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Five Homicides In L.A. County Jail Blamed On Security Lapses; 25 Sheriff's Deputies May Be Disciplined

Five Homicides In L.A. County Jail Blamed On Security Lapses;
25 Sheriff's Deputies May Be Disciplined

by Marvin Mentor

After investigating five brutal prisoner-on-prisoner slayings in a six month period inside the Los Angeles (L.A.), California County Jails, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors reported that L.A. County Sheriff's deputies fell down on the job" by allowing huge lapses in jail security. The lapses and policy violations may lead to twenty-five deputies being disciplined.

With a daily prisoner population of 18,000, L.A. County's jail system is the size of 31/2 California state prisons. It houses misdemeanants and felons of all degrees of dangerousness, 6,400 of whom are in the aging Men's Central Jail. Sheriff Lee Baca was called on the carpet when gaping holes in jail security permitted rival gang members access to each other and permitted mutual access to informants and the defendants they were testifying against with predictably fatal results. While two in-jail murders per year had been the County Jail's average," five in the six month interval from October, 2003 to April, 2004 triggered major investigations.

Killings In Dorms

The first killing was on October 21, 2003, when 34 year-old Ki Chul Hong arrived at the Central Jail to serve a five day sentence for prostitution. Rival gang members Jae Cho (a murder defendant) and Kyu Hon Lee, who were working as trusties," stabbed him 36 times, wrapped his body in a blanket and stuffed it in a trash bin. It was discovered 16 hours later by prisoners sorting the trash.

The second murder occurred on December 8, 2003 when Stephen Prendergast, 33, was in a holding cell with 57 prisoners awaiting transfer. Prendergast had just returned from court on drug charges. The reason for the beating death was unknown, but pruno-compromised Rafael S. Ferman, 22, and Jonathan Newell, 20, awaiting trials on weapons charges were charged with Prendergast's murder.

The very next day, transient Mario Alvarado, 24, was killed in the Reception Center adjacent to the downtown Twin Towers jail. Alvarado had been arrested for spousal abuse. He died from asphyxia and multiple head injuries inside the holding cell of 50 prisoners awaiting transfer. His blood was spattered across adjacent walls from the violent beating. Timothy Trujillo, 25, a Highland Park gang member, was booked for the murder.

Kristopher Faye, 21, awaiting trial for residential burglary, was killed in a fight on January 12, 2004 involving up to 200 prisoners in the Central Jail. He was stabbed with makeshift knives 26 times in the arms, chest and neck, as well as hit and kicked, by three prisoners. No arrests have been made.

Witness Is Attacked

Tony Shane Wilson was a witness who had testified in a San Fernando valley murder case. On March 27, 2004, he was slashed with a homemade knife requiring 200 stitches by another prisoner who used a ruse to leave his cell to attack Wilson. Wilson, a former Nazi Low Rider gang member with a long record, told interviewers, I'm a big guy, I'm a bad guy." But after testifying in exchange for a lighter sentence, he said I was scared for my life." Less than 24 hours after testifying, he sat alone in his cell under a court order for protection, waiting for dinner. At 4 p.m., a prisoner trusty" delivered Wilson's meal. The trusty fumbled the tray, and as Wilson reached through the bars to save his dinner, the trusty cut a 5 inch slash across Wilson's face and neck. When Wilson yelled for help, a nearby deputy simply remained on his phone call. Other prisoners tried to drown out his pleas for help, taunting the joke's on you." Wilson's attacker, Porfiro Avila, is a gang member convicted of two murders, including the killing of a witness, who had already been sentenced to life without parole. He was allegedly doing a favor for the Mexican Mafia gang.

Wilson, in turn, had been facing a possible 29 years-to-life as an accessory after-the-fact in a murder. After testifying against his crime partners and pleading guilty to accessory, he was promised a maximum sentence of three years. But Wilson was kept in the same part of the Jail as his co-defendants so close he could hear them talking through the vents. Sheriff's Deputy Ray Leyva said that prisoners in Wilson's area were only allowed out of their cells singly to take showers or perform duties such as food delivery and trash pickup. This work was supposed to be supervised, but Avila was alone at the time. He was supposed to be a keep-away. I had no idea that other inmates would be feeding him," Leyva said. Wilson had had a real dilemma. He felt that if he did not testify and get the crime partner locked away, that person would go free and kill him on the streets or worse he would go to prison for the rest of his life.

Killer Roams The Jail

Then on April 20, 2004 despite a court order for special protection in the jail Raul Tinajero was allegedly killed by murder defendant Santiago Pineda, whom Tinajero had testified against. The bizarre story begins at 5:12 a.m. with Pineda using a court pass of another prisoner to leave his cellblock on the third floor. He took an escalator to the first floor and joined a line of prisoners going to court. Deputies spotted him and ordered him to go back to his cell, but they did not escort him, leaving him to roam around the jail alone for five hours, wearing a jail T-shirt and pants. Using the apparently unsecured escalator, Pineda went unchallenged to the second floor where he entered Tinajero's cell block. Entry to these blocks is through a double-door sallyport, where in between the two doors, guards check the person's identity before opening the second door. But Pineda made it through and walked to Tinajero's cell. There he was able to enter and strangle Tinajero, asleep on his cot. Pineda threatened other prisoners into silence, then waited in the cell with the body for four hours, leaving at 2:20 p.m. by following another prisoner who was permitted to leave the block for a class. Again, he was permitted through the sallyport screening, and returned to his third floor cell. Despite a rule requiring hourly cell checks -- the repeated failure to comply with having been documented already back in December, 2000 Tinajero's body was not discovered by deputies until four hours later at 6:20 p.m., when a cellmate phoned his lawyer to alert authorities. Tinajero's body was found with a ligature around the neck and a shoe-shaped bruise on the neck.

