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Death Stirs Debate Over Use of Force

In San Luis Obispo County, critics see a pattern and a problem in the way sheriff's deputies treat suspects.

March 22, 2004|Sally Ann connell | Special to The Times

SAN LUIS OBISPO — The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office are investigating the death of a 23-year-old man who collapsed in the county jail March 6 and never regained consciousness.

Keith Henderson Yecny died March 13 after he was taken off life support at the request of his family. His death has resurrected critics' concerns about the use of force by Sheriff's Department employees.

Yecny's parents have questions: How did their son's body get so bruised? Did someone mishandle his mental health medication?

San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges said autopsy and toxicology reports on Yecny are not final, and that he will not speculate on what caused Yecny's collapse in the jail. Because Hedges serves as both coroner and sheriff in the county, his office brought in an independent pathologist from outside the region to do the autopsy.

Hedges said the county correctional officers involved in subduing Yecny are still working at the jail. He said his department will conduct an internal investigation into the death, and that he has requested an investigation by the office of Dist. Atty. Gerald Shea.

Yecny's death follows the Aug. 18 death of Jay A. Vestal, a postal worker and motorcycle gang member who died of asphyxiation during his arrest by sheriff's deputies in northern San Luis Obispo County.

A third case, settled last summer for $2 million by the county, involved a man who reportedly suffered brain damage during his arrest by sheriff's deputies in 2001 in the bay-front community of Los Osos.

Critics say the deaths suggest a pattern.

"It seems to me that this is a Sheriff's Department which emphasizes use of force as a first resort," said Penny Harrington, a former Portland, Ore., police chief who has retired to Morro Bay.

She is lobbying in the community for outside auditors and civilian oversight of the Sheriff's Department.

"Rather than talking to people, rather than trying to de-escalate situations, they are into a very old 1950s, 1960s style" of policing, Harrington said.

A crowd of 250 attended Yecny's memorial Thursday at the base of Cerro San Luis Obispo, known locally as Madonna Mountain.

Two small planes did a flyover at the ceremony's conclusion as a woman sang Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." The Yecny family owns Air San Luis, a flight school, charter service and Cessna dealership.

"He was just really a sweet kid," Christine Yecny said of her son last week. "He wouldn't hurt anything."

He had lived with his parents at the ranch-style home where he grew up near the San Luis Obispo Airport.

Keith Yecny was taking three medications for the mental illness known as schizoaffective disorder, which causes people to have the mood swings associated with manic depression and the sometimes delusional hallucinations of schizophrenia.

Christine Yecny said her son had seemed to find the right balance of medication recently after struggling with a condition that did not set in until after high school.

San Luis Obispo police officers stopped Yecny on the night of March 5 at the south end of town for driving erratically. One officer wrote in his report that Yecny was sweating, acting fidgety and told the officer, "I have to get out of here. They are following me."

Yecny was cooperative and made certain admissions about methamphetamine use, and possession of stolen credit cards, the report alleges. Such cards and a white substance, which tested positive for the drug, reportedly were found in his car.

After police took him to a local hospital for blood and urine samples, Yecny was booked into the county jail after 1:15 a.m. March 6 on charges ranging from possession of stolen property to being under the influence of a controlled substance.

After dawn, Hedges said, mental health workers met with Yecny, and a nurse gave him medication. After that, Yecny seemed to grow more agitated, and he started splaying his fingers on the wall and jumping around, the sheriff said.

When a nurse went into the cell to check his vital signs, he became aggressive, Hedges said. It took five or six correctional officers to place Yecny on a restraint gurney, Hedges said. Yecny collapsed when he was transferred to a rubberized room and removed from the gurney, officials said.

Yecny's family said they were told by doctors at the emergency room that he was prevented from breathing for up to eight minutes. The family didn't identify the doctors.

Hedges disputes claims made by some in the community that his department employees are poorly trained for dealing with violent or stubborn individuals.

"We do not have complaints of deputies using force on people who do not actively resist deputies," Hedges said.

In the case of Vestal, attorneys have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking damages from the county on behalf of Vestal's two young children. Four of the deputies who helped arrest and restrain Vestal remain on administrative leave.

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