Riverside County Jail Death Lawsuit Is Settled for $7.5 Million Amid Inquiry

Video from inside a Southern California jail shows a violent confrontation in October 2020 in which 10 sheriff’s deputies burst into the cell of a man who was having delusions and resisting medical care, restrained him and repeatedly shocked him, leading to his death days later.

Officials in Riverside County did not bring charges against any of the deputies involved in the encounter with the man, Christopher Zumwalt, 39, but quietly agreed in December 2023 to pay $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by his family.

Depositions from the case and video footage obtained by The New York Times show the frantic and violent minutes when deputies tried to force Mr. Zumwalt out of his cell as he paced and talked incoherently. In the video, deputies wearing helmets and shields toss canisters of pepper spray into the small concrete room, struggle with Mr. Zumwalt, and strap him to an emergency restraint chair. They cover his head with a spit mask and move him to another cell, where he sat unmonitored and appeared to stop breathing for at least five minutes. He died on Oct. 25, 2020, after experiencing cardiac arrest.

Mr. Zumwalt, who was arrested near his home on Oct. 22, 2020, on suspicion of public intoxication, was never charged with a crime, and the arrest report indicates that he was to be released with a citation after he sobered up from the methamphetamine he admitted to taking the night before. On the day of his arrest, he was issued a citation for bringing drugs into a jail.

In a statement Friday, Sheriff Chad Bianco said his deputies did nothing wrong and characterized the settlement as a business decision by lawyers that does not imply wrongdoing.

“The facts of this case clearly show the actions of our deputies were appropriate and lawful,” Sheriff Bianco said, adding that actions taken by Mr. Zumwalt in a “methamphetamine-induced psychosis caused his death.”

The practice of forcibly removing people from their cells, which is known as cell extraction, often turns violent, and has been a point of controversy and costly litigation in the county and across the country for years.

Another man died after a similar extraction from the same Riverside County jail in 2017. In 2018, a detainee died after a cell extraction in a San Diego County jail. In 2015, a 37-year-old woman died after Virginia deputies used a stun gun on her four times during an extraction. In 2010, a man died in a jail yard after being forced from his cell in Tennessee.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department ultimately reported Mr. Zumwalt’s death as a justified homicide, meaning he died as a result of police use of force determined by a county investigation to be legal. Later medical examinations cited other contributing factors, including methamphetamine overdose, lack of food and water, and asphyxiation from the use of restraints and pepper spray, but all found that the confrontation played a role in the cardiac arrest that killed him.

In most California counties, including Riverside, the sheriff also acts as the coroner, investigating the cause and manner of deaths.

Mr. Zumwalt’s death has not previously been reported by the news media, and the Sheriff’s Department had not acknowledged the court settlement publicly.

In recent years, there has been a surge in deaths at the jails in Riverside County.

Mr. Zumwalt was among 12 people to die in county custody in 2020. In 2022, deaths in the county’s five jails rose to 19 — nearly four times the county average of five deaths each year since 1980. The spike in jail deaths, in part, spurred a civil rights investigation by the California Justice Department into the department led by Sheriff Bianco, a powerful political force in the Inland Empire, the region east of Los Angeles and Orange Counties that encompasses San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. That investigation into the deaths, which included drug overdoses, suicides and homicides resulting from inmate violence, is ongoing.

In interviews, some experts said that the department’s deputies used too much force against Mr. Zumwalt given the circumstances, while others said that they seemed to follow department guidelines. But most experts said that they thought the deputies left him alone, unattended and without medical care for too long after the extraction.

John Burton, a lawyer representing Mr. Zumwalt’s family, said: “It starts with the fact that he was picked up for almost nothing. To use this amount of force, to extract him in the way they did, to allow him to die unmonitored — it’s appalling.”

Peter Williamson, another lawyer for the family, said Mr. Zumwalt had no serious criminal history.

“He wasn’t violent,” Mr. Williamson said. “In fact, he was calm during his arrest. How does a guy go from that situation to dead?”

Ron McAndrew, a jail consultant and former Florida prison warden, said that Mr. Zumwalt’s actions warranted mental health treatment, not violent extraction.

“In 40 years, I have never seen a team of 12 officers fully equipped with riot gear line up for one man,” Mr. McAndrew said. “I’d not only call this overkill, this is very punitive. They’re not there to punish anybody. They’re there to follow policy and procedure to maintain security and control. None of those things were done.”

Lawyers representing the department wrote in court filings that Mr. Zumwalt grew belligerent because of his drug use, and that he needed to be extracted from his cell to undergo a medical examination and complete the booking process.

The department’s lawyers confirmed the settlement amount but declined further comment.

The videos reviewed for this article were edited by the family’s lawyers for use in the civil case. The footage appears to be a continuous feed of the entire incident, but some parts were sped up and some portions of audio redacted. None of the depositions dispute the essence of the videos. The Sheriff’s Department sealed the raw footage when submitting it in the case, making it inaccessible to the public.

In the footage, Mr. Zumwalt appears calm as he enters the jail, the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, Calif., even as deputies find a small bag of meth in his pocket. He was placed in a sobering cell just before 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, 2020.

In the cell, a camera recorded Mr. Zumwalt pacing, shoeless and wearing only a pair of jeans. He hits the door a few times. He sits. Rises. He tries to dig into the bowl of a toilet, telling a deputy he’s searching for lost money. He takes off his jeans. One deputy tells him to stop kicking the door or he’ll hurt himself. He stops momentarily but otherwise doesn’t seem to respond.

The department’s policy requires a medical evaluation within six hours of a person’s placement in a sobering cell. But that time can be extended in certain circumstances.

At around 9 p.m., Christine Odhiambo, a jail nurse, asks Mr. Zumwalt to submit to a medical evaluation. In a deposition, she said he refused and became confrontational. The interaction through the cell window was brief, and the door was never opened.

