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Inmate Deaths


Jail incident ruled homicide

Five deputies put on paid leave after death of man in custody

By CHRISTINA VANCE and CHRISTINA SOSA, Californian staff writers
e-mail:  cvance@bakersfield.com
e-mail:  csosa@bakersfield.com

Posted: Tuesday August 23rd, 2005, 11:35 PM
Last Updated: Wednesday August 24th, 2005, 8:26 AM

Five Kern County Sheriff's Department detention deputies were put on paid administrative leave Tuesday after the death of a man in custody was ruled a homicide by the coroner's office.

 James Woodrow Moore, 30, died at Mercy Hospital on Sunday after spending about a week in the intensive care unit, where he was taken directly after an altercation with sheriff's personnel, according to the department.
Moore died from cranio-cerebral trauma due to blunt force trauma, according to the coroner's office.

Jim Malouf, chief deputy coroner, said he did not believe the coroner's office would be requesting toxicology tests on Moore.

"Toxicology will not indicate anything other than what he received in the hospital," Malouf said.

Sheriff Mack Wimbish said people should not read anything into the fact that several detention deputies have been put on leave.

"That doesn't mean they're guilty or anything," he said. "Things are changing as we speak."

Wimbish stopped short of calling an ongoing investigation into the homicide a criminal one.

Instead, he said detectives were trying to figure out if something criminal had occurred to cause the death.

"A lot of legwork" was needed to interview all the people who knew anything about last week's fight between Moore and jail staffers, Wimbish said.

The fight occurred in the garage area outside of the downtown jail's booking room, and Wimbish said there's no videotaping system in that area.

It was unclear Tuesday exactly what prompted the fight.

"We do know that there was resistance of some type," Wimbish said. "That may help us determine what actions we have to take."

Moore had been arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats on Aug. 15, and jail records indicated he was booked on that, along with suspicion of drug use. 

But Moore's family said Friday that they called the Sheriff's Department because Moore was acting strangely and he needed help.

John Tripp, the grandfather of Moore's common-law wife, said Friday that when he saw deputies escort Moore away, he didn't resist at all.

Tripp also said the family was not told that Moore was in the hospital until two days after he was admitted.

On Tuesday, Tripp said the family had been instructed by their attorney not to make any further comments to the media.

Although Tripp previously accused the Sheriff's Department of covering up the jail incident, Wimbish said six detectives investigated it all weekend. In fact, Wimbish said detectives have been looking into the fight since the night it occurred.

"It will be ongoing even this evening," Wimbish said of the investigation Tuesday. "We will know the answers to all these questions."

Wimbish added that an internal investigation of the incident will be conducted separately from the current one.


Los Angeles Daily News

Prison blamed in death
2 mentally ill inmates in cell ended in slaying
By Greg Botonis
Staff Writer 

Saturday, June 11, 2005 - LANCASTER -- After a Lancaster prison inmate's strangulation in his cell, a government watchdog agency urged state prison officials to modify a policy that allows mentally ill inmates to be placed together in a cell.

Convicted carjacker Frank Perez, 30, is awaiting trial on charges he used a bedsheet to strangle cellmate Eddie Arriaga, 27, in September 2004 while the men were locked in the administrative-segregation unit cell they shared at the California State Prison-Los Angeles County.

"The Office of the Inspector General found that the murder victim and his alleged assailant should not have been celled together because both had long histories of criminal violence and violent behavior toward other inmates," said a California Inspector General's report on the death.

The report urged the state Department of Corrections to modify its double-cell policy to give special consideration for inmates diagnosed with mental illness.

In addition, a special review is being conducted of the department's policy of housing administrative segregation inmates in double cells, the Inspector General's report said.

The Inspector General report said Lancaster prison employees violated department policy by not completing a cell compatibility form before placing the inmates in the same cell. But no policy was violated by assigning Arriaga and Perez to double-cell status, the report said.

The review also found two more cases at the Lancaster prison where the cell compatibility form was not completed.

"From the DOC's standpoint, we are following their (Office of the Inspector General) recommendations," said Department of Corrections spokesman Todd Slosek. "We can't talk about this right now because it's an ongoing investigation. Whether we have to take adverse action or not (against prison staff) will be determined at a later date."

Inmates are put in the administrative-segregation unit because they are disciplinary problems, could be in danger among the general prison population, or for other reasons, prison officials said. Both Arriaga and Perez were undergoing psychological treatment, prison officials said.

Administrative-segregation inmates are allowed out of their cells only to shower, for 10 hours a week of closely guarded recreation and, in the two inmates' situation, therapy, officials said.

