Emerging Details On Puskar In-Custody Beating Death Beget Further Questions

The plot has thickened with regard to the already steepening mystery related to the death of Steven Puskar, who died at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center on October 9 as a result of a severe beating administered to him by his cellmate, Michael Kevin Follet, on October 2 while both were incarcerated at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.
Follet was formerly a sergeant with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the agency that runs the West Valley Detention Center.
According to the department, on October 2, deputies found Puskar, 47, of San Bernardino, injured and unresponsive in the cell he shared with Follet. Lifesaving measures were taken, and Puskar was transported to the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, the main campus of the county hospital, in Colton. He expired from his injuries on October 9.Puskar was arrested by San Bernardino Police on June 29, 2021, on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Michael Follet was arrested by Yucaipa Police on September 24, 2022, on six felony charges and a misdemeanor charge after he was found to be in possession of tear gas, and he brandished a knife in an effort to resist being arrested and then was found to have a gun.
The court record with regard to Puskar shows that less than a month after his arrest, during a hearing before Judge David Mazurek on July 19, 2021, a declaration as to the doubt of Puskar’s mental health was made and the proceedings against him were suspended. On September 7, 2021, according to the court file, Puskar was referred to the county mental health director for placement into a mental health recovery program. According to the file, on October 14, 2021, a stipulation and order was filed to the effect that Puskar was “to continue involuntary medication.” On March 29, 2022, the court found Puskar mentally competent to stand trial and the case against him was reinstated.
There were multiple delays, cancellations and waivers of the deadline for Puskar’s preliminary hearing in April, June, July and September, all while he remained in custody. He was yet awaiting trial or some resolution of his case at the time of his beating and death.
In the sheriff’s department’s initial public disclosure on October 17 of what had occurred to Puskar, it misreported the date of his June 29, 2021 arrest as occurring a year later, on June 29, 2022. It also omitted that Follet had been, for 30 years, a sheriff’s department employee.
Follet graduated from the sheriff’s department’s academy in 1976 and was hired as a deputy sheriff in San Bernardino County shortly thereafter. He resigned in 1985 to accept a lateral transfer and then promotion from a different agency, but returned to the department less than three months later, yet in 1985. He thereafter promoted to corporal, then detective and ultimately to sergeant, retiring at that rank in 1999. The following year, he returned to the department, overseeing the department’s emergency operations division’s volunteers before retiring once more, in 2007.
In the years since, Follet, who has a reputation for excessive alcohol use and aggressiveness, had fallen on hard times. As a retired law enforcement officer with San Bernardino County, he was entitled to a annual pension equal to 90 percent of his highest yearly salary while he was serving in the rank of sergeant – an estimated retirement stipend of $99,648 in 2008, which would have grown, based on a three percent cost of living adjustment over the last 14 years to $142,074.22 every 12 months, as of 2022. Follet, however, is not included on the roster of San Bernardino County Employee Retirement Association pensioners, indicating he either took a buyout of his pension or was in some fashion disqualified from receiving it.
At some unknown point after he left the sheriff’s department, Follet was convicted on at least one felony count. A check of court records in both San Bernardino and Riverside counties show no recordation of any felony convictions in either jurisdiction against Follet, which indicates that he was either convicted elsewhere, the record was sealed or information relating to the conviction has been scrubbed from the website.
Similarly, with Puskar’s previous felony conviction, there is no current reference to his previous felony conviction on the San Bernardino County Superior Court website. A civil claim that was filed against Puskar by an insurance company in San Bernardino County Superior Court in 1995 when he was 20 years old suggests that he had been living locally for some time. It is not known whether Follet’s and Puskar’s criminal court records in San Bernardino County, such as they may have existed previous to the charges that were most recently in play against them, were removed from public scrutiny and, if so, when and for what purpose.
On September 24, Follet was arrested in Yucaipa by the Sheriff’s Department on suspicion of a multiplicity of unlawful acts, and on the basis of the sheriff’s department’s allegations the district attorney’s office as of September 27 charged him with felony assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm against a public safety officer in a manner likely to cause great bodily injury; felony exhibition of a knife in an attempt to resist arrest; felony being a felon in possession of a firearm; felony being a person prohibited by consequence of a felony conviction of being in possession of ammunition; felony obstructing or resisting an executive officer; felony possession/use of tear gas by a convicted felon; and a misdemeanor charge of battery against a peace officer.
