Phantom Of The Jailhouse: A Grim Reaper Among Sheriff’s Deputies?

By Mark Gutglueck
Since March of last year, inmates in San Bernardino County’s jails have been dying at the rate of about one every 38 days. As time has moved forward, the pace of death has been increasing to the point that within the slightly more than three months of 2016 so far, there have been five such fatalities, accelerating to one every 19 days. Officially, the department acknowledges that only one of those was a clear cut case of homicide. At least four have been chalked up to suicide. Medical reasons, at least tentatively, were given as the causes in the remaining cases.
Unacknowledged officially but recognized almost universally at the street level is that in most if not all of the cases attributed to medical factors there was at the very least some degree of negligence. Information as to how relatively young and healthy individuals in a closed, controlled and monitored environment would just expire has not been forthcoming, with the department citing the deceased inmates’ medical privacy as preventing disclosure of pertinent information in that regard. The department and the county wish to avoid going down that road because of the liability the underlying circumstances represent. Moreover, in the cases of alleged suicide, negligence is again a factor that muddies the water. Beneath that shroud are suggestions that some of the alleged suicides and the deaths attributed to medical factors may actually have been homicides perpetrated by an individual or individuals within the jail, perhaps another inmate or other inmates or one or more of the jailors.
To members of the public on the outside, events within the jail system under normal circumstances are difficult to track. Given the nature of what has transpired and the absolute control the sheriff’s department has over the incarceration facilities and the ebb and flow of information therefrom, a virtual curtain of silence has descended over the situation, making the matters even more opaque than usual.
The lack of clarity has extended to the public’s inability to obtain access to the coroner’s reports or autopsies done in the deaths’ aftermaths. In at least four of those cases, there is something to suggest that the department is being tightfisted with the information it possesses because of yet ongoing investigations. This implies that potential suspects in those investigations are or may be deputies working in the jails. The dissemination of information relating to the deaths could foreclose the use of investigative methods intended to obtain information implicating a suspect or suspects that would be based upon the forensic verification of facts known only to the perpetrator or perpetrators.
Since March 2015, there have been ten deaths of inmates while incarcerated in the county sheriff’s detention facilities. One of those occurred at the Twin Peaks sheriff’s station holding facility. One other occurred at the Big Bear sheriff’s station. The other eight occurred at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. Another in-custody death, the eleventh in that time span, occurred prior to the arrestee being booked into a facility. Two of the eleven dead were woman. Nine of the dead were men. Two of those who died were African Americans. Four of those who died were Caucasian. Five of those who died were Hispanic. The average age of those who died was 37. The actual ages of each of victims were 33, 28, 19, 23, 50, 54, 58, 40, 33, 30 and 48.
In chronological order and based upon what information has been released by the sheriff’s department, here is what is known about the eleven deaths:
On Saturday, March 28, 2015 at 1:30 p.m. Gilbert Mesa, 33 of Sugarloaf, arrived at the Big Bear Station at 477 Summit Blvd. in Big Bear Lake to provide a statement regarding an assault with a deadly weapon investigation, in which he was named as the suspect. Following the interview, Mesa was arrested and booked into the Big Bear jail. According to the sheriff’s department, Mesa was the sole occupant of the cell. At 8:15 p.m. the jail deputy observed Mesa, and Mesa acknowledged the deputy. At 8:50 p.m. the jail deputy was conducting his observation logs when he saw Mesa hanging from the top of his bunk, with his shoelaces tied around his neck. Deputies quickly cut the shoelaces from his neck, called for medical aid and began CPR. Fire personnel responded and transported Mesa to Bear Valley Community Hospital. On Sunday, March 29, 2015 at 1:30 a.m. Mesa was transferred to Riverside Community Hospital.
On Tuesday, March 31, 2015 at 9:19 p.m. Mesa was pronounced dead. The Riverside County Coroner conducted an autopsy on Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The cause of death was determined to be anoxic encephalopathy due to hanging.
Sheriff’s homicide investigators sergeant John Gaffney and detective Eddie Bachman conducted the investigation into Mesa’s death, concluding he had committed suicide.
On Wednesday, April 15, 2015 deputy Gary Brandt, deputy Shannon Deasey, deputy Peter Gentry and sgt. Mike Rude responded to a report at 1:17 a.m. of a man trying to damage an emergency fuel shutoff switch at a Valero gas station at 27767 Base Line in Highland.