Arriaga had been imprisoned in August 2000 on a five-year sentence for an attempted robbery in West Covina. He had been at the Lancaster prison since September 2003 and was scheduled to get out in July 2005. Arriaga was put in administrative segregation after he destroyed another inmate's television set, prison officials said.

Perez is awaiting trial in Antelope Valley Superior Court on a murder charge. Prison officials have not said why he was in administrative segregation.

Authorities say Perez has admitted killing Arriaga, but has given differing explanations. He has said he was ordered to kill Arriaga for the Mexican Mafia and, alternately, that the victim had poor hygiene, officials said.

Arriaga's death was one of five at the Lancaster prison since September, two of which were investigated for the possibility of drug use being involved. Another inmate died of natural causes, and one died of cardiac arrest after struggling with corrections officers and being pepper-sprayed.

Greg Botonis, (661) 267-7802  gregory.botonis@dailynews.com


Posted on Sun, Apr. 17, 2005 

The stories of 6 inmates who died in county jail


After admitting to a San Jose police detective at his Dec. 30 arrest that he fondled a young girl he knew, Fox swore he would kill himself. The officer noted the comments in his report, and Fox was marked on a jail booking sheet as a suicide risk.

Fox spent no more than a week in the jail's closely watched medical and psychiatric ward. On April 4, Fox's 48th birthday, jailers found him hanging from a bedsheet tied to a bunk in his solitary cell where he was checked hourly.


A 42-year-old epileptic from Mexico who lived in his van and sold goods at flea markets, Gracia suffered a seizure while driving on Easter, according to friend Trini Haro. He got in an auto accident that afternoon and was treated at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center for a head injury. Later that night, he was taken to the jail to be booked on charges related to the traffic accident and outstanding warrants for drunken driving, battery and driving with a suspended license.

Handcuffed to a chair as he awaited booking, Gracia fell to the floor around 1 a.m., March 28. Jail officials said he fought their efforts to help him, and he died. Jail officials say staff followed proper procedures, but a former inmate claimed guards ``dog-piled'' Gracia.

Gracia had a history of resisting arrest. In April 2003, he was charged with misdemeanor battery. He also resisted arrest by a police officer working hospital security. The officer said Gracia was combative, and court records said he had to be subdued at the jail. Gracia accused the officer of brutality.


Benavidez, 49, who suffered liver disease, was jailed for a probation violation. She pleaded in a Dec. 30 inmate grievance form that she was denied a doctor and needed to see a liver specialist ``before I die here.'' On Jan. 21, Benavidez died of septic shock after developing an acute abdominal infection.


On Halloween 2004, Velasquez, a 41-year-old booked a day earlier on child-molestation charges, hanged himself with a bedsheet tied to an overhead smoke detector, just 14 minutes after jailers had checked on him. Velasquez had left a five-page handwritten note saying he had suffered stress from being sexually assaulted at knifepoint when he was 9.


Ramirez, a 44-year-old transient drug addict, was found dead in her solitary cell Oct. 24, three days after she had been booked for public intoxication. Ramirez had complained to jail medics a day earlier that she was suffering withdrawal from heroin and methamphetamine addiction and was hearing voices.

Jail officials at the time said Ramirez was being checked every half-hour, but a coroner's report indicated she was not seen for more than two hours before a medic who came to administer medications at 3:45 a.m. found her unresponsive. The coroner ruled her death an accident, concluding that the small amount of methamphetamine that remained in her body most likely caused her heart to fail.


Marino, 33, was booked Aug. 20 on drug charges and ended up in a coma two days later after jailers subdued and pepper-sprayed him for being unruly in an isolation cell. A small vial of methamphetamine was found in Marino's cell.

Jail officials have said they used very little force to subdue him, but notes from hospital officials say several guards ``dog-piled'' him. Marino died Oct. 1 at the hospital after his family concluded his condition was hopeless and removed life support. They have since filed a wrongful-death claim.


Posted on Mon, Mar. 28, 2005 

$1.27 million in six months spent on comatose inmates

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - The California Department of Corrections spent $1.27 million in just six months last year on medical care for six comatose inmates, not counting the $1,056-per-guard daily cost for security.

One of the inmates was at Delano Regional Medical Center from Nov. 7, 2003, until he died Jan. 12, costing the department $851,880 by year's end. Another, at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield from July 7 to Sept. 26, cost $246,494, the department said.

The debate over the wishes of Florida's Terri Schiavo, and who should decide her fate, "is the same debate we're having in our prison system," said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who sought the cost accounting.

The state may need to find a way for inmates to sign release forms to indicate their health care wishes, and do a better job notifying family members, said Romero, who plans an April 14 hearing on the problem.

Though inmates are in state custody, private doctors make medical decisions once inmates go to outside hospitals, and there is often confusion over when family members should be brought in to help with care decisions.

