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3 Santa Clara County deputies arrested in mentally ill inmate’s beating death

Three jail deputies were arrested Thursday on suspicion of murder in the beating death of a mentally ill inmate in Santa Clara County — an act that Sheriff Laurie Smith described as “heinous and cowardly.”

Michael James Tyree, 31, died Aug. 27 of internal bleeding due to trauma, officials said. County jail deputies Matthew Farris, Jereh Lubrin and Rafael Rodriguez radioed that they had found Tyree in his 6th-floor cell unresponsive, naked and covered in feces, and tried to revive him, Smith said.

But the nature of his injuries caused them to come under suspicion, Smith said, and led to their arrests.

“The disappointment and disgust I feel cannot be overstated,” Smith said at an emotional news conference. “Because our investigation has concluded that three correctional officers … are the reason for this brutal murder of Michael Tyree.”

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The deputies were held without bail on suspicion of murder, conspiracy and assault under the color of authority, sheriff’s officials said.

The Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Assn. declined to comment on the arrests.

Tyree, who was being held on misdemeanor drug and theft charges, was housed in a wing of the main jail for those in protective custody or who have special needs.

Tyree struggled with mental illness for several years, said Paula Canny, his family’s attorney.

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“This is a tragic, sad, heartbreaking event and ... Michael Tyree, even though he was an inmate in a jail, is a person of value,” Canny said. “Inmates deserve to be respected. Michael was somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s cousin, somebody’s nephew.”

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While in sheriff’s custody, Tyree was waiting for a bed to open at Momentum Crisis Residential, a 24-hour adult residential treatment program.

Smith said that when the deputies found Tyree in his cell, Lubrin reported, “Man down.”

Lubrin reported that they pulled Tyree out of his cell to administer CPR, Smith said. After several attempts to revive Tyree, emergency personnel pronounced him dead.

Lubrin, Farris and Rodriguez were the last three people to have contact with Tyree before the “man down” call went out, Smith said.

They were soon placed on unpaid leave and stripped of their administrative access. Sheriff’s detectives began investigating and searched their homes.

Canny said Tyree’s three sisters had been concerned about his mental illness and are heartbroken over his death.

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“The family is experiencing a great deal of loss and sadness,” she said, adding that their mother died recently and their father died last year.

But Canny said Tyree’s family is grateful for the sheriff’s investigation, saying it “could have been dragged out.”

Instead, she said, the sheriff’s investigation was “done appropriately, methodically based on evidence and swiftly to hold those accountable.”

Smith said two FBI agents have visited the jail since Tyree’s death at her request. They had access to the staff and inmates, she said.

Smith said she wanted “another set of eyes and ears” to look at every aspect of the sheriff’s jail facilities so she could make changes to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The Santa Clara County jail system is the fifth-largest in California, with an average daily inmate population of 4,000, according to its website.

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Pastor Dale Witherspoon, a member of the interfaith, grass-roots organization People Acting in Community Together in Santa Clara County, said more accountability is needed in the jails and officers need to be trained on how to deal with inmates with mental illness. He called for an independent audit of the sheriff’s jail facilities.

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“We want individuals who are incarcerated to be treated with dignity,” Witherspoon said.

Smith said the deputies’ actions are “not indicative of the values of this department.”

“It pains me and every member of the sheriff’s office and every member within our law enforcement because those who are sworn to protect and serve lose their moral compass and commit heinous acts,” she said.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA.

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