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Grieving Family Awaits Inquiry Into Its 2nd Jailhouse Death

July 19, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

The last time her family saw Vicki Avila alive, she was being carried out of her La Habra house on June 10 by four La Habra police officers. She was handcuffed and shackled but unharmed.

Even so, Gary Avila said he went home and told his wife: "I'm never going to see my sister again. It's a gut feeling, but I know I'm right."

Less than 30 hours later, the news came: Avila, 31, who was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer, had died at Orange County Jail. Relatives said that days later, they received permission to view her body. They said purple welts covered her arms, her nose was ink black and her skin was cut.

Authorities have not determined the cause of death. The Orange County district attorney's office -- which is investigating the case -- La Habra police and the Orange County coroner's office declined to comment, citing the investigation.

For Avila's family, her death and the tight-lipped authorities are wrenchingly familiar.

Five years ago, Gary Avila Jr. -- Vicki's 18-year-old nephew -- was killed by a cellmate the day he was taken into custody at Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield.

"I keep asking myself: 'What are the odds of this happening twice in one family?' " said Gary Avila, 43, a land surveyor for Los Angeles County who also lives in La Habra.

Another brother, Gilbert, 47, a warehouse worker who lives in Mira Loma, said he and other relatives were angry at the lack of information about Vicki Avila's death.

"There's no closure for us without information," he said. "I don't know how she could go in the way she did and come out dead."

An investigation into the 2001 death of Gary Avila's son by The Times showed prison guards had missed warning signs that the young man's cellmate posed a threat. Officials may have violated prison policies by placing Avila, who pleaded guilty to being a gang member, in a cell with a psychiatric patient whom the state Department of Corrections had deemed dangerous enough not to be placed with other inmates.

The Avila family said the lack of information from Orange County officials had made them suspicious about how Vicki Avila died.

"Something happened to my daughter, and I want them to tell me what it is and I want them to pay for it," said Ana Maria Avila. "She was killed in there. She should be here with me now."

She said a representative from the district attorney's office told the family only that she had collapsed in a jail infirmary and could not be resuscitated.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Jon Fleischman said jail videotapes and other evidence had been sent to the district attorney, standard procedure in jail deaths.

The Avila family was also upset about how members were informed of the death.

They said that on June 11, four men -- two identifying themselves as La Habra police officers and two saying they were from the district attorney's office -- rang the doorbell at the family home.

Ana Maria Avila said a district attorney's investigator began the conversation by repeatedly asking whether her daughter had a medical condition.

"I kept saying, 'Why are you asking?' " she said. "He finally said, 'Because she's dead.' "

She said she broke into tears and cried, "That can't be."

She said she told the men to wait until son Gary could come over, which they did.

"I asked them: Who was with her when she died? Where was she? What happened?" Gary Avila said. He said the investigator told him that he was "not going to get into the details right now."

Ana Maria Avila said she seeks solace in her daughter's bedroom.

Left behind are the signs of her daughter's struggle with alcohol. There was a card for local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a Bible and a book about how movie stars overcame addictions. There were photographs of her children, who by court order live with an uncle because hospital staff found alcohol in Vicki Avila's body when she gave birth to one of them.

On the day she was arrested, relatives said, Vicki Avila had been despondent about drinking. They said she wanted help and called police hoping to get it.

Gary Avila said he believed her sister hit a police officer because the officer had wanted to take her into custody.

In 1999, Vicki Avila was charged with child endangerment and driving under the influence of alcohol. After that, records show, she had several court appearances, participated in treatment programs and spent time on probation.

Relatives said Vicki wasn't a violent person. They said she was mostly annoyed with herself because she couldn't kick her habit. She never held a job. She had two children, 11 and 5, but never married, they said.

Despite her shortcomings, authorities "don't have the right to operate with immunity," Gary Avila said. "Whatever she did, whoever she was, we still are owed answers."

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