On a Saturday in the summer of 2002, Ramon Gavira was pulled over for drunk driving and taken to Los Angeles County Jail.

Five days after his arrest, the 43-year-old father of five was dead.

Guards say they found Gavira dangling from the bars of a one-man cell with a torn bedsheet tightly knotted around his neck. Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives and the coroner concluded that he had killed himself.

But when Gavira's brothers saw his bruised and battered body at the funeral home a few days later, they began to suspect there was more to the story.

Gavira's body had six broken ribs, a broken collarbone and bruises that would be hard for any man to inflict upon himself. Most curious was a snapped neck bone that medical experts say is more often seen when someone has been strangled by a pair of hands.

Since then, Gavira's family has been pressing a wrongful-death lawsuit that is set for trial early next year. A spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca was adamant that Gavira committed suicide, and cast his death as an unavoidable tragedy in an understaffed and overcrowded jail system -- the nation's largest.

Regardless of how he died, testimony and other evidence suggest that Gavira -- mentally frail and withdrawing from alcohol from the moment he entered custody -- was deprived of medical care, mocked and beaten during his brief stint behind bars.

In addition, records and interviews show that sheriff's officials did little to determine how Gavira sustained such severe injuries, brushing aside allegations that a female deputy -- who trains as a boxer -- might have been responsible.

Attorney Michael Gennaco, who serves as an independent watchdog over the Sheriff's Department, said he could not comment on specifics because of the litigation. But he said he was convinced that Gavira was not slain.

Still, he acknowledged, "there are a lot of unanswered questions."

Searching for a Muffler

Gavira, an auto mechanic, spent the late morning and early afternoon of July 6, 2002, scouring a junkyard in Wilmington for a part he needed to fix up an old Chevy Blazer for one of his sons. It was typical; he was a protective father who often went out of his way for his children, taking them for barbecues at Magic Johnson Park in South L.A. and to the beach at Marina del Rey.

But as he also often did on weekends, he was drinking heavily.

Gavira's wife, who accompanied him to the Pick Your Part salvage yard, doesn't know how many beers he had consumed before he found the muffler he needed. After leaving the junkyard, they stopped at a liquor store, where Gavira bought her a soda and himself more beer, which he drank while parked outside.

They were headed home to Compton when a deputy noticed the car swerving from lane to lane and pulled them over.

Gavira was slurring his words and reeked of alcohol. He failed several roadside sobriety tests and was arrested.

At the Carson sheriff's station, he was given a Breathalyzer test. It showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27 -- more than three times the legal limit for driving. Authorities also discovered that his license had been suspended because he had failed to appear in court on a drunk-driving charge years earlier.

Gavira was booked and placed in a holding cell. Two days later, he was bused to the sheriff's Inmate Reception Center in downtown Los Angeles.

There, jailers determine where to send those who enter the county system, which on an average day houses nearly 18,000 inmates in eight facilities. A medical check is a key part of the routine. Gavira spent most of July 9 being processed.