"It becomes very difficult because nobody knows who's in charge," Romero said.

That was the case with Daniel Provencio, 28, who was treated under guard for 29 days after he was fatally shot in the head with a supposedly non-lethal foam bullet Jan. 16 altercation at Wasco State Prison.

His medical care cost more than $100,000, not including the $30,624 in security costs, the department disclosed in its accounting.

Provencio's case "was very unique" because he was guarded and treated for 25 days after doctors declared him to be brain dead four days after the shooting, wrote department Director Jeanne Woodford. His family kept him on a ventilator, saying they were hoping for a miracle. He was finally released from custody Feb. 14, ending the department's responsibility, and died March 4.

"The Department's staff is not aware of any other inmates in recent memory that continued to receive medical treatment once a physician had made this specific determination" of brain death, Woodford wrote to Romero.

Romero, who heads two prison oversight committees, asked for a tally of the number of brain dead and medically incapacitated inmates.

The other six inmates were comatose in community hospitals between July and December, Woodford said in her March 17 response. Four of the five died in the hospital, while the sixth left department custody when he was paroled. Four of the six were hospitalized 10 days or less.

All were guarded around the clock to protect hospital employees, patients and visitors, and to protect the helpless inmates from enemies, Woodford said.

Yet there is no need for "two guards guarding a dead man," as happened for Provencio, said Romero. She said such decisions should be made case by case.

Woodford said a task force will be reviewing the department policy; Romero said the issue needs to be addressed in contract negotiations next year with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

It costs $1,056 per day, per guard, to provide security at outside medical facilities, though prison officials say they can sometimes shave costs if several inmates are housed together in locked facilities.

Romero said more critically ill inmates should be treated within prison medical facilities, yet she said the quality of prison health care remains so poor that isn't possible.

Department spokesman George Kostyrko said a major problem is that 70 percent of the prison system's crisis care beds are occupied by mentally ill inmates who can't readily be placed in outside facilities. That means more medically ill patients must be sent to outside hospitals.


California Department of Corrections:  http://www.corr.ca.gov


Posted on Thu, Mar. 24, 2005 

Prison won't name guard in inmate's death

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - The family of a now-deceased inmate who was kept on life support and guarded around the clock for nearly a month may never know how he was fatally shot in the head with a supposedly non-lethal weapon, nor learn the name of the guard who pulled the trigger.

Prison authorities, citing legal precedents and state law, won't release their internal investigations into the Jan. 16 shooting of Daniel Provencio at Wasco State Prison, nor will they say which tower guard fired the foam bullet designed to be aimed at arms and legs.

The Bakersfield Californian newspaper, which sought the records, contends the policy is contrary to the practice of other law enforcement agencies that routinely release the identity of officers involved in fatal confrontations.

Provencio, 28, was guarded around the clock for a month after he was declared brain dead, at a cost of $30,624, or $1,056 a day, the Department of Corrections said in a letter last week to Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who heads two prison oversight committees.

His medical care will cost the department more than $100,000 for the 29 days until he was formally released from custody Feb. 14, the department said. He died March 4.

Prison officials said Provencio was shot when he refused orders to lie down and instead tried to prevent guards from breaking up a fight between two other inmates.

But they won't release other details without a court order, rejecting the newspaper's public records requests.

"They're going to have to convince a judge it's in the best interest of the public to release the officer's name," department spokesman George Kostyrko said Thursday. "The Peace Officer Bill of Rights is very specific about what can be released and what can't be released."

Three internal investigations aren't completed, but also won't be released, Kostyrko said. And he said medical provider contracts also sought by the newspaper are confidential for three years after they are completed, for competitive reasons.

The Associated Press also has been seeking medical contract information since November 2003 without success.

The Californian maintains that state law and court rulings require that basic information, such as the name of the officer, be made available to the public even while investigations continue.

"Our position is that unequivocally these are public records," said Bob Christie, the Californian's city editor. "Every other law enforcement agency we deal with provides us with this information within 24 hours after a shooting incident."

The department's and newspaper's lawyers are consulting, though the paper hasn't decided whether to sue, Christie said.

"Until the investigation is completed ... the CDC declines to subject the officer to public scrutiny beyond the scrutiny the officer is already undergoing as part of the existing investigations," Kostyrko wrote in the department's formal response to the paper's information request last week.

Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, said releasing officers' names can and has brought threats from gangs and resulted in officers being placed on inmates' "hit lists."

The prison system's inspector general routinely posts its investigative reports on its Web site, where its report on the Provencio shooting will go once it is completed.


California Department of Corrections:  http://www.corr.ca.gov

The Bakersfield Californian:  http://www.bakersfield.com

[Inspector General Report]


Los Angeles Daily News

Inmate faces murder trial in cell killing

By Karen Maeshiro
Staff Writer 

Thursday, March 17, 2005 - LANCASTER -- A state prison inmate was ordered to stand trial for murder in the strangulation of his cellmate.