Ms. Odhiambo called a doctor, court records show, who extended Mr. Zumwalt’s stay in the sobering cell. Given the doctor’s order, it is unclear why the deputies felt an urgent need to remove him from the cell.

At 12:03 a.m. on Oct. 23, deputies arrive in riot gear and ask Mr. Zumwalt to lie on his stomach, the beginning of the confrontation that led to his death.

“If you do not comply with my commands, we’re going to have to use force against you,” one deputy says, according to the footage. “I do not want to do that.”

For the next three minutes, Mr. Zumwalt kneels in the back of the cell or paces without clothes, speaking incoherently if at all.

At 12:06 a.m., a deputy tosses into the cell an aerosol canister, which emits pepper spray. The chemical agent has an almost immediate effect: Mr. Zumwalt and some of the deputies can be heard coughing moments later.

Mr. Zumwalt, who is largely out of the camera’s frame, appears to kneel by the cell door as deputies continue to order him to get on his stomach.

At 12:09 a.m., a deputy sprays a two-second burst of the chemical agent into the cell. Mr. Zumwalt gets onto his stomach momentarily, before growing increasingly agitated, pacing and yelling.

“No, please, please, I’ll die, dude,” Mr. Zumwalt shouts during the chaos.

“You need to lay on your stomach, right by the door,” one deputy yells, adding: “Christopher, it’s going to get worse.”

At 12:11 a.m., a deputy throws a second pepper spray canister into the cell and continues to order him to get on his stomach.

At 12:13 a.m., a deputy throws a Stinger 15 grenade into the cell, which explodes with a flash, firing some 150 rubber pellets and tear gas.

“Go, go, go,” a deputy yells as he opens the cell door.

A deputy carrying a stun shield, which emits an electrical current, leads the group in, and they pin Mr. Zumwalt into a corner of the cell. The confrontation that ends with Mr. Zumwalt in handcuffs cannot be seen clearly because the cell is filled with smoke from the grenade.

Mr. Zumwalt can be heard screaming in pain during three discrete Taser shocks. At least four deputies can be seen amid the smoke kneeling on or leaning over him.

“Stop resisting,” a deputy repeats.

“I can’t breathe,” Mr. Zumwalt yells in a gasp, among other pleas.

Some deputies said during depositions that he tried to bite them as they tried to handcuff him. Other deputies said they did not see any evidence or threat of biting.

At 12:19 a.m., 13 minutes after pepper spray began saturating the air in his cell, Mr. Zumwalt is wheeled out in a restraint chair. Blood is visible on the spit mask deputies put over his head. Mr. Zumwalt’s breathing appears labored, his eyes vacant and head hung loosely to the side.

He was taken to a safety cell, where, before closing the door, one deputy tapped him on the shoulder.

“You all right?” the deputy asked at 12:21 a.m. “Can you hear me?”

The deputy said in a deposition that Mr. Zumwalt “just groaned” in response.

None of the deputies noted that Mr. Zumwalt appeared to need medical attention after the extraction. Department policy required that he receive a medical evaluation and be continuously monitored while restrained in the safety cell.

A deputy noticed he was unresponsive at 12:29 a.m. He was rushed to a hospital and resuscitated. But he was taken off life support and died on Oct. 25, 2020.

Some sheriff’s departments require trying alternative methods before ordering cell extractions, but Riverside is not among them. Sgt. Joel Grajeda said during a deposition that he ordered the extraction because Mr. Zumwalt refused to comply, and that no alternative tactics were required before he did so.

Sheriff Bianco did not comment on the timing of Mr. Zumwalt’s extraction or the fact that jail officials left him restrained and unmonitored in a safety cell for seven minutes after he was removed.

“Fighting with deputies, required to do their job, increased his already taxed circulatory system,” Sheriff Bianco said in the statement. “The settlement in this case is irrelevant and solely a business decision between attorneys, insurance companies, and risk management of the county. It in no way reflects on the facts of the case or points toward wrongdoing by deputies.”

Sheriff Bianco added that in deciding to settle, the department considered the ability of civil attorneys “to manipulate already anti-law-enforcement jurors with partial truths.” He did not provide any evidence to support his claim that civil juries are biased. And he did not say whether any of the deputies involved were found to have violated policy or whether any policies were changed after the incident.

In interviews, experts were divided over the decisions the deputies made.

Edward Obayashi, a deputy sheriff in Modoc County, in northeast California, who also trains correctional officers, acknowledged that at the start of Mr. Zumwalt’s extraction, “there is no immediate threat to anyone.” But, he said, deputies have a responsibility to maintain order in the jail, which may require the extraction of an inmate who does not pose a direct physical threat but refuses to follow orders. “You can’t allow disruption,” Mr. Obayashi said. “If it impacts the security of the jail, it can become contagious.”

Mr. McAndrew, the jail consultant, pointed out that departments often require extraction teams to include a mental health professional or a deputy trained in crisis intervention who talks to the person first.

“It’s ludicrous to think barking orders is going to get you any results in a situation like that,” Mr. McAndrew said.

Gary Raney, a former sheriff in Idaho and a corrections consultant, said deputies should have done more to de-escalate the situation.

Both Mr. Raney and Mr. McAndrew said that rubber pellet grenades are most often used for crowd control during riots or group fights — and that their use here was excessive and dangerous in the small cell.

Mr. Raney served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case, for which he wrote a 60-page report in which he found that the deputies violated department policy.

“One of the most disturbing things about this case is that the extraction did not need to occur, at least when it did,” he said. “There was no urgency, there was no harm occurring to Zumwalt, and they still had not exhausted verbal efforts to get him to comply.”

Natalie Reneau contributed video production.

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