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Cover Story

Why have jail suicides soared under Sheriff Ortiz's watch?

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

Photo: , License: N/A

Inmates that have taken their lives at the jail under Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz's watch: Robert Rodriguez (above), Adrian Rodriguez (below)

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Rodriguez had a long history of addiction and mental health problems, says his mother Sylvia Gonzales. In a tearful interview this month, she recounted how at age 4 he was molested by a man who had been living with the family. Rodriguez could never get the counseling he needed, she said, and by the time he was a teenager drugs and alcohol kept him bouncing in and out of the criminal justice system. "It affected his whole life. Adrian never felt complete, he never trusted people," she said. "He always had nightmares." Family members note Rodriguez had recently completed a rehab program and was holding down a steady job before his arrest. Gonzales and Jeanette Guajardo, Rodriguez's older sister, said they've yet to get answers or records from the county explaining the death.

Leroy Sanchez, was found in his cell on July 25, 2011, a week after his 25th birthday, hanging from a torn T-shirt. He died at Santa Rosa hospital days later. Records from the jail only indicate that he had a "bad " phone call before dinner that night.

Roger Peters, found hanging by a towel in his cell, was the jail's fourth suicide of 2011. Other inmates in his unit discovered him the morning of October 14, 2011, and called out for help. Peters had a history of credit card abuse and boosting cars. Officers were unable to locate an Ambu-bag, used for resuscitation attempts, in the unit. One detention capitain's report noted, "there is no indication that anyone began CPR attempts, chest compression, or rescue breathing, prior to medical assistance arriving."

One responding officer wrote that "at no time did inmate peters approached (sic) me with any problems or talk about hurting himself, or thoughts of suicide. At no times inmates discuss or approached (sic) me of inmate Peters having bizarre behavior or talking about committing suicide."

Like other families of inmates who have died in custody the Current spoke with, Peters' father says he has never been given a full account of what happened to his son. "The sheriff's office has been completely uncooperative," said father Roger Peters, Sr. He wanted medical examiner reports, incident reports, a list of guards and inmates there at the time of his death. "All I kept getting was the vanilla responses. It became clear they were never going to explain this to me."

The family has many unanswered questions. Peters had been in jail a number of times before — on previous charges, he'd opted for time served in lieu of paying off fines. "It wasn't like jail was this big, frightening thing for him," said stepmother Debra Vinson.

Of the four wrongful death lawsuits filed against the jail over the past two years, three involved suicide — Harlan McVea, Jonathan Ramirez, and Nicholas Tucker. The other involves a woman who died while detoxing from heroin. Pamela Anguiano was left "unmonitored for an egregiously long period of time in her cell," according to claims in the lawsuit. Anguiano's death remains a mystery for her family. A medical examiner's report, an autopsy, and toxicology report "shows no injuries or natural disease process that would indicate a cause of death." Jail officials haven't come forward with an explanation, says Anguiano's mother, Gloria Bustos.

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