero was a recovering meth addict who suffered from mental illness. Apparently, Lucero had fallen off the wagon and was using meth again, which, combined with his mental problems, led him to believe a friend of his was being assaulted — hence the repeated calls to 911.

When Lucero didn’t cooperate, the three deputies (who were joined by a fourth) tased him 29 times, hit him 33 times with batons and deployed pepper spray. All of this happened in front of Lucero’s parents, whom the deputies repeatedly asked to leave. The incident lasted all of six minutes, and Lucero was dead by the end of it.

The cause of death according to the coroner?

Lucero’s official cause of death was cardiac arrest following police restraint in association with methamphetamine intoxication.

A bad heart, some meth in the system and a little “police restraint” was all it took to kill Lucero in less than six minutes. Why, he practically brought it on himself with his drug use and weak heart.

The coroner may have declared Lucero’s death to be at least two-thirds Lucero’s fault, but a jury found the four officers guilty of using excessive force and awarded his parents $4.5 million in damages. Despite this decision, the department’s counsel kept blaming the outcome on everyone but the responding deputies.

[T]he parents were repeatedly told to leave the home and kept coming back to see what was happening, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations. That makes them at least partially responsible for any emotional distress, he said.

Way to blame the victims, counselor. I’m not surprised Lucero’s parents didn’t accept the deputies’ invitation to “please leave the house so we can assault your son without any witnesses.” Unfortunately, refusing to leave didn’t change the outcome, either.

But here’s the issue: the department goes overboard, deploys excessive force and somehow, the coroner finds that everyone the department restrains to death has heart problems. Lucero might have survived being tased or beaten roughly every six seconds if he’d been blessed with a stronger heart. What appears to be excessive force is always found to be by-the-book restraint.

The Kern County Sheriff’s department’s close relationship with the coroner is far from unusual. Sheriffs and coroners are generally intertwined. But in the case of this sheriff’s department and its skill at deathbringing, it might be better to bring in someone more independent. While I’d like to believe the coroner’s office only reports to Sheriff Donny Youngblood (here’s a PDF showing the chain of command [page 2]) rather than caters to him, these recent incidents don’t give me much confidence.

What seems to be happening is that once the coroner decides the officers’ actions weren’t directly related to the death of the person in custody (i.e., crushed larynx, signs of asphyxiation, head trauma), the sheriff clears his deputies of any wrongdoing. Even the awarding of $4.5 million in a wrongful death suit failed to result in any further punishment of the officers involved, one of whom (Ryan Greer) was also involved in the David Saul Silva case.

In addition to the coroner’s ability to find latent heart problems behind every tasing and beating, the sheriff’s office itself has been less than forthcoming with additional evidence. In Ledesma’s case, the Sheriff’s official website says there’s footage from both a cell phone AND a security camera and that both are available. However, a visit to the official Youtube account of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office shows that only the cell phone footage has been uploaded. What’s on the other recording? (Most notably missing from the cell footage is the police dog in action. You can see the aftermath in the upload but not the actual attack, as well as nothing previous to Ledesma being on the ground.)

In Silva’s case, the California Highway Patrol has continued to refuse to release its dashcam footage and the Sheriff’s office itself hasn’t released anything captured by cameras or mikes worn by other officers.

Youngblood also has had help in keeping his own backyard from being cleaned up. Last August, Jaime Duran was beaten severely by deputies while being taken into custody. Of course, the officers were very careful not to hit him in the head with their batons, but they were very enthusiastic about making sure his legs didn’t go untouched. (More pics here and here.)

After Duran filed a claim against the county, Internal Affairs sent the case to the DA’s office, looking to prosecute on charges of excessive force and filing a false report. The DA’s office refused to prosecute, saying it couldn’t prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt. And again, the Sheriff’s department itself held back information, including helicopter footage which captured the incident.

There seems to be an acceleration of incidents involving Kern County deputies, and given the responses from the district attorney, the coroner’s office and Sheriff Youngblood, it’s going to keep on accelerating. “Internal investigations” tend to clear deputies of wrongdoing. Coroner’s reports latch onto pre-existing conditions as the cause of death, and seem to give no weight to the fact that being beaten (even by-the-book) and restrained by multiple deputies may have something to do with the resulting deaths. These reports imply that the deceased were walking dead anyway, and the deputies’ actions only possibly accelerated an eventual outcome.

Even paying out a settlement in a wrongful death suit has failed to alter deputies’ tactics, and why should it? The deputies were cleared by the Sheriff’s office of any wrongdoing. Youngblood says he gives no preference to his deputies when under investigation and treats them “like any other member of the public.” But as jpmassar points out in his discussion of the Silva beating at the Daily KOS, that can’t possibly be true.

