The sharp cracks echoing from the East Bakersfield street were loud enough to jolt Ruben Ceballos from a midnight slumber. Then he heard screams.
The 19-year-old jumped from his living room sofa and hurried to the kitchen door, which offered a view of the violent scene unfolding outside. It was then, Ceballos said in an interview Monday, that he realized the sounds that woke him were the reports of batons striking a man’s head.
“I saw two sheriff’s deputies on top of this guy, just beating him,” Ceballos said. “He was screaming in pain … asking for help. He was incapable of fighting back – he was outnumbered, on the ground. They just beat him up.”
The man was David Silva, 33, a father of four, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour later. The incident last Wednesday and the actions of Kern County sheriff’s deputies in its aftermath have led to claims of police brutality and an attempted coverup.
According to witnesses like Ceballos and lawyers for them and the dead man’s family, the deputies hit Silva repeatedly in the head even though he was prone on the pavement and posed no threat.
Sheriff’s officials later seized cellphones from people who used them to shoot video of the altercation. In two cases, deputies detained the witnesses for hours until they agreed to hand over their phones, attorneys say.
“It makes it look like a coverup,” said David Cohn, a lawyer for Silva’s children and parents. “What we’re all concerned about is, ‘Are these videos going to be altered? Are they going to be deleted?’”
A witness identified in news accounts as Sulina Quair, 34, made a 911 call to the Sheriff’s Department and is heard on the recording saying, "I got it all on video camera and I'm sending it to the news. These cops have no reason to do this to this man."
"You’ve got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 sheriffs," she said to the dispatcher. "The guy was laying on the floor and eight sheriffs ran up and started beating him up with sticks. The man is dead, laying here right here, right now."
Sheriff Donny Youngblood said it was too early in the investigation to reach any conclusions about Silva’s death, but he defended the decision to confiscate the phones as a way of preserving possible evidence.”
“We still have to secure the evidence, especially when the evidence can tell us whether we did it right or wrong,” Youngblood told The Times on Monday.
The Silva episode follows a number of brutality cases involving the Kern County Sheriffs’ Department in recent years. One led to criminal convictions of three deputies in the 2005 death of a jail inmate and another resulted in a $4.5-million court award for the family of a man who died in 2010 after being struck 33 times with batons and Tasered. A deputy named in civil lawsuit over the 2010 death was among those who confronted Silva, a laborer who previously had a couple of minor run-ins with authorities.
According to Cohn, Silva went to Kern County Medical Center late Wednesday night to seek counseling for some sort of emotional trouble, then left after a staffer told him he could not sleep there. He was sleeping on the street across from the hospital when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, Cohn said.
A sheriff’s statement said Silva resisted when the deputies tried to restrain him, and they were forced to use their batons. Silva stopped breathing and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the statement said.