When deputies arrived they found 28-year-old Joseph Slater, later identified as a homeless man who frequented the area to panhandle and was described by those in the area as often wandering the area yelling at imagined people or holding conversations with himself, “behaving oddly.” Deputies detained him, according to the department, and tried to place Slater into a patrol car, at which point he became combative. Deputies used pepper spray on him but his resistance continued, and the deputies were unable to get him more than partially into the vehicle. When Slater forced his way out of the car, the deputies tackled him. According to the sheriff’s department “force was used to overcome his resistance.” Slater was eventually placed into the patrol car, but evinced, according to the department, “symptoms of having a medical emergency.” Paramedics were summoned. He was transported to a hospital, where he later died.
It is unclear who investigated Slater’s death.
On April 27, 2015, Jeremiah Ajani Bell, 22, who had been arrested for attempted murder, was booked at West Valley Detention and placed into a cell with Rashad Paul Davis, 19, who had been arrested for robbery and had been in custody at West Valley since March 26, 2015. Not quite four weeks later, on Friday, May 22, 2015 at 10:02 a.m., West Valley Detention Center deputies found Davis unresponsive on the floor of the two-man cell he occupied with Bell. Davis received immediate medical attention and was transported to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana, where he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy on Davis was conducted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, by the Riverside County Coroner’s Office. The cause of death was determined to be from blunt force injuries. Investigators from the San Bernardino County Specialized Investigation Division Homicide Detail, detective Gary Hart and sergeant John Gaffney, conducted the investigation into the incident. Those investigators determined that Jeremiah Ajani Bell was responsible for the death of Rashad Paul Davis.
On Saturday, September 12, 2015 at approximately 2:25 p.m. Karla Renae Jones, 23, a convicted arsonist awaiting a probation-violation hearing, was found by deputies at the West Valley Detention Center unresponsive in her single-person cell. According to the sheriff’s department “it appeared as though she had committed suicide. Deputies and medical staff immediately attempted life saving measures and Jones was transported to a nearby hospital, where she was later pronounced deceased.” Jones had been in custody, at West Valley Detention Center, for approximately two weeks prior to the incident.
Detective Justin Long and sergeant Trevis Newport of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Detail investigated Jones’ death, reaching the conclusion that she had committed suicide.
On Sunday, October 18, 2015, at approximately 1:34 p.m., deputies assigned to a housing unit at West Valley Detention Center found inmate Robert Lundberg, 50 of Adelanto, who was arrested four days previously and charged on October 16 with possession of a controlled substance for sale and was due to be arraigned November 9 on that charge, on the floor of the housing unit just below the second tier, suffering from severe head trauma. Medical staff from West Valley Detention Center immediately responded and initiated life saving procedures. Rancho Cucamonga firefighters and personnel from American Medical Response also responded to the facility. Lundberg was pronounced dead at the scene. According to the sheriff’s department, “Lundberg was the only inmate assigned to his cell and was the only inmate out of his cell at the time of the incident.”
Detectives from the Sheriff’s Department Specialized Investigations Division, Homicide Detail, detective Mark Goodwin and sergeant Jason Radeleff, conducted the investigation into Lundberg’s death. The Riverside County Coroner’s Office conducted an autopsy and determined Lundberg’s cause of death was severe head trauma. Goodwin and Radeleff concluded Lundberg committed suicide.
On or about December 6, 2015, Salvador Munoz, 54, suffered a medical emergency while in custody at West Valley Detention Center. He was transported to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana for treatment, where he was pronounced dead. According to the sheriff’s department, his death was medically related.
On or about January 4, 2016, Fernando Cordova, 58, experienced a medical emergency. He was transported to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana for medical treatment, where he was pronounced dead.
On or about February 7, 2016, Michael O’Brien, 40, experienced a medical emergency while in custody at West Valley. He was transported to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton for treatment, where he was pronounced dead.
There is no information publicly available relating to which investigators looked into the Munoz, Cordova and O’Brien deaths.
On Wednesday, February 10, 2016, Angela Zuniga, a 33-year old resident of San Bernardino, who had been remanded into custody at the West Valley Detention Center on January 11 on charges of shooting at an inhabited dwelling and being a felon in possession of a firearm, gave birth to a boy by C-section and underwent a hysterectomy at the county hospital, known as the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. Three days later, Zuninga was returned to custody at West Valley Detention Center. Her jailors assigned her to a clean-up detail. After she experienced bleeding and complained of abdominal pain, she was placed in solitary confinement. Other inmates report that she requested medical assistance that was not forthcoming.
