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Four Dead in One Month in San Bernardino County Jails, $3,232,500 in Settlements Paid So Far

by Douglas Ankney and Casey J. Bastian

A spate of jail deaths in California’s San Bernardino County dating back to 2017 has led to at least four legal settlements totaling $3,232,500. Two additional settlements netted another $35,000 for detainees allegedly beaten by guards. Meanwhile one of the most recent jail deaths, on December 29, 2023, was the fourth in that month alone.

That’s when a 29-year-old detainee died at the county’s West Valley Detention Center (WVDC) following discharge from a week-long stay in a hospital intensive care unit. His name was not released pending notification of his next of kin. Two others didn’t make it out alive from WVDC earlier in December 2023: Gustavo Ramirez, 73, and Diana Newton, 34, died on December 16 and 19, 2023, respectively. Newton had been jailed about two months on suspicion of arson and reportedly suffered from serious medical problems. The county Sheriff’s Department (SBSD) said that Ramirez also had serious medical issues when he was jailed in May 2023 for alleged sexual assaults.

Rounding out the month, Corey Bennett, 50, died at the county’s High Desert Detention Center (HDDC) on December 2, 2023, a day after he was accused of attempting to smuggle drugs into the lockup when remanded from the county courthouse for grand theft and possessing a stolen vehicle.

The death spree extended the body count in county jails to 12 for 2023—one dead detainee every month, on average. That’s one-third higher than the 15-year average recorded from 2006 to 2020, when a total of 124 detainees died in 180 months. But that average masks a spike that dates back six years, including the fatal March 2019 beating of Robert Vernon Sutton, 58. The mentally ill WVDC detainee was killed by cellmate Lager George Reid, 26, who had previously attacked two other people, including a jail nurse. Reid is now in state prison, and Sutton’s family was paid $857,500 in April 2021, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.60.]

$285,000 Settlement for Alleged Fatal Medical Neglect of Harry Simmons

The county paid a $285,000 settlement in May 2021 to the family of Harry Simmons, 60, after the detainee was allegedly left to die without medical treatment on September 29, 2017. A friend found Simmons unresponsive and called for an ambulance, which transported him to Hi-Desert Medical Center. But SBSD deputies decided to transport him to the home he shared with his mother, Cynthia Ames. When they arrived and removed Simmons from their patrol vehicle, he was unable to walk without assistance, “appeared extremely lethargic,” and his “physical condition was so poor that he could not even sign the ticket to be cited and released,” according to the complaint Ames later filed on her son’s behalf.

She prevailed on deputies to transport Simmons to a hospital. But they changed their minds and instead took him to Joshua Tree Jail at SBSD’s Morongo Basin Station. There he was allegedly left unmonitored in a cell for “several hours” before he died. Though jailers were aware of Simmons’ condition, he was denied “proper medical screening and medical care,” according to Ames’ complaint. The settlement she accepted included costs and fees for her Victorville attorneys, Sharon J. Brunner and James S. Terrell. See: Ames v. Cty. of San Bernadino, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:18-cv-01362.

SBSD Lt. Sarkis Ohannessian “refute[ed] claims that our inmates are not getting the care they need,” calling procedures for the 83,000 people booked into county jails every year quite effective and faster than those at public hospitals. Citing a $10.8 million contract to expand mental health programs, Ohannessian said: “Our success rate in getting criminal defendants back in court to stand trial has been remarkable to say the least.”

By that metric perhaps the county’s jail system is successful. However, the number of in-custody deaths and hundreds of prisoner complaints belie any notion of “appropriate and expeditious medical care.” The Berkely-based Prison Law Office stated in a 2016 class-action that jail “medical, mental health and dental care is so deficient that it is harming the people it aims to serve.” Ames’ attorney Jim Terrell won a $1.9 million settlement in May 2018 for the family and children of Betty Lozano, who died after being “dumped” into a “sobering cell”, where she was left semi-conscious and nude from the waist down for seven hours until her July 2017 death.

$190,000 for Suicide of Albert Snell

State prisoner Albert Snell had a documented history of in-custody suicide attempts when he arrived at WVDC in September 2017 to face additional charges for possessing an unauthorized beard trimmer in his cell at the nearby state lockup in Solano. He was also on antidepressants. Yet nurse Didi Kabuya failed to get him on suicide watch—so he wound up in a cell with a bedsheet that he used two days later to fatally hang himself.

