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O.C. to Pay Family in Inmate Death

Courts: Supervisors will settle the jail brutality suit for $650,000, a county record. Money goes to victim's two kids.

June 13, 2002|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the largest jail brutality settlement ever in Orange County, the Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to pay $650,000 to the family of an inmate who died from head injuries allegedly inflicted by sheriff's deputies.

Gilbert Garcia's two surviving children contend in a civil rights lawsuit that deputies beat their father shortly after he was booked into the county's Intake Release Center in Santa Ana on May 30, 1998.

Thirty minutes after the inmate's arrival, a jail nurse checked Garcia's cell and noticed him vomiting what appeared to be blood. Garcia was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died two days later.

Coroner's officials said he died of internal bleeding caused by a fractured skull.

Deputies have denied any role in Garcia's death and point to a district attorney's investigation that concluded Garcia suffered his head injury before he was admitted to the jail.

Nevertheless, supervisors voted 4 to 1 in closed session to approve the settlement. The dissenting vote was cast by Todd Spitzer, who declined to comment until the agreement is finalized by a judge in the next few weeks.

The family's attorneys said Garcia's children, ages 12 and 6, will receive nearly $300,000 as part of the settlement. The rest of the award will pay their attorneys' fees.

The highest previous settlement for a brutality case in the jail system was for $100,000. That case involved a 43-year-old inmate who died in 1995 after fighting with deputies. From 1991 to 2000, the county paid out a total of $445,000 in injury claims filed on behalf of inmates.

While the civil case is now closed, Garcia's death continues to draw scrutiny from federal authorities. Last year, the FBI launched a probe of Garcia's death to determine whether deputies violated his civil rights. The case is one of five similar probes into claims of brutality by deputies in the Orange County Jail.

Attorneys for Garcia's family criticized how the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office conducted their investigation and called on officials to refer the case to the grand jury for a more independent review.

"It's one of the worst cases I've ever seen in terms of how strong the evidence was and the nature of the injuries," civil rights attorney R. Samuel Paz said.

But Garden Grove police, who originally arrested Garcia, said they reviewed the case and believe he was injured before entering jail.

"We were convinced that his trauma did not occur while he was in custody," Sgt. Mike Handfield said. "It's still an open, unsolved homicide case."

Garcia was arrested by three Garden Grove police officers after he was seen banging on the sliding glass window of a stranger's apartment. Garcia smelled of alcohol, according to police reports.

The officers noted in reports that Garcia did not appear to have any injuries, and witnesses said police treated him well. Police discovered that an arrest warrant had been issued for him for drunk driving, so one of the officers drove him to the county jail.

A jail nurse examined Garcia and also noted that he had no obvious bruises, investigative reports show.

But Garcia appeared very drunk, slurring as he spoke, so deputies escorted him to a cell to sober up.

Grainy jailhouse surveillance footage shows Garcia on the floor of his cell with deputies inside removing his shoes. The inmate's family says it was then that deputies beat him.

An autopsy found that along with his fractured skull, three of Garcia's ribs were broken. His chest, arms and face were badly bruised and cut. The doctor who conducted the autopsy told investigators that some of the bruises were days old.

Sheriff's officials declined to comment until the settlement is final.

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