A man jailed on non-violent charges was killed last summer by his cellmate, who about two months earlier had confessed to killing a homeless man, county prosecutors said Tuesday.
Danny Pham was close to finishing a six-month sentence for non-violent auto theft on July 3, 2017, when he was found dead in his cell.
Days before Pham’s death, Sheriff’s Department officials placed him in a cell with Marvin Magallanes, who police say confessed about two months earlier to murdering a homeless man, and then tried to plead guilty in late May 2017 to murdering two homeless people. Pham was previously homeless, according to his family.
“Please note that our office concluded that Marvin Magallanes, a fellow inmate of Mr. Pham, is criminally culpable for the death of Mr. Pham,” the DA’s office wrote in a May 15 letter to the Sheriff’s Department, which was made public Tuesday.
“The OCDA is proceeding with prosecuting inmate Marvin Magallanes for the death of Mr. Pham,” it added.
The letter, by Senior Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, also states the available evidence “does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any employee of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is criminally culpable for the death of inmate Pham.”
The DA’s office is looking at filing murder charges against Magallanes, according to DA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden. The case is expected to be filed after mental competency proceedings regarding Magallanes are resolved, she said.
Until Tuesday’s announcement more than 10 months after Pham’s death, the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office had declined to say if Magallanes was a suspect, citing an ongoing investigation.
On May 12, 2017, Magallanes walked up to Anaheim police and confessed to killing a homeless man, according to police.
Later that month, Magallanes said he wanted to plead guilty to the murders of two homeless people in October 2016 and January 2017, but the judge declined to accept his plea and started the mental competency proceedings, according to the Orange County Register.
On June 4, 2017, Magallanes “assaulted and battered” a jail staffer identified as “Deputy Hicks,” according to a legal claim by Pham’s family.
Sheriff’s officials then placed Pham, who did not have a history of criminal violence in Orange County, in the same cell as Magallanes days before Pham’s death, according to the Register.
“Prior to Danny Pham’s murder, Magallanes expressed an open hatred of homeless people. Danny Pham had been homeless prior to his incarceration and was collecting toiletry items because he expected to be released in mid-July 2017 and be homeless again,” states the claim from Pham’s family.
“This fact was widely known to his fellow [Module] J inmates and all of the deputies on [Module] J.”
On July 3, Pham was injured around 7:20 a.m. He was pronounced dead at the jail about four hours later by Orange County Fire Authority staff, shortly after 11:30 a.m., according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Pham’s family alleged in their claim that Pham’s murder was captured on jail security video, and that Sheriff’s Department officials knew about it immediately.
“On July 3, 2017 at approximately 7:20 am., Magallanes murdered Danny Pham by strangling him. The entire crime was recorded on cameras aimed at the cell where Danny Pham was killed,” the claim states.
“At approximately 11:10 a.m…a jail employee noticed that Danny Pham was not breathing and immediately administered CPR. Within 30 minutes [the] video recording of Danny Pham’s Murder was reviewed by a Sheriff’s Lieutenant and other staff present in [Module J],” the claim states.
“The Lieutenant immediately determined that Danny Pham was murdered. However, the official entry regarding cause of death states ‘in custody death cause unknown.’ ”
Asked if Pham’s killing was captured on video, Van Der Linden said she checked with the prosecutor on the case, and he “said that all evidence is pending litigation and will be provided to the defense.”
Magallanes had tried to plead guilty to two murders, so “he should have been separated out from all the other inmates,” said Michael Giusti, the lawyer for Pham’s family, in an interview Tuesday.
“They put him in with Danny Pham, who only had less than 10 days left to serve” in jail for a “very minor” incident, Giusti said.
“This was a criminal act that sheriff’s [deputies] committed by putting a confessed murderer with a guy who was not at all violent,” he added. “No matter who they put him in with, he was likely to kill again. And he did.”
In its announcement Tuesday, the DA’s office said the current evidence is insufficient to bring charges against Sheriff’s Department employees. There was no explanation of the evidence it reviewed or its legal analysis.
Asked why the DA’s office found the evidence doesn’t support charges against sheriff’s employees, Van Der Linden said that information wouldn’t be released until the full report, after the yet-to-be-filed prosecution is over.
“Consistent with OCDA policy, and since there is currently a pending criminal case in connection with this incident, the OCDA will not release the more detailed letter regarding this incident until after the criminal case is resolved,” the DA’s office stated in its May 15 letter announcing the pending charges.
Asked about the overall criticism that Pham shouldn’t have been placed with Magallanes to begin with, Braun said it will be part of an internal affairs investigation.
A total of five sheriff’s employees – four deputies and a correctional services assistant – were placed on paid administrative leave in July 2017 in connection with Pham’s death.
One deputy returned to work about three weeks later, and the other four employees remain on leave, Braun said. “We began moving forward with the administrative investigation last week once we obtained the letter from the DA,” she said.
As for the claims that safety checks on Pham and his cellmate weren’t performed as often as they were supposed to be, Braun said “that’ll be absolutely part of the internal affairs investigation.”
Sheriff’s Department policy requires staff to perform safety checks on inmates at least once every hour.
Based on the publicly-available timeline, roughly four hours passed between the time Pham was suffocated and when a sheriff’s employee noticed his body and began to give medical aid.
Failure to ensure deputies are properly conducting safety checks has been a recurring issue at the county jails.
Last year, a county grand jury found a January 2016 jail escape was aided in part by deputies’ failure to properly check on inmates.
The counting failure helped give the escapees, who were being held on violent criminal charges, as much as a 15-hour head start before their absence was discovered, according to the grand jury.
Three inmates – who were awaiting trial on violent charges of kidnapping and torture, attempted murder, and murder – escaped through a plumbing tunnel in January 2016 and spent over a week on the run before they were captured. During that time, they held a taxi driver captive at gunpoint for days and debated whether to kill him.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens agreed the escape was aided by a “lack of supervision” and oversight at the Central Men’s Jail to ensure counts and searches were properly performed and documented.
While Hutchens agreed that serious failures by her jail managers enabled the jailbreak, she did not fire or demote anyone over it.
Her letter agreeing about the counting problems was issued June 16, about two weeks before Pham’s death.
Pham’s family filed a legal claim against the county in January over his death, but as of Tuesday hadn’t filed suit.
It unclear when a decision will come regarding Magallanes’ competency. DA officials have said they’re waiting for the competency decision before they prosecute him for Pham’s death.
Asked Tuesday what the coroner’s investigation found to be the cause of Pham’s death, Braun referred comment to the DA’s office, saying the report had been handed to the prosecutors’ office. The Sheriff’s Department oversees the county coroners in Orange County, who determine causes of death.
Van Der Linden, the DA spokeswoman, said information about what the coroner found will be made public as part of a “full report” after the upcoming prosecution over Pham’s death “has been adjudicated.”
Asked why it took 10 1/2 months to announce Pham had been killed in the jail, and whether anything delayed the determination that Magallanes killed him, Van Der Linden said: “The investigation process takes time,” and includes “making sure that all the evidence is reviewed and all facts [are] considered.”
Staff writer Thy Vo contributed to this article.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.