In Bakersfield, a muted response to beating by deputies

BAKERSFIELD — After the last twisting drop of the Grapevine pass, the road stretches flat out past fields, fast-food restaurants and tractor lots to this Central Valley city that likes to emphasize that it’s different from the rest of California.

It’s only 100 miles north of Los Angeles and less than three hours from the coast, yet many people here say, “Well, that’s how we do it in Kern County.”

This distinctive insularity has perhaps never been more evident than now. Across the state, public outcry is growing over sheriff’s deputies who beat David Sal Silva, an unarmed man who died less than an hour after his screams for help fell silent. Authorities tracked down witnesses and confiscated their cellphones. A video on one of those phones may now be missing. The case has brought the FBI to Bakersfield.


But in this city of 350,000, residents have remained largely silent.

“I think another community might really nut up over this,” said Lee Yeoman, a 73-year-old retired dentist. “We’ve gotten used to a lot here.”

Some say the muted response is due to a history of trusting law enforcement, others cite intimidation or resignation, and some say it’s just the Bakersfield way.

“We’re a cowboy town,” said a retired deputy, whose idea of a getaway is riding out of the city on his horse with a tin cup and bedroll. He gave nod to an old cowboy proverb: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Wilted flowers beneath a stop sign mark the place where Silva went limp. He died across the street at Kern Medical Center.

Silva had abruptly left the home he shared with his girlfriend and four young daughters May 7. Family friends said he visited his mother and told her he was going to the hospital. In response to a search warrant, a judge on Friday ordered the Mary K. Shell Mental Health Center to release video to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office possibly showing Silva before the incident.

The 33-year-old apparently fell asleep on the sidewalk in this neighborhood of mostly immigrant families.

Authorities said officers responded to a report of a possibly intoxicated man. A family leaving the hospital said they saw two officers wake Silva and tell him not to move.

When Silva sat up, a deputy hit him in the head, said Laura Vasquez, 26.

Witnesses said officers arrived and beat him with batons. Silva’s cries for help and the crack of the batons woke up many in the neighborhood.

A woman screamed, “Call the cops!” “They are the cops!” people shouted.

Authorities said six deputies, a sergeant, two California Highway Patrol officers and a police dog were at the scene.

A week later, on a gray, sweltering afternoon, a woman who lives across the street and her two middle-school-age sons brought a bouquet of fresh flowers from the supermarket to the corner.

“I was the one who brought the first flowers too,” she said. “I keep thinking of the moment when Mr. Silva stopped pleading and went limp. I felt chills.”

She declined to give her name, saying, “I can’t. They came to my house. At first the officer was very polite, very professional.... But when I told him, ‘No, I don’t want to talk to you,’ he said, ‘Is anyone in your house on probation?’ And my — well, it was a threat.”

The night of the beating, sheriff’s deputies detained two people in their home and told them they couldn’t leave until they handed over their cellphones. Witnesses said both phones had video of the beating shot from about 20 feet away.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood asked the FBI to join the investigation after he was told one of the phones did not have video on it. “Our credibility is at stake here,” he told The Times.

The beating is the latest in several high-profile incidents involving the Sheriff’s Department. The parents of Jose Lucero won $4.5 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from a 2010 incident in which their son died after being beaten by deputies.

Lucero, who was mentally ill, called 911 several times, saying a friend was being murdered in Lancaster. Four officers responding to the call struck him 33 times with batons and shocked him with a Taser 29 times, according to court testimony. No charges were filed against the officers, one of whom was also involved in the Silva beating.

In 2011, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed David Turner, a former NFL football player. Two deputies were responding to a call about an adult buying beer for minors at a liquor store. The killing was ruled within department policy because Turner had raised a bag of beers and was about to swing them at an officer. The beers were deemed a lethal weapon.

Alicia Moore, 37, said she was worried that video of the Silva beating might disappear once she heard deputies had the phones.

Her son’s father, James Moore, an offshore oil rig worker, died six days after being beaten by deputies at Kern County jail in 2005. He was punched, choked, kneed in the back and pepper sprayed while in handcuffs and chains and then hit while lying on a hospital gurney, according to court records.

It was a deputy who stepped forward and told authorities what had happened to Moore, who had been arrested on suspicion of threatening his girlfriend and resisting booking. Twenty officers were part of the struggle. One was convicted of second-degree murder, another of involuntary manslaughter.

“I knew James since we were kids. We had little James. We weren’t together but we stayed friends,” Moore said. “Only one officer got serious time. The rest of them went back to work.... I thought if there was video it would be different this time.”

There is some public video of the deputies’ encounter with Silva.

A mother of four, whose backyard security camera is trained on the east Bakersfield corner where witnesses say the beating took place, gave a tape to Silva’s family. Local station KERO-TV aired a snippet of grainy footage copied from a cellphone. The Times later viewed the entire original recording and posted a segment online. It shows a group of officers clearly swinging batons at a man on the ground. It’s not clear how many blows connected or what Silva was doing when the beating began.

Still, the images have been enough to cause some uncommon criticism of local law enforcement. Steve E. Swenson, a retired reporter who covered crime and courts at the Bakersfield Californian for 33 years, said a few of his friends at the Episcopal church and his daily golf game are calling the beating brutal and the phone seizures an attempt at a coverup.

Criticism of deputies “doesn’t happen around here. The investigation isn’t even complete,” Swenson said. “We like and support law enforcement and usually give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Indeed, nothing brings as loud a cheer at local parades as deputies on horseback. The most popular public figure in recent memory was plain-spoken former Sheriff Carl Sparks, Youngblood’s mentor.

“One time deputies fired at a bad guy some 70 times,” Swenson recalled. “Reporters asked Carl, ‘Why so many times?’ He told them, ‘I believe that’s all we had.’ If you said that in San Francisco or L.A., you might get run out of town on a rail. But in Kern County we reelect the guy.”

Swenson said he’s withholding judgment on the Silva case until the sheriff presents all the facts.

He said that about nine years ago he watched video of several deputies beating up someone in the jail.

“It was totally unjustified. And I’d had one of the deputies in my Sunday School class — I guess I should have done a better job,” he said. “But the point is, it was the Sheriff’s Department who showed the tape. I think we can trust them to tell us the truth.”