The first wheel is labeled “Suspect’s Actions,” with spokes representing behaviors ranging from “non-compliance” to “active resistance” and “assaultive behavior.” The second wheel is “Deputy’s Response,” with spokes bearing terms such as “verbal directions,” “hands-on control” and “lethal force.” Connecting the wheels is a box that tells the deputy to select a “reasonable response” (underline included) from the second wheel to control the behavior in the first.
Tommy Tucker, a 35-year-old, obese inmate in a psychiatric unit at the San Diego Central Jail, spun those wheels on Feb. 22, 2009, and lost his life. His act of defiance: attempting to take a cup of hot water back to his cell while the unit was in lockdown. Within minutes, the perfect storm of brutality—pepper spray, a misplaced chokehold and being handcuffed, facedown on the floor—resulted in his death.
As CityBeat reported in the first installment of its investigative series, “60 Dead Inmates,” San Diego County has the highest mortality rate among California largest jail systems based on data from 2007 to 2012. Tucker was one of 12 deaths in San Diego jail custody in 2009, the highest number of deaths in a single year recorded by the five-facility system during that period.
The official cause of Tucker’s death was anoxic encephalopathy—brain damage due to oxygen starvation. What makes Tucker’s death unique is the secrecy surrounding it.
Tucker’s family in Alabama didn’t know he’d died violently. They were informed through an organ-donation service, which originally had received false information that Tucker died from a traumatic brain injury. It wasn’t until another inmate contacted Tucker’s girlfriend that the family began to suspect foul play. A full 17 months passed before they received the medical examiner’s report. When they read it was a homicide, they hired a lawyer.
“They had no idea,” Alabama-based attorney Stan Morris tells CityBeat. “They weren’t told, ‘Six of the guards jumped your brother and put a carotid hold on him, and then they did this, that and the other.’ They just said he died.”
A year before Tucker’s death, another obese inmate was mortally injured at the Central Jail. Jeffrey Dewall was acting strangely, running across his cell and banging his head against the wall. Guards pepper-sprayed him, strapped him to a restraint chair, kneed him in the face and held him doubled over for several minutes. When they lifted him, they found he had stopped breathing. Dewall’s family sued and received justice in the form of a $600,000 settlement.
In September 2012, a third inmate from the Central Jail died, but outside of the jail’s walls. Anthony Dunton had been taken to UCSD Medical Center after a fight with deputies. When he broke free of his restraints in the MRI room, deputies first tried TASERs, then shot him twice. Most local news outlets covered the death.
By comparison, Tucker’s death occurred in the dark. Only recently has Tucker’s family learned the details through their lawsuit. In addition to public records, CityBeat was granted access to depositions conducted in December and video and audio evidence obtained by Morris and his local co-counsel, Julia Yoo, via the discovery process.
Tucker was booked in January 2009 on domestic-violence charges. He was placed in a psychiatric unit due to his schizophrenia (he was prescribed two anti-psychotic medications) and a lifelong seizure disorder. He was also obese, asthmatic, visually impaired and partially deaf. One guard testified in his deposition that Tucker normally spoke loudly in a way that could have been mistaken for agitation.
On the day of his death, inmates in Tucker’s unit were ordered to return to their cells because guards needed to transfer a suicidal inmate in another unit to a safety cell. Tucker instead went for a cup of hot water.
The video shows Tucker slowly descending the stairs from the second tier and crossing the empty main floor. He fills his plastic cup with water, returns to the stairs and walks up.
“It’s pretty dadgum obvious this guy is going back to his cell,” Morris says. “There’s not like a door up there where he can go out to a Jack-in-the-Box and get a burger.”
At the top of the tier, Tucker turned as two deputies called to him. According to the initial reports, Tucker cursed and threw hot water at the guard closest to him, but this isn’t clear in the video. The deputy later testified in his deposition that Tucker only tipped his cup forward, splashing water on the ground. The guards claimed they warned Tucker several times to return to his cell, but the inmate took a fighting stance.
The video, however, shows that seconds after the first deputies spoke to him, Tucker turned to flee as a cluster of guards charged up the stairs.