On Saturday, February 27, 2016, according to the sheriff’s department, “Zuniga experienced a medical emergency and at 10:00 p.m. was transported to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. Despite lifesaving measures, Zuniga was pronounced deceased on Sunday, February 28, 2016, at 5:41 a.m.”
Investigators from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Specialized Investigations Division, detective Troy Mooradian and sergeant Robert Warrick, are conducting an investigation into Zuniga’s death. Their report has not been released, but the department has made a preliminary finding that her death was attributable to “medical” causes.
On Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 6:41 a.m. deputies at the West Valley Detention Center found an inmate, Federico Juarez Guardado, 30 of San Bernardino, unresponsive in a jail cell. Guardado had been jailed on a contempt of court charge, a misdemeanor. According to the department, Guardado “was housed alone and appeared to be suffering a medical emergency. Medical staff assigned to the West Valley Detention Center and emergency medical responders from American Medical Response and Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department performed lifesaving measures. At 7:00 a.m., the inmate was pronounced deceased at the jail.”
Detective Brendan Motley and sergeant Greg Myler of the sheriff’s specialized investigations division are conducting the death investigation. An autopsy was to be conducted last week by the Riverside County Coroner’s Office to determine cause and manner of death. The results have not yet been made public.
This week, on Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 10:15 a.m. a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy witnessed Michael Paul, 48 and a resident of Twin Peaks, jaywalking in the 23000 block of Crest Forest Drive. According to the department, “The deputy evaluated Paul, determined he was under the influence of a controlled substance and took him into custody. Paul was placed in a single man holding cell and following a brief interview, deputies determined Paul had weapons in his residence, which were in violation of a criminal restraining order.”
Deputies obtained a search warrant for Paul’s residence for firearms and narcotics and served that warrant at 2:50 p.m. According to the department, “Numerous firearms and narcotics were seized from the residence” and Paul’s 37-year-old girlfriend, Emily McKernan, was arrested for narcotic and firearms violations. Deputies returned to the Twin Peaks station and after a brief interview, McKernan was placed in a single person holding cell.
According to the department, “At 5:39 p.m. deputies prepared to interview Paul regarding the evidence located at his home and found he had hanged himself in the cell. Medical personnel responded and Paul was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Sergeant Jason Radeleff of the Specialized Investigations Division Homicide Detail is conducting this latest in-custody death incident.
Prior to Paul’s death, the Sentinel had sought permission from the department to speak to or otherwise communicate with detectives Bachman, Long, Goodwin, Mooradian, and Motley as well as sergeants Newport, Radeleff, Warrick and Myler with respect to the Gilbert Mesa, Rashad Davis, Karla Jones, Robert Lundberg, Angela Zuniga and Federico Guardado deaths, while seeking to identify what members of the department had made an examination of the Michael O’Brien, Fernando Cordova and Salvador Munoz fatalities. No clearance for any of those interviews had been granted by press time.
Of note is that the lion’s share of the deaths in San Bernardino County’s jails over the last 13 months occurred at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, which has a 3,291-inmate capacity and averages roughly 3,000 inmates per day. There were no fatalities at the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, which opened in early 2015 and since that time has housed on average 700 inmates daily. Nor were there any deaths at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, which over the same period has housed an average of 1,020 inmates per day. Another relatively large scale prisoner holding facility run by the sheriff’s department is the Central Jail in San Bernardino, which is primarily used to house pre-sentenced county inmates and federal inmates, and averages a daily population of 930. No deaths occurred there in 2015 or so far in 2016. There thus appears to be a statistical anomaly attending the death rate at West Valley.
The Sentinel was unable to engage the department, including any of the sergeants or detectives that investigated the rash of deaths at the West Valley Detention Center over the last 13 months, in a discussion relating to potential flaws or shortcomings in the design of the West Valley Detention Center that may have rendered the inmates there more vulnerable or isolated from supervision and monitoring than the design of the department’s other incarceration facilities. The Sentinel, despite a written request, was further unable to find out whether individually or collectively the investigators of these recent deaths had drawn any conclusions with regard to the department’s protocols and procedures, the personnel employed at the detention facilities or any other factors that they believe may have contributed to these deaths, and if so, what recommendations they have made or will be making up the chain of command.