Can you imagine if nine random people found a drunk on the sidewalk and beat him to death, videoed by numerous witnesses. How long do you think it would be before they would be in a jail cell and arraigned on millions of dollars bail (or more likely the DA would demand none at all)?

The prevailing argument seems to be that these deputies do what they need to do to take dangerous and resistant suspects into custody. The danger aspect is always played up when defending against excessive force allegations and the implication is that these reactions were prompted by officers who feared for their own safety when confronted by resistance. But here’s the scorecard: three people “restrained” to death (and a fourth dying while in jail) in three years by Kern County deputies. Contrast that with the department, which has had three deputies killed in the line of duty — in 30 years.

The tactics deployed far outweigh the threat, and the lack of accountability provided by Youngblood’s office only encourages further abuse.

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Comments on “Another In Custody Death For The Kern County Sheriff's Dept. — The Third In Four Months”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Cops are cowards, weaklings, and liars

They’re too fat, too out of shape, too lazy to actually take suspects into custody one-on-one: so they gang on them and beat them to death. Convenient. Tidy. Safe.

When faced with a REAL threat, they just shit their pants and call for backup. The days when a cop was tough enough to handle a suspect AND themselves are gone: now they use their torture sticks and torture chemicals and torture dogs because they have forgotten how to use their fists.

DCX2 says:

Re: Re: Cops are cowards, weaklings, and liars

If I had it my way – any cop who saw another cop break the law, and DIDN’T turn him in, would lose his entire pension.

Any cop who DID turn in another cop who broke the law would get the bad cop’s pension added on to his, PLUS the pension of any “good cop” who failed to uphold his sworn oath.

You have to hit them in the wallet, or they will never change. No, the wrongful death suit didn’t hit them in the wallet – it hit TAXPAYERS in the wallet. You have to hit the COPS THEMSELVES in the wallet. If their pension was on the line, their behavior would change overnight.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cops are cowards, weaklings, and liars

First one sounds decent, though I’d set it up in stages, so they lost percentages(say 33% each time).

Second one would provide all sorts of bad incentives, as suddenly you’d have cops doing everything they could to frame each other for crimes and ‘report’ them for a juicy reward.

The final point nails it however, why should they care about following the rules if they’ll get at most a slap on the wrist and/or taxpayer money paid out to their victims? Hit their wallets however, and suddenly they’d care quite a bit.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Re: Cops are cowards, weaklings, and liars

If they beat someone to death or their dogs rip them apart, that is murder, plain and simple, and should result in criminal prosecution. Wearing a badge does not give them immunity; Kern County Sheriff’s Department acts more the order of a criminal gang, orchestrating violent attacks on civilians and covering their asses. Furthermore, the actions of the coronary doctor(s) involved scream cover-up, making them an acessory to murder.

There needs to be a full-blown internal investigation, NOT run by the department itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Cops are cowards, weaklings, and liars

When there are nine cops in one area there is no good reason for none of them to have their own camera proving what happens. As public servants given the power to use weapons and the authority to use violence, paid for by taxpayer money, their burden of proving their innocence when something happens in their custody or within their authority should be much higher than the rest of us. Don’t like it then don’t become a cop but when you are an on duty cop you should expect to be subject to much higher public scrutiny.

Cops should have to provide their own cameras and their own uncut footage proving their innocence when something happens within their custody or close proximity, especially when many cops are involved. Not doing so alone should be subject to serious punishment and the cops should be assumed liable.

That One Guy (profile) says:

With a mortality rate like that...

You can bet I’d do my best to stay out of their hands as well, people they arrest seem to develop ‘heart problems’ with shocking regularity.

I have to say, I seriously pity those people who are unable to move out of that area, having a pack of killers wandering around with badges like that has got to be insanely stressful and nerve-wracking (though maybe that’s the reason so many people have ‘heart troubles’).

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: With a mortality rate like that...

Oh the drugs probably played a role, but the consistency of ‘died because of heart problems, had nothing to do with the beatings’ coming out of the coroner every time someone they arrest dies suggests either a whole slew of people with bad hearts, or a decided un-interest in finding out what really happened in the various cases.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Passive voice

I might be off a little on my passive voice.

I see it as passive in the sense that the sheriff’s department conveys this as though Silva reached the point of being “unresponsive” unassisted. (In which case, the coroner’s report is pretty much “passive voice” as well…)

It may also be that agencies like this revert to the passive voice at the first sign of trouble. Statements and reports never refer to an officer firing his gun. Instead, it’s “Officer X’s weapon discharged.” You know, as if no one, not even Officer X pulled the trigger.

So, I’ll at least partially cede this one, Larry. In all likelihood, mistakes were made. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Larry says:

Re: Re: Passive voice

So, I’ll at least partially cede this one, Larry. In all likelihood, mistakes were made. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Now, that’s passive voice! “Officer X’s weapon was discharged.” would have been passive voice as well.

