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Ailing Inmate Was Free but Never Made It Home

June 20, 2004|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

When Gustavo Ortega was released from the downtown Los Angeles County Jail in the middle of the night, he did not go far.

An insulin-dependent diabetic, he had just had part of his right foot amputated. Walking was a struggle, so he apparently sank onto a bench in a jailhouse lobby and waited.

A few miles away on the Eastside, his family had no idea that the 50-year-old Ortega -- whose memory was so spotty he sometimes forgot his own phone number -- was free. When his brother Mike went to visit him the next day, he was shocked to learn that his frail brother had been released.

"Released to whom?" Mike Ortega asked.

"To the streets," he said the guard replied.

"I said, 'To the streets? How is that possible?' He was sick. He just had an amputation."

The Ortegas, a close-knit family of seven children and their elderly mother, spent the next two days combing downtown for Gustavo, who had been serving time for several misdemeanors. They checked Chinatown and Olvera Street, the hills of Echo Park and homeless shelters on skid row.

They canvassed the grounds of the Twin Towers jail but did not think to look inside the nearby Inmate Reception Center, where prisoners are admitted and released.

Three days after Ortega's release, sheriff's deputies found him there, where it appears he may have been the whole time. He was so weak he could barely move. He asked, "Can you please give me a ride home?" deputies later told his family.

Instead, paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he died of coronary artery disease, with diabetes, chronic renal failure and hypertension as contributing factors.

Ortega's death April 5 came at a difficult time for the county's jail system, which is run by the Sheriff's Department. Budget cuts have stretched jailers thin, and security lapses have become so common that five inmates have been killed in jail since October.

The department said it followed procedure in releasing Ortega, but officials expressed regret that he seemed to have slipped through the cracks of a huge, often impersonal system that takes in and releases up to 800 inmates a day.

"It's a tragedy if we didn't observe him and the public saw him and didn't do anything," said Sheriff's Capt. Anthony Argott, who oversees the reception center. "This poor guy needed help."

Argott said deputies could have overlooked Ortega because the center is often crowded and some people linger there for many hours.

"We're not trying to get people out and make the lobby pristine. Deputies change shifts, and they may have never noticed this guy," Argott said. "Nobody's listening, but I must say we have a severe, and I must say again, a severe shortage of personnel."

Ortega's family recently asked the Board of Supervisors to investigate his death, triggering an inquiry by the Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight agency that monitors the Sheriff's Department."We need to see what, if anything, the Sheriff's Department did," said Michael Gennaco, the former federal prosecutor who heads the oversight agency. "Certainly there are issues of standards of care, everything from the way he was assessed with regard to any mental health issues to classification and treatment while he was in custody.

"Once he's released, that is something of a gray area," Gennaco added.

Ortega's sad sojourn through the county's courts, jails and hospitals began March 1, when he was arrested for drinking at Whittier Boulevard and Spence Street, about three blocks from the house he shared with his siblings and their mother.

He pleaded no contest and was convicted two days later. Ortega, a father of two who loved to sing and play guitar, would remain in jail for a month until his release just before he died.

The county is required to conduct mental health screenings of all new inmates. Despite what his family called a history of disorientation and memory problems that kept him from working, Ortega was not classified as a mental-observation inmate.

"There's no indication that he complained of any mental health problems during his incarceration, nor was he referred to mental health by medical services," said Dr. Thomas Klotz, the jail's chief psychiatrist.

In jail, Ortega's diabetes caused his feet to swell. His brothers and sisters think he may have forgotten to take off his shoes to relieve the pressure. Diabetics can be at risk of amputation when circulation to their extremities fails.

Ortega was sent to the jail ward at County-USC Medical Center, where members of his family said they tried to visit him nearly every day. Sometimes they were allowed to see him -- resting calmly in a wheelchair -- in the visiting area, they said, but other days they were told he was bedridden and could not come out.

They weren't allowed into his hospital room and could not speak to his doctor, they said, even when Ortega told them that part of his foot, including his toes, would be amputated.

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