Forgotten, Man Spent Hungry, Cold Weekend Alone in Cell

Times Staff Writer

When Municipal Court Commissioner William Jacobson placed a defendant in court custody on Friday, Nov. 16, he expected the prisoner to be detained temporarily in a first-floor holding cell and then sent by bus to the Central Jail in Los Angeles.

That was normal procedure for prisoners at the Rio Hondo Municipal Courthouse in El Monte. But when Jacobson and other court personnel returned to work the following Monday, they were shocked to learn that the defendant, John Sousa, had spent the entire weekend alone in the holding cell without food or bedding.

A bailiff, eager to leave on a vacation, forgot about the 19-year-old Sousa, who had been jailed for failure to pay a drunk-driving fine. When Sousa was discovered by a janitor early that Monday, he had spent 70 hours in solitary confinement.

"I was shocked," said Jacobson, a court commissioner for three years. "It's the only time I've ever heard of that happening."

Now Sousa has filed a claim against Los Angeles County, the bailiff's employer, for $500,000 for "negligent infliction of emotional distress." Sousa, who admits to a few minor brushes with the law as a juvenile, said his life hasn't been the same since the incident. He has trouble sleeping, he said, and is haunted by flashbacks of himself inside the 25-by-30-foot cell.

'Kept Hearing Things'

"It was the worst experience of my life," said Sousa, who works for a print shop. "I kept thinking I was hearing things, like someone was coming to get me. I would catch myself screaming and yelling. I was really just going crazy.

"At one point, I was so hungry that I thought I was having a slow death."

After being placed in the holding cell, Sousa was supposed to have been transferred to the main lockup in the court's basement and then put on a 5 p.m. county bus to the Central Jail. But Deputy Marshal Lee Glass forgot to let Sousa make his one customary phone call and forgot to tell his replacement that Sousa was in the holding cell, according to Los Angeles County Assistant Marshal Bob Mann.

If Sousa had been allowed to telephone his mother that day and she had paid the fine, he never would have been jailed, Jacobson said.

Mann said the oversight resulted from Glass splitting his shift with another deputy so Glass could leave early on a vacation. Mann said Glass has been disciplined but would not say how. Glass also declined comment on the disciplinary action. "I'm not allowed to talk about it because it's in litigation," Glass said.

Last July, Sousa, now 20 and a resident of Baldwin Park, was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. He appeared before Jacobson, who fined Sousa $664 and ordered him to enroll in a special class for adults caught driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The commissioner set a Nov. 13 deadline for Sousa to pay the money and complete the 90-day program.

When Sousa failed to return to court Nov. 13, Jacobson ordered a bench warrant for his arrest. Sousa has said he forgot about the court date because he had just moved and was busy working 12-hour shifts at the print shop in East Los Angeles.

But on Nov. 16, before the bench warrant was issued, Sousa went to court. He told Jacobson that he had not enrolled in the program and did not have the money to pay the fine.

Sousa said he was only a few minutes into his explanation when Jacobson cut him short and sentenced him to 22 days in County Jail: 13 days in lieu of the fine, four days for failing to complete the program and five days for missing a court date in August.

"Just go with the bailiff," were Jacobson's last words to Sousa, according to court transcripts.

'The Place Was Freezing'

Sousa said Glass led him into a large cell, empty except for a toilet and sink and a concrete bench running the length of the floor.

"There was no bed, no blankets and the place was freezing," Sousa said. "They told me I would have a chance to make a phone call to my mom and then I would be sent to the main lockup downstairs."

The next thing Sousa remembers is falling asleep and awakening to a silent courthouse. "I waited for a little while but I didn't hear any of the noises that I did before. I started pounding on the bars. I was yelling and screaming, but no one was answering," he said.

Sousa said even a time clock in the hallway played cruel tricks on him. "Each time it clicked, I thought someone had remembered me and came back to get me."

While Sousa performed jumping jack exercises to keep warm and tried his best not to think about food, his parents were frantically searching for him, their youngest child. On Saturday, the day Sousa was supposed to attend his mother's birthday party, his father found the young man's car parked outside the courthouse. But county officials insisted that Sousa was not in custody at Rio Hondo or any of its other facilities.

"I called every place I could think of," said Sousa's mother, Margaret. "I called Rio Hondo, I called Pomona, I called the Central Jail. No one had any record of my son, John. I lost one son in 1976 and I kept thinking that I had lost another one. I couldn't sleep for three nights."

At 8 a.m. Monday, more than 80 hours after Sousa had last eaten, a janitor heard him pounding the cell bars and shouting to be let out. "A (deputy) marshal opened the cell and he was amazed," Sousa said. "He couldn't believe that it happened. He asked me if I was all right, if I had eaten."

Sousa said he was given a breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns inside his cell and then brought before Commissioner Jacobson. Jacobson, taken aback by the revelation that Sousa never boarded the county bus, vacated the jail sentence after Margaret Sousa paid the $664 fine.

"It was something that shocked all of us here today that he was still here . . . in a facility without any amenities whatsoever for the entire three-day weekend," the commissioner told Sousa's mother in court.

Dennis A. Aichroth, Sousa's attorney, said the county has until next week to accept or reject his client's claim for damages of $500,000. "I anticipate the county rejecting our claim. If that happens, we'll go ahead and file a formal suit."

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