Accused killer called fit to share jail cell

Times Staff Writer

A mentally disturbed state prison inmate being transferred into a Los Angeles County jail last month was examined by mental health workers, who declared him fit to be placed in the general jail population.

That finding caused Kurt Karcher, a convicted killer with a bipolar disorder, to be moved into a cell with inmate Jose Daniel Cruz.

Karcher is accused of strangling Cruz a few days later, while awaiting trial on charges that he had strangled his previous cellmate at the state prison in Lancaster.

The May 22 assault has sparked internal investigations and raised questions about how well state prison and county jail officials communicate when transferring prisoners, as they do thousands of times each year.

State prison officials acknowledge that they did not provide county jailers with reports that Karcher had killed his former cellmate when they placed him in the custody of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies so he could be closer to the downtown courthouse while awaiting trial.


Had Karcher been housed in the mental illness floor at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, it’s unlikely he would have been able to harm another inmate, said Melinda Bird, who monitors the county jails as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“From what we understand, inmate Karcher did not receive adequate mental health care, and this is part of a larger pattern of inadequate treatment,” Bird said. “In particular, this failure to coordinate with an inmate’s previous treatment is absolutely widespread.

“I’m sick at heart that another inmate has died,” she said, “but I’m not surprised.”

County mental health officials said they were prohibited by state and federal law from discussing their treatment of Karcher. They said properly diagnosing the mental health of any inmate is difficult because so many are dishonest during screening interviews.

“The challenge for my staff is that some inmates who don’t have mental illness will say they do. And some of our most severely disturbed inmates with mental illness deny they have problems and refuse treatment,” said Robert Fish, a psychologist and clinical manager for treatment at the Twin Towers facility.

“Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t have a blood test that will definitively say this person has this or this person has that.”

After his first cellmate was killed in Lancaster, Karcher was housed in a one-inmate cell and prescribed medication to control his mood, according to court records. However, according to several people familiar with the case, he did not receive medication at the county jail until after Cruz was attacked.

Karcher is now housed in a one-man cell and is awaiting trial on charges of killing two inmates, which could make him subject to a death sentence.

Bird said most complaints the ACLU receives from county jail inmates are about a lack of access to mental health care and medication for psychiatric conditions.

“We are very concerned about the persistent pattern of denial of psychiatric medication to inmates throughout the jail,” Bird said. “We were actively pursuing this issue, even before we learned of this murder. We’re pursuing it even more intensely now.”

In addition to raising concerns about Karcher’s mental health care in county jail, Cruz’s death highlighted communication lapses between state prison and county jail officials. State prisons typically do not pass along inmates’ disciplinary files -- which would have included the allegation that Karcher killed a prison cellmate -- to local jail officials.

Officials with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said prison officials will often tell jail officials orally if an inmate has been violent or is an escape risk. But they couldn’t say whether that happened when Karcher was transferred to sheriff’s custody.

Sheriff’s personnel at the jail may not have been aware that Karcher was believed to have killed a cellmate even though sheriff’s detectives conducted that homicide investigation, officials said.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she believes the prisons should share information about dangerous inmates with county jails and is considering introducing legislation to require them to do so.

“It is the responsibility of the Department of Corrections to make sure that there is communication as to the risk and behavior that has occurred within the state system,” said Romero, who oversees state prisons as chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee.

“He was being transferred to jail because he committed something while incarcerated. That information has to be shared. To say ‘we didn’t need to tell you because you investigated it,’ that’s not good enough.”

Sheriff’s officials have declined to discuss details of their handling of Karcher because of an internal affairs investigation. Fifteen inmates have been slain in county jails since 2000. Sheriff Lee Baca said through a spokesman that he would support any effort to improve communication between state and local jail officials.