“If you look at what the deputies say actually happened, and time that with the pictures, there’s just not enough time for everything that they say happened to have actually happened,” Morris says. “A total of six deputies basically go up the stairs at a pretty good trot and proceed right to Tucker. Do not pass ‘Go’; do not collect $200. They jumped this guy and—down on the ground, boom. Boom-boom-boom.”
Three guards shot streams of pepper spray at Tucker’s face. Then, using the “swarm” technique, they each grabbed different limbs, with one guard applying a carotid hold, or chokehold. A hood called a “spit sock” was placed over Tucker’s head as deputies pinned him facedown on the floor. They used two sets of handcuffs to chain Tucker’s arms behind his back. When they lifted the inmate, his body was limp. They removed the spit sock and discovered his face was purple.
The guard who used the carotid hold said he held it for only two to five seconds. But when Chief Medical Examiner Glenn Wagner gave his deposition, he described blunt force trauma to the neck, including hemorrhages on the windpipe, muscles, the soft tissue around the thyroid and the carotid body, the nerve ganglion that regulates heart rate. Wagner testified that the injury was consistent with strangulation, but that alone wasn’t what killed Tucker. It was also the way his breathing was hindered when they laid him on his belly and pulled his arms behind his back. It was also Tucker’s own weight, compounded by that of the guards on top of him. He noted that pepper spray could have caused an asthmatic episode.
“You have anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 pounds or portions thereof being applied to a person who just by their own weight is going to have a problem,” Wagner said in his deposition. “Then you supersede that with the pepper spray, a carotid hold, which may be either a blood choke or an air choke, depending on how it’s applied, plus his general excitement and the epinephrine and norepinephrine. We know, from the autopsy, that he has an enlarged heart. So you’ve got [cardiac disease] setting the stage for the heart failing, you’ve got the lungs that are failing already and we’ve got a number of things going on, some of which he’s contributing to by the nature of his body and some things that are being contributed to by the circumstances that brought about his collapse.”
The guards said they rolled Tucker on his side into a “recovery” position while waiting for medics. However, the first nurse on the scene said in his deposition that Tucker was on his stomach and remained that way for at least another two minutes before being uncuffed and rolled onto his back.
These details weren’t caught on video, except for personnel running up and down the stairs, then carrying down Tucker’s body in a stretcher.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s office issued a review letter, as it does for all law-enforcement-related homicides. Relying primarily on the Sheriff’s Department’s own investigation, the DA concluded the deputies “acted reasonably under the circumstances.” But the letter is rife with inaccuracies, including reporting Tucker’s age wrong by five years and his date of arrest off by a month. The letter claims Tucker threw the entire cup at the deputy and states that another deputy tried, but failed, to apply the carotid hold. Omitted from the narrative is how Tucker was returning to his cell when the confrontation began.
The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), an independent body of members of the public and investigators, is charged with reviewing all deaths that result from the actions of deputies. Yet CLERB didn’t investigate Tucker’s death. CLERB’s executive director, Patrick Hunter, didn’t respond to questions about Tucker, but he acknowledged that between 2009 and 2010, the Sheriff’s Department had failed to notify CLERB of several inmate deaths, leading the board to demand that the department amend its policies. The demand was refused.
Mark Lim, the inmate who contacted Tucker’s girlfriend, also sent a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune, asking then-metro editor Lorie Hearn to “shine light” on the “murder.” The Sheriff’s homicide division intercepted the correspondence: A detective re-interviewed Lim—a Marine awaiting trial for murder—and asked why he hadn’t voiced the allegations during the first interview.
Lim answered that guards threatened him. Hearn says she doesn’t recall receiving the letter and would’ve investigated the death had she seen it.
The Sheriff’s Department referred CityBeat’s questions to the County Counsel, which in turn responded that it does not comment on ongoing litigation. However, Jan Caldwell, the sheriff’s public affairs officer, did add a remark about psychiatric inmates at the end of an email.
“I believe it is important to note our jail system provides not only excellent medical screening and care, but mental health resources to assist inmates re-enter society well-functioning after their sentences are completed,” Caldwell writes. “The Sheriff’s Department is one of the largest providers of mental health services in the county. At any given time, twenty-five to thirty percent of our inmate population is on psychotropic drugs.
“I hope this information is helpful to you and illuminates the challenges we face every day in caring for a segment of society, who is in the most need of help.”
Kelly Davis contributed reporting to this story.