The department did not respond to an inquiry into whether the investigative teams probing the deaths traded notes with one another or in some fashion exchanged information and collectively discussed or brainstormed over these cases to see if they noted any commonalities between the cases or circumstances along whatever parameters they might have deemed relevant. Nor did the department respond to questions about whether an abstract of factors attending each of the deaths was collated, such as the time of the suicides or medical emergencies, level of staffing in place at those times, location, supervision in place, rapidity of response, appropriateness of response, ready medical care in place, vulnerabilities and shortcomings that could be redressed, or other factors. The department did not provide a statement as to what set of facts drove the investigators to the conclusion that those deaths deemed suicides were in fact suicides and not homicides.
Over the last two years, there have been seven lawsuits filed on behalf of at least 41 current and former West Valley Detention Center inmates against the county, the sheriff’s department, sheriff John McMahon and both named and unnamed sheriff’s department employees alleging abuse of inmates at West Valley Detention Center. Among the attorneys representing those inmates are former San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Stanley Hodge, as well as Jim Terrell, Sharon Brunner, American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Melissa Goodman and the law firm of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt.
In March 2014, roughly two months before the first of the lawsuits was filed, four sheriff’s department employees working at the jail were witnessed being “walked off” the premises by FBI agents.
At least seven deputies who worked at the West Valley Detention Center – Brock Teyechea, Andrew Cruz and Nicholas Oakley, Robert Escamilla, Russell Kopasz, Robert Morris and Eric Smale – have been fired. Two civilian jailers with the last names of Stockman and Neil were identified in the original lawsuit filed in May 2014 as having participated in the abuse. Their status at the jail is not known.
Yet all of that occurred before the current spate of deaths at West Valley began last year, and it would be impossible for any of those disgraced deputies to have had a hand in the Mesa, Davis, Jones, Lundberg, Cordova, Munoz, O’Brien, Zuniga, Guardado or Paul deaths.
The department would venture no response to the Sentinel’s inquiry as to whether a homicidal avenger might be ensconced among the deputies now serving as jailors at the West Valley Detention Center.
Jodi Miller, an official spokeswoman for the department acknowledged that Davis had been murdered in his jail cell by his cell mate. Mesas’s death, she insisted “was a suicide.” She similarly cataloged the Jones and Lundberg deaths. And she maintained, the deaths of Munoz, Cordova, O’Brien and Zuniga were “medically related.”
As alarming, or at least concerning, as the deaths in San Bernardino’s jails in 2015 and early 2016 have been, they contrast favorably in terms of numbers with deaths that occurred in neighboring Riverside County’s jails in the same time frame. Riverside County has a general population – 2.3 million – that is only slightly larger than San Bernardino County’s 2.2 million. Both have comparable jail populations. Yet in the first eight months of 2015, a dozen inmates in Riverside County’s jails died.
Keith Bushey rose to the position of captain with the Los Angeles Police Department and was later the marshal in San Bernardino County before that office was merged with the sheriff’s department and he was given a deputy chief assignment with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. He retired from the department a decade ago, but in 2012 he was among the candidates considered by the board of supervisors to succeed Rod Hoops when he retired as sheriff mid-way through his first elected term. Ultimately, the board of supervisors selected John McMahon to succeed Hoops. Bushey was in Lubbock, Texas this week, lecturing in seminars on law enforcement issues in conjunction with an FBI training program. He briefly spoke with the Sentinel telephonically between seminars on April 6, responding to questions about the uptick in deaths in the San Bernardino County jail system over the last year and potentially discernible patterns.
After offering the disclaimer that “I’m not in the loop over there anymore,” Bushey said that the vast number of deaths at West Valley versus the department’s other facilities might be an indicator that something is “out of balance” but that the more substantial inmate population at West Valley might account for the statistical lopsidedness in terms of fatalities.
He said the medically-related deaths of relatively young inmates might be accounted for by the “lifestyle choices” of many of those who are incarcerated generally, including drug use and other risky behaviors they may have engaged in before they were incarcerated. Such behaviors, Bushey said, may have damaged their health. As for the suicides, Bushey said, “Suicides in a detention setting are always a concern.”
Bushey said that whatever the case, he was absolutely confident the sheriff was not neglecting the problems at West Valley.
“With that many lawsuits filed over the conditions there, I can guarantee you John McMahon is not ignoring what is going on,” Bushey. “The department might not have a handle on what is happening, but they are not ignoring it.”

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