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Cops, Guards Beat Mentally Ill Arrestee to Death as Jail Nurse Watches; $5 Million Settlement

by Ed Lyon

It is estimated that around 20 percent of prisoners have a serious mental health condition, and due to the criminalization of mental illness in the United States, the mentally ill are more likely to end up behind bars than in a psychiatric facility.

The tiny city of Willits is located in Mendocino County, California. Despite its small size, the city’s police department has adopted modern, humane policies concerning people with mental health problems. Rather than jailing someone who is having a psychotic episode, police officers are required to take them to a hospital. However, the mental health facility in Mendocino County had closed, and when officers had to take mentally ill patients into custody, they were required to transport them to the next county and wait through the admittance process. 

On the evening of June 11, 2014, Willits police officers Kevin Leef and Jeff Andrade apparently felt it would be less trouble to jail Stephen Neuroth on false charges instead of taking him to the adjoining county’s mental health center. The two cops encountered Neuroth, who was having a mental health crisis, about 10:00 p.m. He was wandering in and out of traffic, dodging snakes that only he could see. Realizing Neuroth was a danger to himself, the officers took him into custody. To avoid a trip to a hospital in the next county, they decided to lie and jail him on a false drug charge. During the drive to the jail, Leef taunted Neuroth by yelling “snakes!” – which exacerbated the psychotic episode Neuroth was having. 

Upon arrival at the jail, Leef told licensed vocational nurse Jennifer Caudillo that Neuroth’s psychosis was drug induced, and that he had been out in traffic on foot. Caudillo reportedly said the cops should have let him be hit by a car. When she conducted the medical intake, her notes showed Neuroth’s heart rate was elevated, his blood pressure high and he was hyperventilating.

When the cops and jailers tried to put Neuroth in a “sobering cell” while he was still in handcuffs and shackles, he slightly resisted. The group then carried an essentially hog-tied Neuroth to the cell. 

For the next – and last – 16 minutes of Neuroth’s life, no less than eight cops and jailers beat him to death. They struck him with closed fists, applied control holds and painful compliance holds like figure four leg restraints with wrist locks, all while dog piling on his neck and back, cutting off his airway. During this brutal assault, nurse Caudillo stood placidly by, watching but not intervening.

An inadvertent audio recording captured Neuroth’s last words: “I’m not a bad guy. Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me. God help me. Please don’t let me die. Please don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me.” 

A synopsis of the coroner’s report listed Neuroth’s causes of death, which included “Blunt force injuries, (contusions, abrasions, avulsions) widespread: Fracture, essentially non-displaced, of the left fifth rib at the costochondral junction: General visceral pressure hyperemia (organ injuries): petechiae, epicardial focal, and other serious injuries.” The complete report detailed 44 separate, distinct injuries from Neuroth’s head to his feet. 

Attorney Michael J. Haddad represented Neuroth’s brother, James, in a wrongful death suit filed in federal district court.

After the judge ordered the case to go to trial, the parties agreed to settle for a total payment of $5,000,000. Mendocino County will pay $3,000,000, while the City of Willits will pay $500,000. Caudillo’s employer, the California Forensic Medical Group (which has since merged with Correct Care Solutions to become Wellpath), agreed to pay $1,500,000. Further, all Mendocino County Sheriff’s deputies and Willits police officers must undergo crisis intervention training on how to properly handle people with mental illnesses. The settlement was reached in January 2019. See: Neuroth v. Mendocino County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:15-cv-03226-RS-NJV. 

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Additional sources: willitsnews.com, pressdemocrat.com

Related legal case

Neuroth v. Mendocino County