Incarcerated 67-Year-Old Beats 47-Year-Old To Death In West Valley Detention Jail Cell

Further questions have been raised about the safety of inmates who are under the care and supervision of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department following the brutal death of an inmate earlier this month.
The homicide detail of the sheriff’s department’s specialized investigations division is looking closely at an in-custody incident that occurred at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, which ultimately resulted in an inmate’s death after he was removed to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton for medical treatment.
According to the department, Michael Follet, a 67-year-old Yucaipa resident is suspected of beating Steven Puskar, a 47-year-old San Bernardino resident to within inches of his death on October 2, 2022.
That day, deputies at West Valley Detention Center were alerted to a problem inside a cell in the housing unit they oversaw. When they responded, the deputies found Puskar suffering injuries and unresponsive. Lifesaving measures were taken and Puskar was transported to the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, the main campus of the county hospital, in Colton. Puskar remained in the care of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and on October 9, 2022, was pronounced deceased.The sheriff’s specialized investigations division’s homicide detectives have assumed the investigation. Investigators conducted numerous interviews and an extensive investigation. Puskar’s cellmate, Michael Follet, was interviewed and on October 13, 2022, was booked for PC 187-murder.
Steven 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 charges of unlawful use of tear gas, being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, assault, exhibiting a knife and resisting arrest.
The San Bernardino County jail system, run by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, has for generations been a hostile and dangerous place for those incarcerated therein. A succession of the county’s sheriffs at least since Frank Bland and including Floyd Tidwell, Dick Williams, Gary Penrod, Rod Hoops, John McMahon and now Shannon Dicus, have evinced a degree of insensitivity to the safety of those relegated to their department’s custody over the years. Bland, who was elected sheriff in 1954 and sworn into that post in 1955 and then was reelected six times and served until 1983, freely admitted that jails were supposed to be and in fact were unpleasant places, and that the experience of jail and prison was intended to make a lasting impression on those consigned to them. Whatever experience those in jail underwent, Bland maintained, was a consequence of their own criminal acts.
While there was certainly a degree of truth in what Bland expressed, the management of the jail system and humane attitude of those managers contributes in no small degree to the safety and well being of those housed in county’s various detention centers. The safety of those inmates historically has not been the sheriff’s department’s highest priority.
There has been an information blackout with regard to Follet and Puskar. According to the sheriff’s department, both had previous criminal convictions on felony charges. The San Bernardino County Superior Court’s website, however, references no criminal cases for either other than those previously stated pertaining to Puskar’s June 29 arrest and Follet’s September 24 arrest. It is thus not publicly known at present the type, seriousness and number of their prior offenses. It is not known whether their convictions were recorded in another jurisdiction than San Bernardino County or whether the data with regard to their convictions locally had been scrubbed from the court’s 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.
The charges that were in play against both at the time of Puskar’s death suggest each was prone to physical violence. Based upon their relative ages, it would seem that Puskar represented the greater physical threat to Follet rather than the other way around, although other relevant detail with regard to such a consideration, such as the size, weight and health of each is not at this time available to the Sentinel.
One detail that was available from the court records relating to the case against Follet was that the district attorney’s office appeared to be making a serious run at Follet, having charged him as of September 27 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 firearm or deadly weapon 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 of tear gas by a convicted felon; and a misdemeanor charge of battery against a peace officer.
It is further known from the court record that 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.
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.
A gap in the communications between the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office and the court is observable in the court file in that the record for a disposition hearing scheduled for Puskar on October 14, 2022 before Judge Bilash, five days after his death, states that the defendant “failed to appear.”
Extrapolating on available information, it appears that the sheriff’s department placed into an enclosed cell two individuals with demonstrated propensities for physical violence, one of whom had a diagnosed mental illness for which he had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication which he was reluctant, resistant or refusing to take. While it is not known for certain, it does not appear to be the case that there was video surveillance of the cell in which Puskar met his end. The sheriff’s department personnel had the option of housing either or both Puskar and Follet in a dormitory setting, i.e., a communal cell housing up to a dozen or more inmates, which is subject to video monitoring.
Unknown is what, precisely, passed between Puskar and Follet in the hours, minutes or seconds before Puskar’s death. Did Puskar threaten his cellmate, leading to what Follet deemed to be a need to defend himself? Was Puskar blindsided by Follet? Were things initiated by Puskar and terminated by Follet? Did one or the other make a sexual advance that turned fatal? Did Follet sadistically and pointlessly murder the hapless Puskar for the hell of it? Did Puskar step out of line with some gangland types who enlisted Follet to administer punishment that was meant to merely send Puskar to the infirmary but which instead brought him to the coroner’s table? Did the powers that be – either a shot caller among the inmates or a deputy or sergeant among the jailers – come to the conclusion that Puskar had it coming and give Follet a signal that they wanted him to solve a problem?
The sheriff’s department has a challenging assignment with its Central Jail in San Bernardino, the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, The High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga and its smaller holding facilities around far flung 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County. Keeping a handful of criminals or those who are criminally charged under lock and key presents difficulties. Housing a few dozen or score of those who have broken the law or at least are accused of doing so, many of whom lack social grace, who are embittered and are experiencing having their freedom curtailed becomes intractable. When that number jumps to 5,193, the average daily population of the sheriff’s detention facilities, keeping at least some of those inmates from harming each other looms as impossible. Even under the best of circumstances, the safety of those who must live and work in that environment cannot be guaranteed.
At the top of the sheriff’s department, in the ivory tower of sheriff’s headquarters at 655 East 3rd Street in San Bernardino, Sheriff Shannon Dicus, Undersheriff Horace Boatwright, Assistant Sheriff Robert Wickum, Assistant Sheriff Sam Fisk, Deputy Chief John Ades, Deputy Chief Rick Bessinger, Deputy Chief Chris Fisher, Deputy Chief Shelley Krusbe, Deputy Chief Trevis Newport, Deputy Chief Robert O’Brine and Deputy Chief Sarkis Ohannessian can be honestly said to want to avoid both injury and deaths to the department’s jails inmates to avoid liability and damage to the department’s reputation. All of them are now by many years – indeed decades – removed from the everyday, every hour, every minute, every second down and dirty and mean and brutal reality of the jails. An entirely different ethos applies there. In polite company no one will admit it, but violence – or the hint of it, the threat of it and more often than anyone lets on the use of it – is the watchword there. Deputies, their fists in rawhide gloves, participate, for if they do not, they will not long be deputies. Just as the jailers must be obeyed, so too must deference be given to the leaders of those who are incarcerated. There is a dance between the jailers and the jailed, between the sheriff and the captains of criminal industry that everyone involved knows takes place. Beatdowns occur. Discipline must be maintained. There is a shadow hierarchy within the jail, a culture that has existed for generations, and the shot callers are part of that hierarchy. If they are not obeyed, chaos is the result. From rare time to rare time, someone needs to die. The rationale for that is hard to understand for those who are not involved in law enforcement or criminality. For those that are, it is a given. Quite simply, some people have worn out their welcome – with the gang leaders, with the gangs, with their fellow inmates, with polite society, with the politicians, with the sheriff himself, with his department, with his deputies or with the community in general. And all in the sheriff’s department – from Shannon Dicus to the undersheriff to the assistant sheriffs to the deputy chiefs to the captains to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the detectives to the deputies on the street to the recent academy graduates working the jails – understand that some people need to go, and they let it happen.
Steven Puskar (1974-2022) went.
-Mark Gutglueck

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