On September 27 Follet appeared by video for an arraignment before Judge Arthur Benner II, who denied a motion by the deputy public defender representing him for a pretrial release. Two days later, on September 29, Follet appeared for a pre-preliminary hearing before Judge Colin Bilash, who set a preliminary hearing/bail hearing/recognizance release hearing for Follet on October 4, which was ultimately vacated after what occurred on October 2.
There are a number of anomalies about the circumstances that led to Puskar’s death, allegedly at the hands of Follet, that, taken both singly and together, are highly troubling, resurrecting long-established concern about the seeming disregard the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has for the physical well-being of the inmate population entrusted to it.
Historically, there is an undeniable tradition of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department looking after its own. There is episode upon episode ad infinitum going back for at least six generations in which members of the department, their family members and the sheriff’s political supporters were cut breaks that were simply not provided to the rest, or most of the rest, of the county population. Thus, it would have seemed, Follet, as a one-time member of the department, one who had risen to the position of sergeant in its hierarchy, would be, if he were perchance to be caught doing something foolish or questionable or even illegal, cut a break such that he would be let off, perhaps with a stern warning but no more, rather than be arrested, booked, incarcerated, assigned bail and prosecuted. In innumerable cases, his erstwhile colleagues in the sheriff’s department caught up in any number of misdeeds had been accorded just such favorable treatment had been allowed to leave quietly through the side door or back door without arrest and without criminal charges being forthcoming against them. For some reason which is entirely unclear at this point, when Follet after his career of bringing lawbreakers to justice crossed over to become a lawbreaker himself, he was not allowed to walk away and instead sustained a criminal conviction or criminal convictions. Then, last month, when during its normal course of operations the department’s deputies crossed paths with Follet, they did not, as was in their power of discretion to do, allow Follet to pass by unnoticed but rather went so far as to carry out a search of his person and apparently, his vehicle and premises, leading to the discovery of the tear gas canister. The department’s personnel may have had legal clearance and authorization to act as they did, since individuals placed on probation as Follet might have been waive their Fourth Amendment rights against intrusive searches and seizures. Still, in Follet’s case, they did not appear to be acting in keeping with department tradition, by which department members and former department members are given whatever benefit of the doubt the circumstances dictate. With regard to his September 24 arrest, the department not only engaged in the search that involved the discovery of the tear gas canister, it chose to perceive that possession as an offense and further proceeded against Follet for his possession of a firearm and ammunition, behavior typical of former law enforcement personnel who routinely arm themselves with the justification that their multiple encounters with the community’s criminal element in the performance of their duty leaves them lifelong targets of those they arrested and in many cases sent to jail or into extended incarceration in state prison. Rather than accepting, as they normally would, that Folett as a retired peace officer had justification for being armed, despite his status as a convicted felon, those department members took action against him as they would any run-of-the-mill criminal. As is indicated by the charges of felony obstructing or resisting an executive officer, felony exhibition of a knife in an attempt to resist arrest and the misdemeanor charge of battery against a peace officer, Folett perceived the arrest to be unreasonable, and he strenuously objected to it.
On October 1, the sheriff’s department officially initiated “Operation Consequences,” which has been focused on crime suppression operations in the 14 cities and towns around San Bernardino County where it serves as the municipal police department and the unincorporated county areas where its jurisdiction extends, a program involving the department’s gangs and narcotics division targeting known criminals and parolees/probationers, whose persons, premises and effects are open to searches by law enforcement at will because of the terms of their parole and/or probation. The department has not disclosed whether Folett was among those on felony probation who were involved in practice runs for Operation Consequences.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that Follet, perhaps because he had turned to what some in the sheriff’s department considered to be a life of crime in the years following the more than a quarter of a century during which he had been identified as an intrinsic element of the department as one of its members, has not been the recipient of the preferential treatment normally accorded the department’s retirees but is being accorded harsh treatment by the department’s officers because he is now considered a pariah.
Indeed, the circumstances that brought Follet into such close quarter contact with Puskar are raising questions as to whether the department had deliberately placed them together as part of what is now perceived as an ill-advised effort to goad Follet.