Frank Perez, 30, who is serving a 12-year sentence for carjacking, is charged with using a bedsheet to strangle Eddie Arraiga, 27, last September.

"I want this man to be in prison for the rest of his life and not have the possibility of parole," said Raquel Arraiga, the victim's mother. "I just want justice done.

"He tortured my son to the very end. I think he knew what he was doing. I want all inmates to be protected. If he could do it to my son, he could do it others."

Perez has admitted killing Arraiga, officials said, but has given differing explanations. He has said he was ordered to kill Arraiga for the Mexican Mafia and, alternately, that the victim had poor hygiene.

After Arraiga's killing, Perez was transferred from California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster to Corcoran State Prison outside Bakersfield.

Arraiga was serving a five-year sentence for second-degree robbery and was scheduled to be released in July, prison officials said.

Perez and Arraiga were in the prison's administrative segregation unit for inmates who are disciplinary problems, could be in danger among the general prison population or for other reasons. Both were undergoing psychological treatment.

Arraiga was put in administrative segregation after he destroyed another inmate's television set, prison officials said. Prison officials didn't say why Perez was in the segregation unit.

Administrative segregation inmates are allowed out of their cells only to shower, for 10 hours a week of closely guarded recreation, and, in the two inmates' situation, therapy, officials said.

Arraiga's death was one of five at the Lancaster prison since September, two of which were investigated for the possibility of drug use being involved.

Another inmate died from natural causes, and one inmate went into cardiac arrest and died at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills after he was pepper-sprayed after biting and kicking correctional officers. 

Karen Maeshiro, (661) 267-5744  karen.maeshiro@dailynews.com


Posted on Tue, Nov. 30, 2004 

'New Folsom' inmate killed by guard in stabbing incident

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - A prison guard at California State Prison, Sacramento, fatally shot an inmate who was stabbing another inmate Tuesday, authorities said.

The guard fired a warning shot, then shot the 35-year-old inmate once in the back using a semiautomatic rifle when he continued his attack, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. Wade Arthur Shiflett was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:04 p.m.

The inmate had been stabbing a second inmate, age 32, who was in stable condition at a local hospital with four stab wounds - one to the neck and at least two to the chest, said prison spokesman Lt. Fred M. Schroeder. Officials would not name the injured inmate, citing privacy regulations.

Thornton said authorities recovered the weapon, a sharpened electrical outlet cover plate.

Both inmates were white, and the motive wasn't known, she said. The incident occurred about 11:50 a.m. in the "B" facility exercise yard, where about 1,000 inmates were immediately locked in their cells as the investigation continues.

The department's deadly force investigative team was examining the incident, but preliminarily, "it looks like our use of force policy was followed," said department spokesman George Kostyrko. "Obviously, they need to look at the whole thing."

The guard who fired the shot was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation.

The "B" facility is one of three housing units in the maximum security prison commonly known as "New Folsom." The prison has about 3,300 inmates; the "B" unit houses general population inmates.

Shiflett was serving a Sonoma County sentence of nine years, eight months for vehicle theft and a sentence of one year and four months for burglary. He also had a 2001 conviction for assaulting an inmate at a different prison, Schroeder said. His earliest possible release date had been February 2009. He previously had been imprisoned for possessing a controlled substance while in possession of a firearm.

The victim is serving a five-year sentence from Los Angeles County for making terrorist threats, and is scheduled for release in July 2006.

The last inmate fatally shot by a guard was in August 2003 during a similar inmate-on-inmate assault at Pleasant Valley State Prison, Kostyrko said. There were two fatal shootings in 2003; one in 2000; three in 1998; one in 1997; three in 1996; one in 1995, and eight in 1994, he said.


Man shot by stun guns dies
Deputies were subduing the Elk Grove resident, who was acting erratically.
By Ed Fletcher and Christina Jewett -- Bee Staff Writers
Published 2:15 am PST Tuesday, November 9, 2004

A family photo shows Alicia Zaragoza 
with son Ricardo Zaragoza, 40, 
who died Monday after being shot with 
stun guns in a struggle with deputies in Elk Grove.


An Elk Grove man died early Monday in a confrontation with Sacramento County sheriff's deputies after officers used pepper spray and shot the man twice with 50,000-volt Taser stun guns.
Sheriff's officials said Ricardo Zaragoza struggled with four deputies who wanted to take him in for a mental health examination after his family called officials saying he was acting erratically.

The four officers who struggled to control Zaragoza were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Sheriff's officials and family members said officers shot him twice in the chest with Taser guns. Family members, however, said officers used excessive force to control him.

