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2 Deaths in 2 Days at Jails Being Investigated

November 10, 1987|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer

Authorities Monday identified the second man to be found dead in two days at an Orange County jail facility as Roscoe Ben Shirley, 38, who was serving a six-month sentence at the James A. Musick Honor Farm in El Toro for drunk driving.

Jail officials and prosecutors investigating the deaths refused to disclose how Shirley died Sunday at the minimum-security Musick facility.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Mark Robert Ernst had been found hanging from a bedsheet in the main men's jail in Santa Ana. The Sheriff's Department said Ernst, 34, had hanged himself. He was being held on a burglary charge.

"Basically, all I can really tell you is that we've got investigators assigned to each one of those," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who is in charge of the inquiries into both deaths.

A jail spokesman said no evidence of foul play had been found in Shirley's death but referred all other questions to Brown.

The deaths brought to 11 the number of inmates who have died in county custody in the last two years and renewed a complaint from American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Richard Herman about the way the jail system is being managed.

"As we've seen by the two deaths this weekend, if anything can go wrong in the jail, it will go wrong," said Herman, whose lawsuits have led to court-ordered reforms in County Jail operations. "The people who run the jail still haven't a clue as to how they should run it."

Shirley's mother, Helen Shirley of Yucaipa, said she was told by authorities that her son had been found dead in a shower shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday, but she said they told her little else.

"So far, they know absolutely nothing," she said. "They know no more than I do."

Shirley served two tours of duty as a Marine in Vietnam, court records show. A probation report listed four drunk-driving convictions. He was sentenced to six months in jail on the last conviction and began serving his sentence in September, according to court records.

Shirley twice wrote letters to judges, asking for early release. He wrote that he was wrong, that he was sorry and that he wanted out.

Helen Shirley said her son expressed no worries about life in Musick but wanted to get out.

"He was very, very repentant," she said. "He didn't want to be in there. He wanted to get out and get back on his feet."

On Monday, county officials confirmed that they had agreed to pay $55,000 to the widow of a retired Army major who died after contracting pneumonia in County Jail.

Frank R. Burns Jr., died in January, 1986. His widow, Helen, claimed that Burns, then 75 and suffering from a severe respiratory disease, was not given adequate medical attention after he was picked up for drunk driving.

Burns spent 12 days in the jail. Because of his condition, he needed oxygen day and night, but jail officials failed to provide it, according to lawyer Herman, who is representing Burns' widow.

In settling the lawsuit, the county acknowledged no responsibility for Burns' death, which came 60 days after his release from jail.

The case was "highly defensible," according to county claims manager John L. Oskins Jr., who agreed to the settlement Friday on behalf of the county. Oskins said he felt "comfortable" settling the litigation, considering the costs of taking the case to trial.

Shirley's was the first death in the Musick facility this year. Last year, Alvin Swafford, a Musick inmate, was taken to a nearby hospital and died of heart problems. It was classified as death by natural causes by the coroner's office.

Ernst was the fourth death in the main men's jail in Santa Ana this year, and the seventh since the beginning of 1986, Lt. Richard J. Olson said.

Two of those deaths were classified as due to natural causes, Olson said. In 1986, Thien Thanh Lam, a 17-year-old being held in a juvenile detention cell, committed suicide. Authorities also classified the death of Juan Ceja this year as a suicide.

The Jan. 17 death of John Franklin Wilcox and the Jan. 31 death of Arthur Oviedo, both of whom were in the jail's medical facility, led to the arrest of their cellmate, Jerry Thomas Pick, on murder charges.

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