The parents of Albert Varela, accompanied by two local civil rights organizations, expressed anger Wednesday with the San Diego County district attorney and called for an investigation by the U. S. attorney’s office into why the young man died after a fight with sheriff’s deputies.
Steve Clark, an assistant U. S. attorney who is reviewing dozens of allegations that deputies have assaulted inmates, said the FBI is already investigating Varela’s death.
“The bureau will release a report to us, we’ll review it and then make a decision on whether to send it back or go to the grand jury,” he said.
Clothing Thrown at Him
Albert Varela, 28, was taken to County Jail downtown Jan. 22 after he allegedly violated a court order to stay away from his family because of past temper flare-ups. A fight broke out in the jail after a deputy threw Varela’s clothing at him.
Five other deputies joined the struggle. Varela was placed in a chokehold by one deputy and lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead later that night at UC San Diego Medical Center.
The district attorney’s report, released Oct. 7, determined that none of the deputies bears criminal liability for his conduct during the fight.
But the prosecutors did criticize the deputies for grabbing the unconscious inmate’s legs and dragging him face-down across the floor, which they said is “inconsistent with basic humane treatment” and may have related directly to Varela’s death.
At an afternoon press conference, Cruz and Rose Varela held hands and spoke softly as they criticized the Sheriff’s Department for the treatment of their son, and the district attorney for refusing to prosecute the deputies.
The Lakeside couple said that no one from the department or the district attorney’s office has ever spoken to them about the events that led to their son’s death. They said they first learned of their son’s death in a late-night phone call from the county coroner’s office.
Belongings Not Returned
They also said the Sheriff’s Department has refused to turn over any of their son’s clothing or other personal belongings, despite the fact that its internal review is completed.
The Varelas alleged that deputies provoked the jail fight, even to the point of forcing their son to be strip-searched four times in a short period. They said it is their understanding that it is against jail policy to strip-search inmates held on misdemeanor charges.
“We are convinced that our son was the victim of unjustified and unreasonable force. We are requesting that the U. S. attorney file a complaint against the individuals involved in our son’s death,” said Cruz Varela.
An attorney for the Varelas gave The Times copies of four statements from inmate witnesses who described the confrontation as a severe beating in which deputies seemed determined to kill Varela.
One of the inmates, Raymond A. Morton, said Varela was assaulted by six deputies, one of whom choked him into submission.
“He couldn’t make a sound,” Morton said. “He was trying to breathe. It was just an awful sound. Like a cracking last breath. Very, very loud at one point, then it got softer, softer. Then there was nothing. There was complete silence.”
Refused to Discuss Case
Sgt. Bob Takeshta, a sheriff’s spokesman, refused to discuss the case Wednesday, reiterating the department’s concern that the matter will soon result in a civil lawsuit.
“We’re not in a position for any comment at this point until it’s been fully litigated,” he said.
However, Takeshta did say that jail policy allows inmates held on misdemeanor charges to be strip-searched.
“If they are going to be retained in custody and put in mainline housing, they are strip-searched,” he said.
Steve Casey, a spokesman in the district attorney’s office, defended the prosecutor’s report.
“There has been a significant amount of investigative work on this particular case,” he said. “We conducted an independent investigation, including reviewing information provided by the attorney for the Varela family. We examined all of the evidence. And it’s very sad now that people choose to light off the fires of rhetoric.”
Casey stressed that the district attorney’s office was limited in investigating the death to determining whether there was any “provable criminal liability on the part of one or more of these officers.”
“The answer is no,” he said.
The report came under sharp criticism from community leaders who stood with the Varelas at the press conference.
“The fact that Varela had no less than 23 distinct injuries to his head, neck and body convinces us that Varela’s death was the result of a brutal beating by deputies,” said Roberto Martinez, a spokesman for the Coalition for Law and Justice. “And we stand by that position today.”
Betty Wheeler, legal director for the local American Civil Liberties Union, said it is “deplorable” that the district attorney treated the deputies’ conduct so lightly.
“The fundamental question is why this confrontation even took place,” she said. “Why a minor dispute between a deputy and an inmate escalated into a physical confrontation and death.”
The statements from Morton and the other three inmate witnesses, obtained from Manny Sanchez, the Varelas’ attorney, indicate they feared for Varela’s life during the fight.
James Brian Sonntag, a jail trusty, remembered seeing one deputy with blood covering his arm, and a trail of blood on the floor where the deputies dragged Varela out of a room.
“They all rushed him and started beating on him,” Sonntag said. “I heard something like when you pop your knuckles. . . . Another trusty came over and said, ‘I think they killed this guy.’ ”
He added that, although deputies and jail medical personnel attempted to revive Varela, one deputy laughed about the way the victim’s body was squirming.
“The deputy made a joke about it,” he said.
Mark Miller said a large group of deputies rushed in and restrained Varela. He said they grabbed his neck and arms and tried to trip him to the ground. He said the deputies also tried to shut the door so other inmates couldn’t watch.
“The next thing I knew, they were all mixing it up,” he said, adding that he could see blood coming from Varela’s mouth.
James Lambro said Varela did not provoke the fight, but only yelled at the deputy who tossed the clothes at him.
“I saw this one police officer who started the whole thing kick the inmate in the face,” Lambro said. “That’s where all the blood came from. And then two of them came in from the other door. And then three of them were holding him.”
He said Varela’s face turned red and a large pool of blood spread on the floor. “He looked like he was fighting because he actually couldn’t breathe,” Lambro said.
The district attorney’s report said the statements from Sonntag, Morton and Miller are “largely consistent” with interviews with members of the Sheriff’s Department.
However, the report lambasted Lambro’s statement, saying he told the Varela family’s attorney one story and the sheriff’s investigators another. “No prosecution could ever be built upon such an unsteady foundation as the inconsistent statement of Lambro,” the report says.
Sanchez, the family attorney, said he believes the witness’ statements are accurate. And he said he will use them in a lawsuit he plans to file in the case. He earlier filed an $8-million claim against the county, but the county did not act on it within 45 days, which clears the way for a lawsuit.
Cruz and Rose Varela said they hope that by continuing to push their case, future jail abuse may be curtailed.