"The frustration is that my mother was seeking help," Arnulfo Zaragoza Jr., Ricardo Zaragoza's oldest brother, said. "It ended up taking his life."

The death could be ruled a homicide, but as of late Monday it was still labeled as "undetermined," coroner's officials said.

"It's extremely tragic, and it's going to be difficult for the officers and the family," said sheriff spokesman R.L. Davis, who would not disclose the names of the officers involved.

Davis said this is the first instance under their jurisdiction where a suspect died after a Taser stun gun was used.

With the coroner's report still pending, officials can't say what role, if any, the use of the department-issued M26 Taser had in Zaragoza's death.

While officials with Taser International, which made the Tasers in use by county officers, say their product is safe, critics say Taser-related deaths are on the rise and use of the guns should be halted.

Several hundred Tasers are being carried by the about 500 sheriff's deputies who patrol Sacramento County, Davis said. The department started issuing the stun guns in 2001, as a non-lethal way to subdue suspects.

The parents of Zaragoza, 40, called sheriff's deputies to their Stanwell Way home at 12:20 a.m. to report his erratic behavior, which included tearing boards off the fence.

Arnulfo Zaragoza Jr. said his brother, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 20 while he was a student at the University of California, Davis, had been taking his medicine but had not eaten for five days.

Zaragoza's "inconsistent and incoherent statements" led the responding officers to decide that he needed a mental health evaluation, Davis said.

Zaragoza Jr., who spoke on his parents' behalf, said officers discussed taking Zaragoza to a mental hospital with Zaragoza and his parents in the living room. Zaragoza left the room to enter his bedroom, saying, "I am not a criminal."

Officers followed, one using his foot to block Zaragoza from closing the bedroom door, Zaragoza Jr. said. That officer sprayed pepper spray and called for backup, coughing in the police radio.

Ricardo Zaragoza had been pepper sprayed, shot twice with Taser guns and handcuffed when at least two other officers came in at "100 miles per hour," Zaragoza Jr. said.

Zaragoza Jr. said one officer used his knee to hold his brother's neck to the ground, even as his father exclaimed that his son had stopped breathing.

Zaragoza Jr. said his father requested that officers administer CPR, but officers said paramedics would do so. Paramedics arrived quickly, but Zaragoza's hands fell limp when the medic ordered deputies to remove the cuffs.

According to officials, Zaragoza became "combative and began physically fighting with officers."

"They utilized a Taser, and they utilized pepper spray to try to get him to a point where they could take him in," said Davis, describing the escalating altercation.

Davis said he could not say why the officers were unable to control the 5-foot-9, 222-pound Zaragoza.

After being handcuffed, according to the preliminary coroner's report, Zaragoza collapsed forward and struck his head on concrete as he was being taken out of the house. But he continued to struggle before becoming motionless.

Davis couldn't say whether Zaragoza struck his head, but said that within minutes Zaragoza was taken to Methodist Hospital while paramedics tried to revive him. He was pronounced dead shortly before 1 a.m.

Zaragoza Jr. said another brother went to see Ricardo's body at the hospital and said his face was bloody and his face, jaw, arms and stomach were bruised.

"Something looks very bad," Zaragoza Jr. said. "Something went very wrong here."

Family members said Zaragoza was a lovable man who lived vicariously through his six siblings, doting on his nieces and nephews and collecting their drawings and photos in albums as gifts to them.

In his bedroom in his parents' home: his soccer trophies, Isaac Asimov books and a new box of Christmas cards. Zaragoza Jr. said his brother lived well despite his illness, graduating from Sacramento City College and acting as a docent at the Crocker Art Museum.

"I am so proud of my son. He was a really nice, good son," his mother, Alicia Zaragoza, said.

The human-rights group Amnesty International has called for law enforcement agencies to stop using Tasers.

"The increased number of Taser-related deaths is making it more urgent for law enforcement to heed our call to suspend their use," said Ed Jackson, the group's stun-gun expert.

There have been more than 70 Taser deaths since 1999, Jackson said. But that number would be higher, if medical examiners weren't so quick to attribute the death to a heart attack, drug overdose or improper restraint, Jackson said.

The family of a mentally ill Southhampton, N.Y., man, who died in police custody in February after being stunned several times with a Taser, is suing local officials and the company.

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, said multiple studies have proved the company's weapons are safe and that Tasers are saving lives every day.

About the writer:
The Bee's Ed Fletcher can be reached at (916) 321-1269 or  efletcher@sacbee.com

Posted on Tue, Nov. 09, 2004

ELK GROVE, Calif. (AP) - An Elk Grove man with a history of mental illness died after Sacramento County sheriff's deputies used pepper spray and a Taser stun gun to subdue him.

