Father's tough love turned into tragedy

Times Staff Writers

Thadd McNamara was at the helm of his motor home on a cross-country trip in 2005 when his cellphone rang and a neighbor gave him the news: His grown son, Sean, was in trouble with law -- again.

McNamara and his wife turned around in Corpus Christi, Texas, and headed back home to Rolling Hills Estates. On the way, McNamara made several calls in an effort to piece together why his 41-year-old son had been arrested.

It turned out Sean McNamara was accused of burglarizing his father's home and attempting to make off with a baseball cap bearing the logo "Snap-On Tools."

It was classic Sean, his father would later say. Nothing serious. Just another knuckle-head move from an overgrown kid who drank too much beer, didn't pay his bills and, essentially, refused to grow up. Thadd even had a phrase from his Catholic school Latin that he used to describe Sean -- puer eternus -- or eternal boy.

This time, McNamara decided, he wasn't going to bail out his son.

He pressed charges, banking on a prosecutor's assurance that Sean would be ordered to undergo alcohol counseling as a condition of his probation, if he was convicted.

"You don't want to see your kid in jail," McNamara said in a recent interview. "But I felt that him being put in rehab was going to be good for him."

But Sean never made it to rehab.

He was nearly beaten to death in a Los Angeles County jail after being placed in dorms with about 200 fellow inmates, many of them violent members of the Southsiders gang. McNamara was attacked when the guard who was supposed to be watching them left his post.

The attack, in which inmates allegedly jumped from third-tier bunks onto his head as he lay on the floor, left him with permanent brain damage.

His father filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jails. County lawyers in March tentatively agreed to pay Sean's medical bills for life which, coupled with attorney's fees, are projected to be about $900,000. The case was settled the day trial was set to begin.

Sonia Mercado, the McNamaras' attorney, argued in court papers that jailers never should have put the nonviolent low-risk offender in with violent gang members of another race. She also accused the deputy who was assigned to the area where the beating occurred of improperly "abandoning his post."

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore called the case "tragic," but said an internal investigation revealed that deputies had not done anything wrong. Another sheriff's official said the guard had left his post to monitor inmates in another unsupervised dorm.

Big and jovial, Sean had always been the life of the party, his father said. Even in a large Irish family, he was routinely the center of attention, quick with a joke and always smiling. But his charm had begun to fade as he grew older and had trouble holding down a job and seeing to his finances.

Alcohol seemed to be the root of the problem, his dad said. He was the kind of guy who would show up at just about any function with a six-pack in hand. He'd even taken to driving around with a cooler full of beer in his car, his father had heard. He'd been arrested twice on suspicion of drunk driving.

Thadd McNamara repeatedly tried to help his son over the years.

In 1994, after retiring from his job as a fraud investigator with the state Department of Health Services, McNamara opened a muffler shop and gave his son a job. He envisioned it as a place where the two could share their passion for race cars and as a way to give his son some job security.

"I knew he had talent and I thought he was worth more than the nine or 10 dollars an hour people had been paying him," McNamara said.

The business didn't make much money, he recalled. But for a couple of years, he and Sean worked side by side and became closer than ever. They were forced to move the shop when their lease expired. A new location didn't work out and they closed their doors in 1997.

Sean eventually landed a job as a technician, conducting tests for the presence of asbestos and lead. Still, he struggled to pay his bills on time and ultimately had a falling out with his father over money.

When Thadd McNamara and his wife set out on the trip to Florida in 2005, he told Sean to stay out of the house. But shortly after they left, Sean came to the home and kicked in a door, later telling his father he was looking for some of his tools he believed were still in the garage. A neighbor heard the ruckus and called 911. Sheriff's deputies arrested Sean at the scene.

Sean begged his father to drop the charges, or to at least bail him out, but McNamara was resolute.

"I had really struggled with what is the right thing to do," the father recalled. "And I thought this was it."

Sean was in jail awaiting trial at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, a barracks-style lockup well known for inmate brawls, when he was attacked on June 7, 2005.

He was one of a handful of white inmates in a dorm with about 200 Latinos, violent gang members among them, records show. The gang members struck when a guard left to monitor an area about 75 feet away, where he couldn't see or hear those in McNamara's area.

Mike Cloud, another white inmate in the area, later testified that several gang members had the mistaken impression that McNamara was in jail on a child molestation charge, an offense that often results in retaliation from fellow inmates.

Cloud testified that when the guard left, the gang members singled out McNamara and got him down on the ground, then took turns jumping off a third-tier bunk and landing on his head. The attack went on for so long that "they got tired and took breaks before resuming," he said.

One of the inmates has since pleaded no contest to attempted murder and was sentenced to six years in state prison, according to a district attorney's spokeswoman.

Thadd McNamara didn't learn of the attack until days after it occurred. It was nearly a year before he saw his son. At first, jailers wouldn't grant him access while his son was in the hospital, he said. Later, Sean refused to see any family members -- a decision his father attributes to his altered mental state after the attack.

When McNamara finally saw Sean at a court hearing in the burglary case, he barely recognized him. Once a strapping six-footer, weighing 200 pounds or more, Sean McNamara was down to 130 pounds, his father said. His hair, once short, dangled to his shoulders and covered his face.

"Here was this little old man who was my son," McNamara recalled. He began to weep as he knelt next to his son at the defense table.

The burglary case was later dismissed because of the severe injuries Sean had sustained while in jail.

These days, Sean resides in an assisted-living facility. His father said he has no memory of the attack and has the intellect of a "third- or fourth-grader."

His dad routinely visits, often taking Sean to a nearby In-N-Out for burgers. But he said Sean's injuries have so severely altered his personality that he's like a different person.

"You miss him every single day. Even when he's there, you miss him," McNamara said. "There's just this big hole."

Despite his long career in law enforcement, McNamara said he's convinced the system failed his son.

"Somebody didn't do their job, and I damn near lost a son because of it," he said.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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