Still, the violence continued. On May 24, 2004, Pico Rivera was beaten into a coma by four prisoners in his 98 bed dorm at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. Sheriff's Captain Ray Peavy said it was just an in-house disagreement among inmates.

Investigations Ordered

L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley created a task force to investigate the murders and propose reforms. Office of Independent Review civil rights attorney Rob Miller was installed as a monitor inside the Central Jail. State Senator Gloria Romero toured the death cells and commented, This seems even more dismal that I've seen [in] some state prisons ... A dark, dank, depressing, deplorable confinement of space." As to chronic understaffing of jails statewide, Romero said, Essentially, LA. County is a canary for the state of California, a sign of things to come.

Angry county supervisors asked a grand jury to inquire into Tinajero's killing. Sheriff Baca, who has long complained of severe understaffing in the jails due to budget cuts, admitted that staff violated jail rules at least four times during Pineda's four hour soiree. One unnamed prosecutor stated he had handled several cases in which witnesses and defendants were placed on the same jail bus and even in the same cell. At a State Senate hearing on the deaths, L.A. jail officials laid the fault to lack of funding for technology to keep track of the 51 categories of L.A. Jail prisoners. Senator Romero stated, I do hold Sheriff Baca accountable. I am dismayed by Baca's response for being out of compliance [for two years].

Jail officials admitted security breakdowns with keep-away" prisoners. While they are isolated from defendants they are testifying against, they are not isolated from friends or associates of those defendants, even if a judge has ordered maximum protection. It is quite possible that while walking unescorted to medical, visiting or attorney rooms, they will cross paths with assailants. One proposed solution is to rehouse such keep-aways" in city jails instead, although the District Attorney's office complains of the $75 per day cost for such outsourcing.

Adding to Baca's woes, on June 20, 2004, 50 year-old Gustavo Ortega, a misdemeanant insulin-dependent diabetic, was released from the Central Jail at 2 a.m. without medicine or someone to pick him up. On crutches from a recent foot amputation, he simply lingered in the release lobby for three days, until deputies discovered" him there after frantic calls from his family seeking his whereabouts. Without meals or medicine, he grew steadily weaker, dying with his possessions, some clothes, a dollar bill and two slices of bread.

Reports Recommend Changes

On August 5, 2004, the preliminary report on the five deaths issued from the Office of Independent Review. Finding repeated failures to challenge prisoners' identity, to conduct hourly checks and ultimately to protect prisoners, the scathing report recommended discipline for up to 25 sheriff's deputies. But with 950 prisoners streaming into the jail every day, many with urgent medical problems, the resulting overcrowding still forces them to sleep, without mattresses or bedding, on cold concrete floors sometimes for days. An ACLU-obtained court order for mattresses is often ignored, said Jody Kent, an ACLU legal advocate. On one day, 398 prisoners waited to be seen by the two doctors and eleven nurses for their intake testing and screening. L.A. guards its 18,000 prisoners with 2,100 deputies, in contrast to New York City, where 9,500 jailers guard 14,100 prisoners.

On September 16, 2004, District Attorney Cooley issued his 32 page report, recommending L.A. County establish a Witness Protection Unit. It also recommended installing telephone monitoring equipment, housing endangered witnesses in separate facilities, updating wristband technology to permit electronic monitoring of movement, and using civilian workers instead of prisoner trusties.

Security Breaches Continue

County Supervisors already received a vivid reality check on May 14, 2004 when Sheriff Baca gave them a tour of the jail to demonstrate the need for more deputies. A scant four hours earlier, two escape attempts had been foiled. In the first, prisoner Jose Pena (already serving 40 years to life, but back from prison to stand trial on a burglary charge) attacked a guard with an unloaded TEC-9 pistol. In the neighboring cell, guards found the prisoners had acquired a 16 pound sledgehammer, bolt cutters, and a makeshift rope; a floor jack was on the window ledge. The rope had apparently been used to pull the contraband through broken cell windows from the street several floors below, where a suspect was waiting by adjacent railroad tracks for a pending escape.

More Funding

In Janaury 2005, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors awarded the jail an additional $24.4 million in funds, which is still $44.6 million less than the jail had for custody operations in 2001. The lack of funds has led sheriff Baca to release some 120,000 sentenced jail prisoners early for lack of staff and hosuing. The prisoners are typically serving short misdemeanor sentences of less than a year. Under the jail's early release plan they are released after serving some 10% of the sentence. With the additional funding they can now expect to serve 40 to 50% of the sentence. Baca had requested $79 million over three years for additional staff and security measures in the jail.

In early February, 2005, special counsel Merrick Bobb issued his report on the jail and noted that it is nightmarish to manage" and has lax supervision and a long standing jail culture that has short changed accountability for inmate safety.
Bobb recommended that the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles be closed and replaced with newer, smaller facilities. A move rejected by the sheriff as costing more than $1 billion.

Bobb recommended that the jail change its classification system to better protect prisoners and also increase staffing levels.
Given the long known problems in the jail it remains to be seen if anything will be done to resolve its problems.

Source: Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Daily Journal.

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