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Monterey County Sheriff’s Office Poised for Much-Needed Cleanup

by Kevin W. Bliss

California’s Monterey County Sheriff’s Department (MCSD) was under the spotlight in October 2022, when two “Jane Doe” lawsuits were filed accusing now-retired Undersheriff John Mineau of sexually harassing a pair of co-workers. But the agency has been embroiled in ethical issues at least since ex-Sheriff Steve Bernal’s censure by the county’s Board of Supervisors in May 2021, for using MCSD personnel and resources when hosting the 2019 California State Sheriff’s Association annual convention.

The Monterey County Jail (MCJ) has also been the target of civil complaints, including five filed by civil rights attorney Lori Rifkin over preventable deaths. She won a $1.1 million settlement in April 2016 for the suicide of prisoner Joshua Claypole, who hanged himself with a bed sheet after he was denied mental health medication when he was admitted to the jail. [See: PLN, Apr. 2018, p.58.]

Rifkin also won a $2.8 million settlement in 2018 for the family of another suicide victim at the jail, 52-year-old Sandra Vela. The following year, in February 2019, Rifkin secured a $1.6 million jury verdict for the family of Mark Pajas, Sr., 56, who was rammed on a bicycle by a cop and then left to die detoxing from heroin at the lockup. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.42.]

A month later, the County reached a $350,000 settlement with the family of Jacob Parenti, 33, who was six months into a one-year sentence for marijuana possession when he died at MCJ, allegedly of misdiagnosed influenza. [See: PLN, July 2019, p.43.]

The attorney’s latest suit was filed on behalf of detainee Rafael Ramirez Lara, 57 at the time of his death in 2019. Lara drowned in his own vomit after compulsively drinking an excessive amount of water from the toilet. He had mental illness diagnoses that allegedly went ignored by the jail’s private healthcare contractor, Wellpath, as well as a deputy assigned to check on Lara. The deputy heard the toilet continuously running and even saw a pool of water coming from the cell but did nothing. The lawsuit was reportedly settled for $2.5 million in October 2022.

            MCJ negotiated a settlement in 2015 in another federal lawsuit that included an agreement to substantially improve the general care and health care provided to detainees and convicted individuals. [See: PLN, Apr.2016, p.18.]

Adding to the problem is misconduct by MCSD leadership. On October 7, 2022, Cdr. Dustin Hedberg was placed on administrative leave pending investigation into allegations that he accepted pain medication stolen from the supply for prisoners by Christina Cruz Kaupp, who worked as a nurse supervisor for the jail prior to being hired by Wellpath as regional director.

As head of special operations, Hedberg was responsible for oversight of MCSD’s search and rescue, SWAT and aviation squads, as well as handling security contracts for county events. He and Kaupp reportedly enjoyed a close working relationship. Hedberg had recently undergone surgery and needed the pain medication which Kaupp pilfered from the jail. She was immediately fired, but Hedberg could not be terminated without an investigation.

One week after Hedberg was relieved of duty, Detective Sgt. Bryan Hoskins, a 20-year MCSD veteran, was also placed on administrative leave. Hoskins gained fame investigating John Fickas, a former high school coach and political consultant who once worked for former Sheriff Bernal. Fickas is currently serving a 28-year prison term for drugging and raping girls on the North Salinas High School field hockey team that he coached.

Hoskins is being investigated for allegedly unearned overtime pay. His 2021 pay totaled $437,000, including $263, 996 in overtime, making him MCSD’s highest earner.

Undersheriff John Thornburg was appointed to replace Hedberg on the search and rescue and aviation squads. Thornburg has faced criticism himself for not pursuing allegations of sexual harassment against his predecessor, Mineau.

Former City of Marina police chief Tina Nieto defeated MCSD Cpt. Joe Moses on November 8, 2022, to become the new Sheriff-Coroner of Monterey County. Campaigning against the ethical issues recurring in the department, Nieto noted that Moses enjoyed close relationships with Kaupp, Thornburg, and Hedberg. She called this a problem that her election would solve with “a leadership team that models my values of integrity, fairness, transparency, and honesty, not just when they join my team, but they must have demonstrated these values throughout their entire careers.”

Nieto is the first woman, first Hispanic and first openly LGBTQ sheriff in the county.

Additional sources: KSBW, Salinas Californian, Voices of Monterey

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