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Inmate dies after Taser use

The O.C. prisoner was shocked in his jail cell last week. Two probes begin as some workers are put on leave.

April 03, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

An Orange County jail inmate catastrophically injured during a struggle with sheriff's deputies a week ago has died from his injuries and the department has placed several employees on administrative leave, a coroner's official said Wednesday.

Jason Jesus Gomez, 35, lost consciousness March 25 after deputies shocked him with Taser electric stun weapons during an altercation in his cell at the Intake Release Center in Santa Ana. He spent one week on life support and died Tuesday evening.

The district attorney's office is investigating the events that led to Gomez's death, which came amid increasing scrutiny of the department's oversight of the county jails.

Interim Sheriff Jack Anderson placed several employees on paid administrative leave Tuesday pending the outcome of an internal-affairs investigation, the department said in a statement. The action does not imply that they did anything wrong, the statement said.

Anderson also retained Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, to monitor the investigation of Gomez's death.

Last month, a special grand jury sent Anderson a scathing letter criticizing the department for failing to involve prosecutors in the investigation of the 2006 death of jail inmate John Chamberlain, as policy requires. He responded by saying the department would involve prosecutors in future inmate deaths and promote public transparency of all investigations.

On Friday the interim sheriff asked the district attorney's office to conduct a criminal investigation into the latest incident. On Wednesday evening, the department released the first public details on the confrontation that resulted in Gomez's death.

Jail staff entered Gomez's cell after he injured a nurse's arm and exhibited "erratic behavior," the statement said. A struggle ensued in which Tasers were used.

Several jail staff members suffered minor injuries -- including a bitten finger, bruising and blood exposure when Gomez spit at staff, the statement said.

Gomez stopped breathing while awaiting the arrival of medical transportation, according to the statement. Jail medical staff and deputies administered CPR and paramedics took Gomez to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana by ambulance.

The extent of Gomez's injuries were unknown, and it was initially reported that he would survive, the statement said. On Friday, when it became clear that the injuries were life-threatening, the department notified the district attorney's office.

The Sheriff's Department is conducting an internal review to determine whether employees followed policy, and the district attorney is investigating to determine whether any sheriff's employee violated criminal law while restraining the prisoner.

Gomez had been sentenced March 20 to 90 days in jail for violating terms of his probation, which was the result of a 2006 conviction for displaying a firearm and cultivating marijuana, court records show. He pointed the gun at a neighbor in Anaheim during an argument about a fence, according to the records.

An attorney said Gomez violated his probation by failing to report to a probation officer.

Gomez's aunt, Marsha McWhorter, said the family was grief-stricken about what happened and wanted answers, saying that Gomez was in very good health and that his death didn't make sense.

McWhorter, 67, who lives in Tennessee, said the family encouraged Gomez to turn himself in and do his time so he could put it behind him and focus on raising his year-old child.

McWhorter said her sister -- Gomez's mother -- was seriously ill and had not been told about her son's death. McWhorter said that the family knows Gomez was not a saint and had a criminal record, but that he did not deserve to die.

"I just had to say my piece because I'm so disgusted about what happened," McWhorter said during a telephone interview.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com christine.hanley@latimes.com

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