Deputies were called by Ricardo Zaragoza's family early Monday because Zaragoza was acting erratically. Zaragoza, 40, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 20. His family said he had been taking his medicine but had not eaten for five days.

The family wanted officers to take him in for a mental health examination.

Family members said officers talked with Zaragoza about going to a mental hospital. Zaragoza left the room to enter his bedroom, saying, "I am not a criminal."

Officers followed, and one tried to prevent Zaragoza from shutting the bedroom door. Family members said that's when the struggle between Zaragoza and the officers.

Sheriff's officials and family members said officers shot him twice in the chest with Taser guns. Family members, however, said officers used excessive force to control him.

The four officers involved were placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation, sheriff's officials said.

"It's extremely tragic, and it's going to be difficult for the officers and the family," said sheriff spokesman R.L. Davis.

Zaragoza was taken to Methodist Hospital while paramedics tried to revive him. He was pronounced dead shortly before 1 a.m.

After being handcuffed, according to the preliminary coroner's report, Zaragoza collapsed forward and struck his head on concrete as he was being taken out of the house. But he continued to struggle before becoming motionless.

High Desert Prison inmate dies after a fight in an exercise yard

 Williams Dies in Shasta Jail


Shooting Death of Inmate at Issue
Prison officials say use of deadly force by guard was needed to protect another prisoner during a riot, but witnesses raise questions.
By Mark Arax
Times Staff Writer

October 21, 2003

FRESNO In the days after a guard shot and killed an inmate at Pleasant Valley State Prison last week, corrections staff said a "major riot" involving 300 prisoners had led to the shooting. The use of deadly force, they said, stopped one particularly savage brawl that threatened the life of an inmate.

But prison videotapes and eyewitness accounts detail a far smaller incident involving about 50 inmates in the recreation yard where the deadly shot rang out, according to Fresno County sheriff's investigators. No inmate in the yard carried a weapon or caused serious injury to another inmate, corrections officials now acknowledge.

The inmate whose life was said to have been in danger walked away from the fight with bruises on his face, corrections officials said. Likewise, no guard faced imminent peril.

Two teams of investigators one from the sheriff's office and one from the state Department of Corrections are now probing the Oct. 12 incident, only the second fatal shooting at a California prison since deadly force guidelines were tightened in 1999. 

Corrections officials say it is too early to determine whether the shooting was justified. But in past probes, they acknowledge, the absence of weapons and "imminent great bodily harm" have led investigators to rule such shootings unjustified, costing the state millions of dollars in victim settlements.

"Each shooting is fully investigated not just by a corrections team, but by outside law enforcement," said Margot Bach, a state corrections spokeswoman. "There's a lot more work to do before determining whether this shooting is justified or not."

The Fresno County coroner's office said Alejandro Enriquez, a 28-year-old Los Angeles man serving a 15-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest. Prison staff say he was the aggressor in one of several fistfights that erupted in the Facility B yard at the prison in the rural town of Coalinga.

They say Enriquez refused to heed repeated warnings to stop brawling and continued pummeling another inmate even after guards fired five rounds of nonlethal wood blocks.

"It appears that [Enriquez] was the aggressor and was beating a defenseless inmate," said Lt. Paul Sanchez, the prison's spokesman. "One officer fired a warning shot and the second officer fired for effect. I imagine they perceived it to be a life-threatening situation."

But one corrections administrator, who asked not to be named for fear of job retaliation, said the fact that the victim in the fight was not badly injured raises serious questions about the shooting. "Our shooting policy is pretty clear. You don't fire a deadly round to stop a fight unless you're darn sure an inmate is about to be killed." 

The shooting took place near the same dining hall where inmate Octavio Orozco, 23, was shot and killed by a correctional officer in 1998. In the weeks after that shooting, a high-ranking female administrator went public with charges that Orozco's death had resulted from a grave miscalculation by a careless guard. The fight posed no serious harm to inmates or staff, she argued, and could have been stopped any number of ways short of a gunshot. 

Orozco, who was serving a nine-year sentence for drug dealing, was one of 39 inmates to die statewide during the 1990s as a result of California's controversial practice of shooting at prisoners engaged in fistfights and melees. After a yearlong probe by The Times that ended with the state's reversing its stance and declaring many of the shootings unjustified, the policy on using deadly force was changed.

The new policy makes firing live rounds from a Mini 14 semiautomatic rifle a last resort. A shot to kill is warranted only to prevent an inmate from escaping or causing catastrophic injuries to staff or another inmate. 

The Orozco family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit that was settled in February for $600,000. 