The rest, however, is most definitely off, and I’ll settle for nothing less than a complete ceding of the point!

Fact is that the verb “become” isn’t used in the passive voice because it isn’t a transitive verb().

() It can be transitive with another meaning, but that’s another issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

@ThatOneGuy nails it.

The good cops forget the old adage that a 55-gallon drum of dung and one teaspoon of pure water = a 55-gallon drum of dung, and a 55-gallon drum of pure water and one teaspoon of dung = a 55-gallon drum of dung. They forget they’re a minority and minorities are always judged by the worst behavior of their members.

It also needs to be kept in mind that to far too many cops, civilians are guilty even if proven innocent, and cops are innocent even if proven guilty.

Mike Turner (user link) says:

"Heart attack" deaths

In todays legal and media environments I’m surprised they haven’t been looked at for profiling people with weak hearts…which should also trigger a Hate Crime charge. The NSA should come forth with their E-mails, texts, phone records, and any affiliation with any fringe groups that they may be affiliated with to aide in the resolving this injustice. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they have affiliation with some group on America’s Hate List,(Tea Party, NRA, Christians, Legal Citizens, Tax Payers, Torrent users, White People.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Natural Result of Incentives...

This is the natural result of these police departments having a Stare enforced monopoly on law enforcement in combination with their funding coming from State extortion.

Since they are funded via “legal” theft (euphemistically known as “taxation”), they are paid no matter if they do a good job or not. Unlike a consensual business within a voluntary market, in which customers can take their business elsewhere if they are unhappy with the services rendered, police departments in the USA are an institution of force/aggression/violence, backed by State force/aggression/violence, and funded via force/aggression/violence.

The results as illustrated in the above article….FORCE/AGGRESSION/VIOLENCE.

I prefer consensual relationships and voluntary exchange.

Anonymous Coward says:

Passive voice

It is passive voice in that they are saying he became unresponsive as opposed to the reality being that he was beaten and prevented from breathing by multiple large people crushing his lungs and throat as they gleefully used every tool they are allowed to use and only noticed he wasn’t complaining anymore who directly caused him to become unresponsive.

From the perspective of those sitting on this man and crushing his chest, preventing him from drawing in a breath, it must have seemed that he was a pcp hyped threat that was not listening to your commands. From his perspective there were multiple men, tasing him, spraying him with burning pain and beating him with their hands, feet and batons. He was literally being beaten to death and physically could not follow the commands of these men. For far to many people the last words they ever hear are “STOP RESISTING”

anonymous says:

they even assault and make attempts on people who report misconduct

I had a female cop allow a male cop to watch us strip, i reported it and internal affairs promised me safety and directly following that officer threatened me manipulated my housing to wher she was in charge . She put amonia in my contact lense and once i put it in my eye causing a severe reaction i was denied med. Attention,for four days my r eye is blind, a secondary brain infection damaged my left eye and i hav seizures. Yes i am suing and do u beleive they claim drug use caused my seizures all of a sudden but i was clean for years before this and that officer is now senior deputy in classification. Hmmm

Traci Levngston says:

My Husbands Death

I agree with this whole report. Now they can add another death to their tally. My husband was pulled over and arrested for suspicion of being under the influence. No foul play was admitted to, but being arrested at 6:15pm and then I get a phone call at 12:12am telling me he was at the hospital he was brought in and intubated and i needed to get there as soon as possible. Before i was able to grab my keys and jump in my car they called back and said not to bother to go someone would be contacting me and not tell me he was dead isnt sitting well with me. I eventually got a call two hours later, why the delay. I went to see him in the mortuary which was extremely hard for me, and there are things wrong with him that i cant make sense of.The story theyre giving doesnt add up, theres alot of unanswered for time, and no effort to notify me he was being taken to the hospital trauma center til it was too late. In route to the jail medical personnel were called because there was a medical condition and he was cleared. Upon entering the jail facility, staff saw him and recommended he be taken to the hospital immediately for whatever they saw when he was brought in. Yet no ambulance was called and the deputy drove him his self to the hospital 35 minutes away not counting traffic conditions. My husband is dead and the coroners report im sure will clear the arresting officer, who had pulled my husband over or harrassed him 33 times in the past two months, a few of those times resulting in him being taken in custody. My husband is black, but predjudice they dont claim to be. Yet everyone wanted us gone from the neighborhood. We have two children 3, and 5, what am I supposed to tell them happened. Im left to raise them on my own. There has to be some justice out there for me. I dont understand how the sheriffs department can be allowed to continue this abuse of their badge, with no consequences. What makes what they do any different than the people they arrest on a daily. Im still making his funeral arrangements, but im not gonna stop til i get some answers. If theres is anyone who can help me id appreciate any and all feedback.

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