Brother's death in Bakersfield haunts critic of Sheriff's Department

Brother's death in Bakersfield haunts critic of Sheriff's Department
Christopher Silva of Bakersfield, with poster showing his brother David, who died during a May 2013 confrontation with Kern County Sheriff's Department deputies and CHP officers. (Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times)

Chris Silva slipped a disc into his computer, then stepped back to watch as the deposition of a Kern County sheriff's deputy began to play on his TV.

On May 7, 2013, just before midnight, Jeffrey Kelly was the first deputy to respond to a call about a man lying on a grass strip across the street from Kern County Medical Center on the east side of town.


The man was David Silva, Chris's big brother, a father of four. Kelly testified that he tried to wake Silva up using a "knuckle rub" on his sternum. He had not been trained to perform it.

Silva, 33, woke up, disoriented. Kelly decided Silva might be on PCP and tried to handcuff him. Silva never hit or kicked him, Kelly testified, but kept trying to move away.

Worried that the 260-pound Silva might stand up, Kelly released his dog, Luke, from his patrol car by remote control. Silva became even more agitated as the dog attacked him. He screamed and grabbed Luke by the neck. The dog also bit Kelly.

Then things got even more chaotic.

Over 20 minutes, six other sheriff's deputies and two CHP officers arrived. Silva was beaten with batons, bitten 30 times, cuffed, hobbled with a hog-tie-like restraint, and sat on by several deputies, including one who weighed 260 pounds. A hood — a "spit mask" — was placed over Silva's bloody head.

He vomited, then stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead at 12:44 a.m. on May 8.

"This was a beat down," Chris told me. "Seven deputies and two CHP officers failed at their jobs."


David Silva, a day laborer who often stayed home to care for his children, had gone to the medical center's mental health clinic the night he died, seeking help for what his mother told me was "severe depression."

He had fallen asleep on the grass outside the clinic, and was escorted off the premises by a security guard, who called the Sheriff's Department after watching Silva curl up on a lawn across the street.

The story probably would have faded, except for a front page story in the Bakersfield Californian two days later, with a big photo of Chris weeping. "He begged for his life," the headline said. "Relatives mourn dad who died during arrest; deputies seize video."

About 12 people had witnessed the incident; two recorded the encounter with phones that were later confiscated by officers. One, Sulina Quair, called 911 to report the beating.

Quair and another witness, Laura Vasquez, told investigators that Silva was "resisting" but not fighting. "Every time they would tell him to get down, he would stand up," Vasquez said. Quair said she heard him yell, "Don't hit me in my head. Somebody help me! I'm not doing anything!"

Quair later told a video news crew she saw deputies pick Silva up and drop him twice. She said she heard gurgling like Silva was "gargling on his own blood" with "10 or 11 cops on this guy."


Once again, the Kern County Sheriff's Department found itself in an uncomfortable spotlight.

In the last several years, it has been under scrutiny for several high-profile brutality cases. The beating death of a jail inmate in 2005 led to the conviction of two deputies and a $6-million judgment against the county. The family of a man who died in 2010 after deputies Tasered and beat him with batons received $4.5 million.

An autopsy concluded that Silva's death was accidental. Silva, a pathologist found, had died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, complicated by acute intoxication, chronic alcoholism, severe abdominal obesity, chronic hypertension and acute pulmonary-cardiovascular strain.

His blood alcohol level was 0.095%, slightly above the legal driving limit, and he had small amounts of methamphetamine, amphetamine and the anti-anxiety drug Clonazepamin in his system.

"We know that methamphetamine is a horrible drug and when you mix drugs, it can cause erratic behavior," said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who is also the county coroner.

"How high could he have been?" asked attorney David Cohn, who is representing the Silva family in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit. "He was sleeping. That hardly sounds like someone who is amped up on methamphetamine."

Eleven months after Silva died, Kern County Dist. Atty. Lisa Green declined to charge the officers with a crime.

Youngblood took the opportunity to chastise journalists: "I think the media caused a lot of the hysteria in this community." He called the Californian's headline "shameful."

When a reporter suggested a citizen's oversight committee might be appropriate, given Youngblood's conflict of interest as both sheriff and coroner, he bristled: "This case personifies exactly why a citizen review board is not a good idea. I, as sheriff, or the chief of police, we deal in law and we deal in policy. We don't deal in emotion. The public deals in emotions; the media controls the public's emotion."


Last month, the Justice Department also said it found no grounds for criminal prosecution. U.S. Atty. Benjamin B. Wagner said, "There was not sufficient evidence to sustain a federal criminal prosecution, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

In the year and a half since his brother died, Chris, a Home Depot supervisor, has devoted himself to protesting police brutality.

He has shown up at news conferences like the one held by prosecutor Green last May. When he peppered her with questions about why Deputy Kelly didn't call an ambulance for his brother immediately, Green said, "I am very sorry for your loss, Mr. Silva, I truly am."

Despite the autopsy, which was reviewed by an independent pathologist at Green's behest, Chris does not accept that his brother died of heart disease. He believes he was asphyxiated by the deputies who sat on him, compounded by the hobble restraint they used, and the mask they put over his head.

He is haunted by the thought that if they had responded less aggressively, David would still be alive.

I asked the Kern County Sheriff's Department whether it had reviewed its procedures after Silva's death. A spokesman said there would be no comment because of the pending litigation.

"What if your training is getting people killed?" asked Chris, who is not a party to the family lawsuit. "And what if you can't admit there's a problem?"