The Facility B unit at Pleasant Valley houses about 1,200 inmates more than double its capacity. To ease overcrowding, some inmates are housed in the gym. During the evening meal on Oct. 12, guards were releasing inmates from one building when a fight broke out between two prisoners from rival Mexican groups.

Officers stopped the fight and placed the two inmates back in their cells, according to an official account. After both inmates assured guards that no bad blood existed between the groups, the releases of prisoners for the evening meal continued. A few minutes later, however, two more inmates from the same groups began fighting in the yard, which is the size of 1 1/2 football fields, according to prison staff. That fight touched off a melee involving 50 other inmates in the same yard.

"All the Southern Hispanics began to run from everywhere to the fight," Sanchez said. "Inmates in the gym and the dining hall could see the yard fight and then they began fighting too. This was a classic example of how a single incident can escalate into a major riot involving 300 inmates."

But Fresno County sheriff's investigators say videotapes and witness accounts portray not one major riot involving 300 inmates, but three separate fights in three distinct parts of Facility B. As about 50 inmates got involved in fighting or threatening to fight in the yard, other disturbances involving 250 inmates broke out in the gym and dining hall, they say.

Guards were able to bring peace to the gym and dining hall by using pepper spray and shouting verbal warnings to "get down." But the fight in the yard persisted until two guards, one standing in a gun post tower and the other in the second-floor control booth, fired two live rounds in the yard.

"The fight in the yard starts out with 30 or 40 inmates and then others run over to join in," said Sgt. Bob Moore, who heads the sheriff's team. 

"There is major pummeling going on by more than one person, and officers form a skirmish line. Because the video pans back and forth, you lose a lot of what's going on.

"At some point, the majority of the yard goes down, but a pocket of inmates are still fighting," Moore continued. "That's when two live rounds are fired, one as a warning and the other striking an inmate in the chest."

Sanchez, the prison spokesman, defended the actions of the two guards who fired the shots. He said they followed the department's policy of escalating force: verbal warnings, pepper spray, firing nonlethal wood block rounds, firing a live warning shot and then finally firing a round "for effect."

"It's a very difficult decision," he said. "You have only a second or two to make it. This one inmate was defenseless. If they don't react and he takes a kick in the head, he can die."

But Bach, the corrections spokeswoman, acknowledged that the only weapons retrieved were found in the dining hall and gym, where no shots were fired. The inmate beaten by Enriquez declined to be sent to an outside hospital and was treated at the prison infirmary for facial bruises and swelling. 

The two guards who fired the live rounds have been placed on leave pending the outcome of the sheriff's investigation. A probe by the corrections Deadly Force Investigative Team is also underway. 

Since the shooting policy was revamped in 1999, only one other inmate has been shot and killed by a corrections officer. In February 2000 at Pelican Bay prison near the California-Oregon border, a riot involving 300 inmates in the exercise yard ended in gunfire.

Nearly 90 weapons were found and dozens of inmates who had fought were sent to the hospital with injuries.


Coalinga prison guard kills inmate in riot 
By Donald E. Coleman
The Fresno Bee
Published 10/14/03 09:01:00

A guard shot and killed an inmate Sunday night in a riot involving about 300 prisoners at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.

While unsure of the cause of the disturbance, a prison spokesman said the prison has 5,000 inmates in a setting designed for 2,500.

"Overcrowding is always a problem," said Lt. Paul Sanchez, a prison spokesman. "We have 250 inmates in a gym. It becomes a dangerous situation. We're at 200% of maximum."

He said the prisoners, some of who are serving life terms, are designated one level below maximum security and should be housed in cells with gun coverage and with a secured perimeter.

The melee started about 6:45 p.m. in a recreation yard after some exchanges between Mexican nationals and other Hispanic inmates, Sanchez said.

The fighting spilled into a dining room and a gymnasium, where some African-American inmates jumped in.

Guards took about 15 or 20 minutes to quell the disturbance, which subsided after shots from at least one guard killed the inmate, whose identity is being withheld pending notification of relatives.

Four inmates were taken to hospitals outside the prison for non-life-threatening injuries, Sanchez said.

He added that no guards were wounded.

Sanchez said at least two corrections officers are on leave pending an investigation by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department. A spokesperson confirmed that the department is investigating.

Inmates will be confined to their cells until prison officials complete their investigation.

"Some areas could be back to normal within a few days, but the 'B' facility could take a week or two," Sanchez said. "This is not your typical street shooting. We have 1,200 guys that could be witnesses, and they all might have different stories."

The fatal shooting was the second by guards since the prison opened in 1994.

In May 1998, Octavio Orozco, 23, of Los Angeles was shot by a guard in a dining hall melee.

In February 2000, the only other officer-involved shooting at a state prison since Orozco left one inmate dead and 32 wounded at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.

