Responding to a string of jail killings, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca promised the Board of Supervisors in January that deputies would make hourly safety checks on inmates, a pledge that one supervisor said was broken in the April strangling of an inmate by the man he testified against.
If Baca had carried out the promised security reforms, the death of jailed witness Raul Tinajero could have been prevented, Supervisor Gloria Molina said Friday. Baca had assured supervisors months ago in closed-door meetings that his deputies would stop the rise in jail killings that began in October.
But security lapses led to Tinajero's April 20 killing, allegedly by a suspected murderer who was allowed to leave his cell and wander the Men's Central Jail for hours looking for Tinajero's cell.
Deputies failed to notice Tinajero's body -- or suspected killer Santiago Pineda hiding in Tinajero's cell -- for four hours. Tinajero had testified against Pineda in a murder trial and was supposed to be given special protection under a judge's order.
The security reforms Baca promised in January, Molina said, were not supposed to be "a paperwork process to get Molina off my back. It is supposed to be about fixing [the jail]. And, I've got to tell you, that is not what is going on in this department."
Baca, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, said Molina was trying to scapegoat his department.
"This grandstanding and tongue-lashing isn't going to solve anything," said Baca, who has apologized for Tinajero's killing.
Pineda passed through at least four security barriers where jail deputies should have discovered that the Wilmington man was in restricted areas and stopped him, according to sheriff's officials who provided new details Friday about the lapses that led to Tinajero's killing.
The first breach took place at 5:12 a.m. when Pineda used a court pass belonging to another inmate to leave his cellblock, Module 3800 on the third floor of the five-story jail, which holds about 7,000 inmates.
Pineda took an escalator down to the first floor and joined a line of inmates preparing to go to court. Deputies discovered Pineda and ordered him back to his cell.
In a second lapse, Baca said, jailers failed to escort Pineda back to his third-floor cell, allowing the 23-year-old suspected gang member to roam the jail floors for about five hours.
Sheriff's officials said they could not explain how he was able to walk around undetected and unescorted, even though he was dressed in a jail T-shirt and pants.
Pineda took the escalator to the second floor of the facility, where there was no checkpoint, Baca said.
Once there, Pineda somehow evaded detection by deputies when he entered Tinajero's cellblock, Module 2200. Entry to individual rows of cells is restricted by secure chambers with double doors, called sally ports.
At least one guard is required to monitor access through the double doors. Once a person is secured in the locked chamber between the doors, guards are supposed to verify the individual's identity before unlocking the door leading to the cellblock.
Pineda passed through the double doors unchallenged and walked down a row of cells to No. 13. He was able to enter Tinajero's cell and strangle the 20-year-old Wilmington man, who was asleep on his cot, officials said. Pineda threatened the other cellmates into silence.
Pineda waited in the cell until about 2:20 p.m., when one of the inmates was authorized to leave for class, Baca said. Pineda followed the inmate out of the module, and again was unchallenged by deputies manning the double doors, eventually returning to his own cell on the third floor.
Despite a rule requiring deputies to check cells every hour, jailers didn't discover Tinajero's body until four hours later, when a cellmate phoned his lawyer, who alerted deputies.
Supervisors and Baca have traded barbs over the management of the county's 18,000-inmate jail system all week. The dispute erupted into the open at a Sheriff's Department budget hearing Wednesday.
The board, which controls the budget but not the operation of the nation's largest jail system, said Baca must restore order at the County Jail, which has averaged two homicides a year since 1997.
A string of five killings began Oct. 21. Ki Chul Hong, 34, had just arrived at Men's Central Jail to serve a five-day sentence for prostitution when he was chased by rival gang members and stabbed 36 times. His body was wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a trash bin. His corpse was discovered 16 hours later by inmates sorting trash.
The killing prompted supervisors to press Baca for security reforms, particularly in the hourly monitoring of inmates. In early December, two inmates drunk on bootleg liquor allegedly beat 33-year-old Stephen Prendergast to death overnight without guards noticing either screams or the smell of alcohol during hourly checks. The inmates have been charged with murder.