The so-far unexplained death of an inmate at an Orange County jail 12 days ago is drawing interest from two county supervisors, in response to the man’s mother publicly asking for answers.
Anthony Aceves, 37, was found unresponsive in his bed the morning of May 23 at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, according to the Sheriff’s Department, which said he was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
His mother, Diana Alvarez, on Tuesday told county supervisors she hasn’t been able to get any answers from sheriff and DA officials about how her son died.
When a coroner official told her of her son’s death, Alvarez said, “he assured me that somebody from the sheriff’s department would be calling me. [And that] somebody from the DA’s office would be calling me.”
“It’s been 12 days and no one’s called me,” Alvarez told the supervisors.
“I don’t know anything. I can’t even see my son. I can’t bury my son. I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, adding her son had schizophrenia.
Two supervisors, who rarely respond to public commenters, said they would have their staff follow up on Aceves’ concerns.
“I thank you for being here with your comments. Can you give you name and contact information to my chief of staff?” said supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, asking her chief of staff to raise his hand.
“We’re gonna follow up with the various departments and be able to work with you on this,” Bartlett said.
Supervisor Don Wagner later asked Bartlett to have her chief of staff tell his chief of staff what he finds, which Bartlett said she would do.
Sheriff officials, in a statement Tuesday, said Aceves’ cause of death was pending while the coroner division of their department finishes its death investigation.
“There were no obvious signs of trauma on his body,” sheriff officials said in a statement through spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
Braun referred questions about what happened leading up to Aceves’ death to the DA’s office, which is investigating Aceves’ death as it does all in-custody deaths in Orange County.
A DA spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Braun said Aceves’ remains were made available for release late last week, about a week after Aceves’ death.
Last year, a grand jury found almost half of deaths in Orange County jails could have been prevented through low-cost diagnosis and treatment of medical issues.
In October, a federal judge found county officials let OC inmates go without psychiatric care for five weeks when their psychiatrist took a leave of absence.
And on Tuesday, the county grand jury released a new report expressing concern that jail staff do not check vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure, on many inmates booked into jail.
“Performing vital signs on all inmates could protect the health of inmates entering the Orange County Jail system…by reducing the risk of a cardiovascular incident due to undiagnosed hypertension,” the grand jury wrote.
“Besides saving lives, this could help reduce the cost to the Orange County taxpayer of having to send inmates to an outside hospital for treatment while at the same time providing potential savings by reducing prospective civil litigation.”
Additionally, the grand jury found inconsistencies between medical reports by jail staff and paramedics who responded to incidents, which appear in DA investigation findings known as custodial death reports.
“Some descriptions of inmate deaths or medical histories were inconsistent with other records describing medical care provided to those inmates,” the grand jury wrote.
Six members of the public addressed county supervisors Tuesday to express concern about Acaves’ death, including his mother.
“We cannot turn a blind eye to this. There is a highly disturbing history of deaths in Orange County jails,” said Daisy Ramirez, Orange County Jails Project coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in comments to supervisors Tuesday about Aceves’ death.
“A man has died while under the care of this county,” said Michael Tucker, an advocate with the Orange County Racial Justice Collaborative.
“Committing a crime should not be a death sentence,” he added, asking supervisors to encourage a full investigation of Aceves’ death and for sheriff officials to communicate with the family.
Tucker went a step further, calling for the county to remove coroner death investigations from under the Sheriff’s Department, which staffs the jails.
“I ask that you separate roles of sheriff and coroner, since combining those roles results in a clear conflict of interest when investigating things that happen within the jails,” he said. Supervisors didn’t respond to the idea.
In their report last year, grand jurors found dozens of deaths involved jail staff failing to notice and document “obvious health issues,” assigning inmates to cells with people who had contagious diseases, failing to diagnose contagious diseases, and other issues.
“Over the last three years, 44% of custodial deaths in Orange County jails may have been preventable,” the grand jury wrote.
“Delays in treatment, failure to identify health threats at intake, failure to diagnose serious mental illness, and lack of timely referral to a healthcare professional have increased the chances that an inmate will not make it out alive. Modest changes in procedures at a relatively low cost could improve survival rates.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.