In 1994, the shooting death of Preston Tate at Corcoran State Prison brought national media attention to that institution after reports of more than 40 inmate shootings from 1989 to 1995, seven of them fatal.

In the past decade, at least a dozen Corcoran correction officers were prosecuted in criminal jury trials and found not guilty of prisoner abuse.

Orozco's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 1999.

It was settled for $600,000 last February.

The shooting was investigated for possible charges, but the Fresno County District Attorney's Office decided against bringing a criminal complaint against the guards or the inmates.

Sanchez said the Coalinga prison has had several disturbances since Orozco's death, but that the state's deadly force policy has decreased the number of fatalities.

"It makes deadly force the last option," Sanchez said. "This one escalated far beyond what was expected."

Verbal commands, tear gas, wooden batons and pepper spray are all tools guards must use before firing, Sanchez said.

He said inmates in Sunday's disturbance failed to comply with demands to stop the rioting.

Sanchez said authorities will conduct interviews with many of the inmates housed in the section where the fight broke out.

What lies ahead for prison officials is trying to determine the nature and cause of the disturbance, whether there will be retaliation by inmates and how it spilled into other areas.

Witness questioning will involve more than verbal inquiries.

"We'll look for signs of altercations, bumps, bruises and scratches," Sanchez said. "We'll rely heavily on injuries. There are no reasons inmates should be walking around with fresh injuries. Usually, if they're hurt playing basketball or something, they'll report it immediately in case something like this happens."

Because of the holiday, Department of Corrections officials in Sacramento could not be reached.

The reporter can be reached at  dcoleman@fresnobee.com  or 441-6360.


Inmate found hanging at jail, dies of injuries

     Inland Valley Voice 

By Staff Reports, Inland Valley Voice 

RANCHO CUCAMONGA -- An inmate was found hanging from a metal frame cabinet Friday afternoon at West Valley Detention Center and pronounced dead a short while later. 

The inmate, whose name was being withheld until the family could be notified, was working alone in an area of the jail separated from other inmates, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department reported in a press release. About 12:30 p.m., an employee found the person hanging in a storage room and called for medical aid, but the inmate was dead. 

The inmate had been arrested in connection with narcotics violations and had been in custody since August, the press release stated. 

The sheriff's homicide detail is investigating the matter and an autopsy will be conducted next week to determine the cause of death. 

Inmate Slain In Overcrowded Vacaville Prison 

Charlie Goodyear, 
Chronicle Staff Writer Thursday, July 2, 1998 

The slaying of a California Medical Facility inmate just three days after he was housed with another prisoner has raised new concerns about overcrowding at the sprawling Vacaville prison. The death of Jeffrey Ford, 36, followed a week of gang violence at the 3,200-inmate prison and was the first homicide 
there since 1994. 

Ford's body was discovered early Monday morning in the cell he shared with James Diesso, 25. He had been beaten, strangled and cut with a sharp object. The Solano County coroner's office said yesterday that Ford died from strangulation with a narrow object and blunt force trauma. The two men had been moved into the same cell on Friday after they had filled out forms authorizing the double-housing, prison spokeswoman Bea Torres said. 

Ford was serving a six-year prison term for a 1996 petty theft, with previous convictions, in Stanislaus County. Diesso, who has since been moved to the prison's administrative segregation wing, is serving a seven-year term for assault with a deadly weapon in San Bernardino County. ``There had been no 
signs of trouble, and we don't have a motive at this point,'' Torres said. 

Diesso is considered a suspect but has not been charged with the slaying, she said. ``He hasn't given us a statement yet,'' Torres said. Attorneys who represent inmates at the Vacaville prison said that despite the relative infrequency of homicides at the prison, inmates have reported rising tensions. ``The double-celling of course concerns me a great deal,'' said Fairfield attorney Barry Newman. ``I have heard from many inmates who tell me the pressure and tension there is increasing. 

There are more younger inmates who are serving longer sentences and they are without hope. It's quite 
possible we could see more of this in the future.'' On June 23, a melee involving 110 Latino inmates fighting over gang affiliations prompted officials to place the prison on lockdown. Newman represented a mentally ill inmate, Kenneth Arnold, who was placed with another inmate in 1992 against the recommendation of prison officials. Arnold killed the other inmate, telling investigators that he was defending himself against a sexual assault. 

Arnold was ultimately deemed incompetent to stand trial for the killing and has since been placed in a secure mental health facility. ``When they fail to treat the mentally ill, that creates a danger not only to the prison staff but also to other inmates,'' Newman said. Torres said double-celling is necessary because of the state's growing prison population. Prisoners are screened for compatibility by corrections officials, she said. The Solano County district attorney's office is participating in the investigation of Ford's death. But investigators so far have not found any weapon used to kill Ford, Torres said. 

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