Local News

Thursday, Nov 08 2012 06:09 PM

Family wins $4.5 million in wrongful death suit against county

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

The family of a Rosamond man who they contend was beaten to death by four Kern County Sheriff's deputies in 2010 was awarded $4.5 million in its civil lawsuit against the deputies, the sheriff's department and the County of Kern.

A jury found Tuesday that the defendants acted negligently, causing the death of Jose Lucero and serious emotional distress to his parents, Florencio and Lilia, who witnessed the confrontation.

But the county's lawyer contends the use of force was justified and the deputies tried to stop the parents from seeing the incident. The county is considering an appeal.

The deputies, Daniel Willis, Ryan Greer, Angelos Gonzalez and Jonathan Juden, are still employed with the sheriff's department, which referred calls to county counsel. The deputies did not face criminal charges in the death.

On Dec. 18, 2010, sheriff's deputies went to Lucero's home because he had been repeatedly making calls to 911, saying that a friend in Lancaster was being assaulted and murdered, said Los Angeles attorney Michael Curls, who represented the Luceros.

Lucero had mental health issues and was a recovering drug addict, Curls said. Prior to that day, he had been recovering well, Curls said. But, during Lucero's autopsy, the coroner's officer found methamphetamine in his system.

Lucero's official cause of death was cardiac arrest following police restraint in association with methamphetamine intoxication, the coroner's office reported in March 2011.

Law enforcement was justified in going to Lucero's house after the repeated and delusional 911 calls, Curls said. But after they arrived, the deputies' conduct quickly became unreasonable, he added.

"It was well established by law enforcement that he was having a mental health episode and should have been dealt with as a medical emergency," Curls said.

That Lucero was also on meth does not matter, Curls said. Whether the episode was a result of prior mental health issues or drugs, he should have been dealt with the same way, Curls said.

The confrontation started with three deputies against Lucero, but a fourth arrived later. The deputies shocked Lucero with a Taser about 29 times, Curls said. The situation was also exacerbated when one of the deputies used pepper spray in the closed environment of the home, causing the deputies to suffer the pepper spray's symptoms, as well.

The incident lasted about six minutes.

To make matters worse, Curls said, Lucero's parents were in the room, watching the entire episode unfold.

"I can't imagine a situation more painful that watching your son get beaten to death right before your eyes two weeks before Christmas and have to live in the same home for years after," Curls said.

But the parents were repeatedly told to leave the home and kept coming back to see what was happening, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations. That makes them at least partially responsible for any emotional distress, he said.

Nations said he thinks the jury's findings were excessive. For one, he said, Lucero had assaulted family members in the past and was allegedly mistreating them the night of the incident.

"To then turn around and say you want to be compensated for that loss" does not make sense when your son has assaulted you, Nations said.

From the county's perspective, the deputies' use of force was justified. The deputies saw a person who was a threat to the people who were in the house and were just trying to decide how to get that person in custody, Nations said.

"There may have been a mental health component, but there was definitely a methamphetamine component," Nations said. "And an officer who's just standing there, they're not trained or qualified to say if there's a mental health issue or a drug issue."

There is also a real question about the cause of Lucero's heart attack, Nations said. The county contends Lucero's exertion from resisting arrest, coupled with the meth, rose his heart rate to a dangerous level.

County counsel is looking over the case to decide if it wants to appeal.

"We have real concerns about the verdict and amount of damages," Nations said.

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