As a former law enforcement officer, Follet should have been housed in the West Valley Detention Center’s Unit 13, its protective custody ward. That ward typically holds prisoners whose alleged crimes are likely to be considered egregious or heinous by the general incarcerated population – such as pedophilia, child abuse, child murder, rape, violence against women, crimes against the elderly or disabled – as well as those suspected of being informants or who are witnesses to crimes involving gang activity, as well as law enforcement officers or former law enforcement officers.
Puskar, given his mental issues and the consideration that he had been ordered by the court to resume his ingestion of the anti-psychotic medication he had previously resisted taking or had discontinued, should have been housed in the West Valley Detention Center’s Unit 15, what is referred to as the jail’s secured housing unit or, alternately, its sheltered housing unit. That unit is reserved for those inmates exhibiting what is referred to as “UB,” i.e., unusual behavior or mental issues.
There is a limited universe of housing options within the West Valley Detention Center. Perhaps foremost among those are dormitory settings, ones consisting of communal cells housing up to a dozen or more inmates each. Those are subject to video monitoring, in many cases using multiple cameras positioned at different locations around each cell, offering a variety of perspectives to jail personnel who view the footage from a secure location. Those communal cells are easily and immediately accessed by the teams of jailers on duty. Some of the less restricted housing consists of dorms with as many as 48 men.
The smaller cells in several of the jail’s designated units are typically occupied by a single or usually no more than two inmates. While those cells are theoretically subject to video monitoring, reportedly most are not. In most cases, the visual perspectives on those cells are limited. Moreover, there are so many of those smaller holding areas and the number of personnel to monitor those possible videos so few that keeping a constant watch on the activity within the smaller individual cells is unrealistic, if not impossible. Based on the statements put out by the sheriff’s department with regard to Puskar’s death, it does not appear that there was video surveillance of the cell in which Puskar met his end. If that capability existed, it seems the department had not actuated it at the time Puskar and Follet were involved in their deadly interaction.
It is not clear whether they were in Unit 13 or Unit 15. A case could perhaps be made that Follet’s actions that led to his arrest – storing or utilizing tear gas, running the risk of being sent to prison for violating his parole by possessing a gun, ammunition and a tear gas canister and then brandishing a knife and actively resisting arrest when he was confronted by law enforcement officers, ones who were members of the same department in which he served – qualified as unusual behavior or the manifestation of mental issues that would account for his placement in Unit 15. Nevertheless, the decision to house him with Puskar, who had a diagnosed mental illness for which he had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication which he had previously been reluctant, resistant or refusing to take, and who, like Follet, had been arrested for engaging in a violent act, is a problematic one, it now turns out. Certainly, placing Follet, who according to the sheriff’s office less than a month previously had engaged in a felony assault with a deadly weapon in a manner likely to cause great bodily injury, in the same 110-square foot cell as Puskar, whose assault on a person unknown with a deadly weapon had sent him into one form of confinement or other for more than 15 months, created a match that had deadly consequences.
At this point, the sheriff’s department is not offering any explanation as to why it simply did not place Follet in a cell of his own within Unit 13.
Yesterday, Thursday, October 27, in an appearance before Judge Richard Peel V, Follet was arraigned on Penal Code 187 murder charges. He pleaded not guilty. Peel has scheduled a pre-preliminary hearing for November 9 in Department R15 at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse for Follet on the Penal Code 245(C)-F assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm by means likely to produce great bodily injury upon a peace officer charge; the Penal Code 417.8-F exhibition of a deadly weapon with the intent to resist arrest charge; the Penal Code 29800(A)(1)-F felon in possession of a firearm charge; the PC30305(A)(1)-F felon in possession of ammunition charge; the Penal Code69-F resisting an executive officer charge; the Penal Code 22810(A)-F unlawful use of tear gas; and the Penal Code PC243(B)-M misdemeanor resisting arrest charge. Judge Peel scheduled a preliminary hearing for Follet on those charges for November 9, also in Department R15.
That same day, Follet is to appear in Department R15 for a pre-preliminary hearing on the murder charge and come back on November 19 for a preliminary hearing on the murder charge.
Follet, who was previously represented by Deputy Public Defender Jerome Macht, is no longer being represented by the public defender’s office after it made a conflict-of-interest motion in a request to be relieved as Follet’s counsel. He is now being represented by Michael Duncan of the court’s panel of conflict attorneys on the charges growing out of his September 24 arrest and William Morales, also of the conflict panel, is representing him on the murder charge.
He is being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Eric Ta and Deputy District Attorney Pierpaolo Repetto.

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