Almost two years later, his mother, Eugenia Snell, read news coverage of the ongoing deaths in county jails, by that point totaling 30 in three years. She realized that the neglect her son suffered was part of a systemic problem. She filed suit, which Defendants moved to dismiss for untimeliness. However, Snell argued that the statute of limitations should not toll from the date of death but from the date she learned via news reports that the jail had a deadly problem and knew about it.

The state Superior Court for San Bernardino County decided, pursuant to Santee v. Santa Clara Cty. Office of Educ., 220 Cal.App.3d 702 (1990), that the question of timeliness was for the jury to decide, since “this fact-intensive issue adds the benefit of holding the government accountable for lapses in care” that resulted in so many other deaths. In March 2021, the county agreed to settle with Snell’s estate for $90,000, and jail medical contractor Liberty Healthcare ponied up another $100,000. Both payments included costs and fees for Snell’s attorneys, Shannon L. Gustafson of Lynberg & Watkins, APC in Orange and Dev Das of Geragos & Geragos in Los Angeles. See: Snell v. Cty. of San Bernardino, Cal. Super. (Cty. of San Bernardino), Case No. 1914964 and 1901684.

$1.9 Million for Withdrawal Death of Betty Lozano

Brunner and Terrell, along with co-counsel Dale K. Galipo of Woodland Hills, secured a $1.9 million settlement in March 2019 for the minor children of Betty Lozano, 34, a woman with bipolar disorder who was allegedly “dumped” into a “sobering cell” and left unattended for seven hours at HDDC before she died on July 26, 2017.

Lozano had already been arrested once that day on suspicion of being on drugs. After her release, SBSD deputies responded to another call and found her on the street, nude from the waist down. She reportedly began to experience some sort of medical emergency while en route to the jail in the back of their patrol vehicle. Nevertheless, they put her in a wheelchair—still half-naked—and rolled her into a cell, where surveillance video then showed she began to twitch, vomit and defecate on herself as she slowly died. But no one saw it in real time because guards failed to check on her, and she wasn’t even screened by a nurse—both violations of jail policy, according to the complaint later made on her behalf.

That was filed by her mother, Maria Stoflett. The settlement she received for Lozano’s minor children, H.L. and N.L., included costs and fees for her attorneys. See: Stoflett v. Cty. of San Bernardino, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:18-cv-00279.

$35,000 Paid for Two Guard Beat-downs

On July 30, 2021, the County of San Bernardino and WVDC guards Luke Van Ginkel and Arthur Enriquez agreed to pay $15,000 to Michael Flores for beating him in November 2018. Finding the detainee sitting on a table, Van Ginkel allegedly hit him in the head and told him to “get on the floor,” where both guards, wearing metal knuckle gloves, beat him unconscious.

Afterward Flores said they held him in a room for hours while threatening more violence if he reported the incident. Eventually a nurse sent him to a hospital, where his injuries were photographed. Yet when Flores filed a complaint, the guards claimed he was fighting them. The payout he received included costs and fees for Brunner and Terrell, who also represented him in his suit. See: Flores v. Cty. of San Bernardino, USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:20-cv-02305.

Another WVDC detainee beating by SBSD Deps. Walter Kazee and Taylor Wetzel resulted in a $20,000 settlement paid in January 2021 to Ramon S. Lopez. After his July 2017 arrest, WVDC surveillance video captured Wetzel as he grabbed Lopez and threw him through a corridor into the booking room. Using an “arm bar,” the deputy then slammed Lopez into the cement near the door. Both Wetzel and Kazee then beat him—without provocation, he claimed—until he lost consciousness. The video also captured Lopez being denied medical care as a nurse walked past his unconscious body lying in a puddle of blood.

Also represented by attorneys Brunner and Terrel, Lopez filed suit, noting that in just three years from 2014-2016, “33 inmates filed lawsuits alleging torture by the County and its Deputies,” most involving Tasering and a painful stretching of the arms in “chicken wings.” In support of this claim, at least eight different lawsuits alleging excessive force and other constitutional violations by the County and deputies were cited. His settlement also included costs and fees for Brunner and Terrell. See: Lopez v. Cty. of San Bernardino, USDC (C.D. Cal.) Case No. 5:19-cv-01295.

“There needs to be reform. There needs to be massive change,” said Terrell. “I’m being contacted by [detainees’] family members at an alarming rate.”  


Additional source: San Bernardino Sun

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Related legal cases

Ames v. Cty. of San Bernadino

Snell v. Cty. of San Bernardino

Flores v. Cty. of San Bernardino

Lopez v. Cty. of San Bernardino

Stoflett v. Cty. of San Bernardino